Nick Lee began developing basic websites when he was just a teen and has considered himself an entrepreneur for 15 years, since he first started thinking about how he could make money using the Internet.
He had a great idea for an online forum dedicated to college students and had mild success with it until a little thing called Facebook erupted.
“Needless to say, I lost that battle,” he said.
But Lee, a Doherty High School graduate, never stops innovating. The 33-year-old is a co-founder of Tins.ly, a company specializing in social media management, and he’s the CFO of The High Society, a Colorado Springs-based record label.
He also spends time connecting with other entrepreneurs and marvels at the energy that is generated when a group of entrepreneurs get together. He wants to talk to them, find out what they know and share information. He’s a co-founder of Startup Colorado Springs and one of the organizers behind this month’s Startup Weekend, where entrepreneurs pitched their best ideas and then formed working teams to develop a business and marketing plan in 54 hours.
Pitch Nights, coffee meet-ups and a lineup of nationally known speakers, are part of a growing Colorado Springs entrepreneurial community. The idea, Lee says, is to break down barriers among community and business groups and start working on getting startups up and running.
What is this passion you have with the entrepreneurial scene in Colorado Springs?
I’ve always been interested in connecting with other entrepreneurs. It’s amazing to feel the energy that happens when a group of entrepreneurs gather together. I felt that from time to time in Colorado Springs but what really sparked my passion was spending some of last summer in Boulder working with a company that was going through TechStars. Boulder just so much embraces startups that it’s part of their culture — everyone is a founder of something, or has an idea for something, or is contributing to something disruptive. It’s that energy constantly. It’s truly amazing. I decided to make it my personal mission to try to foster that feeling in Colorado Springs. This is my hometown. I grew up here. I’m committed to growing the community here.
What is the difference between a startup and a small business?
I think of a startup as a company that is usually technology-related and working on a highly scalable way to disrupt an existing market or create a new market. A startup is inherently incredibly high risk. Anytime you’re working at the forefront of an industry or working on a new technology or way of doing something, there are countless factors that could result in failure. Startup founders do everything in their power to mitigate that risk but they understand that, no matter how hard they try, they are always operating in a high risk environment. Because of that, when startup founders do experience success, they can expect a much higher rate of return than a traditional small business.
Tell me about Tins.ly. When did you start the company? What do you specialize in and what are your growth opportunities?
My cousin Ian and I started Tins.ly (then named ‘Engage’) in 2010. We were a company focused on Social Media Management for small businesses. We quickly realized that the growth potential in that market just wasn’t what we wanted so we pivoted to start developing applications to bolster small business marketing efforts. The first product we developed was QRlette. It’s a new take on QR Code marketing. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the level of adoption that we were hoping for so we’re currently working on our next idea. That’s important to point out. We, as a startup community, need to be public about our failures as much as our successes. We need to celebrate them the same. If you take enough risks, you’re going to fail eventually. What’s important is that you don’t stop trying.
How did you get involved in a music production company, The High Society?
My life crossed paths with John Stewart. John is an incredibly talented sound engineer and DJ that found himself in a perfect situation to start an independent record label. He needed some business help so he got me and my cousin Ian involved. Almost all of the credit there lies with John and his talent and connections.
You have been so involved in the entrepreneurial scene in Colorado Springs. How would you describe what has happened in the Springs in the last two years?
The Colorado Springs entrepreneurial community is an interesting animal. I’d argue that we’re growing faster now than we ever have in recent history. Some people thrive in times of change and embrace it wholly. Some people view it as a threat and react accordingly — that’s understandable. The important thing is that we keep progressing and being positive about everything. There are a lot of silos and hierarchies in the community. The best thing we can do is break those down and realize that everyone in the community is on the same level and can work together towards a common goal. No one is more important or influential than anyone else in the community. We are all the community. The community leads the community. We need to all focus on having the community’s best interest direct our behavior and that will solve a lot of the issues. There is a lot of jockeying for position among some groups and some individuals in town. That’s never productive when you’re working on a goal with no completion date. Our work will never be ‘done.’ It’s a long-term plan that will outlast anyone in the community now. The sooner we realize that, and start embodying it, the more we can focus on doing cool stuff. The community is definitely thriving more than it was two years ago and there’s still much to be done. That’s exciting.
How do you feel about the Springs entrepreneurial ecosystem going forward? Could the Springs really become a Boulder?
I think that’s a common saying: ‘We can be the next Boulder’. I understand the comparison. But, we won’t be the next Boulder, or the next Silicon Valley or Boston, etc. We will be Colorado Springs and it will be amazing. We’re on a 20 year timeline and we’re in year number two of actively building the Startup community here. Boulder is in year 15 or 20 (or more depending on how you look at it). The thing about being a community focused around technology is that it changes so much so fast. To think that, in 20 years, Colorado Springs will be where Boulder is now, just isn’t right. We’re starting and growing at a different time in history. It’s important to understand that. But, we do follow some of the principles that they used to grow and develop their community because they’re pretty universal. Colorado Springs will be different and it will be incredible.
You were behind Startup Weekend — where entrepreneurs had an opportunity to pitch an idea and then work in teams to come up with a solid business plan. What was the goal of the event?
The goal at Startup Weekend is to get a group of entrepreneurs with various skills and skill levels and get them working together. That ‘energy’ that I mentioned earlier is incredibly, incredibly high all weekend. It is absolutely exhilarating. It’s a great learning experience to get people to think about, and directly experience, all of the necessary steps to launch a startup company. The fact that it’s compressed into 54 hours makes it that much more exciting. There are a lot of events in town that attract 50 or 100+ people and those are great; but, you just can’t have an impact with those like you can when you spend an entire weekend with a small group of people. I went home after the event on Sunday night and felt like I completely accomplished my personal mission that weekend. That level of fulfillment and inspiration doesn’t happen very often. I can’t wait until the next one.