Modesto, Calif., native Julian Flores, 31, has embraced being a Colorado Springs resident since moving here nearly a decade ago. The young entrepreneur got his start locally through El Pomar Foundation and currently serves on several local boards, including the YMCA and the Downtown Partnership. His most recent project, the outdoor apparel rental company GetOutfitted, was awarded $25,000 this year through Colorado College’s Big Idea startup competition. From his desk at the sparkling new Epicentral, Flores discussed his “wacky” path from an international relations degree from Stanford, to starting his own school from scratch, to his newfound love for the great outdoors.
Tell me how you ended up in Colorado Springs.
I moved to Colorado right after graduating college. My wife, who was then my girlfriend, was finishing her degree at [the University of Colorado at Boulder]. I found a fellowship with El Pomar because I was sort of heading into the philanthropic sector. I spent two years with the foundation and got my feet wet with nonprofit management, strategic planning and fundraising. El Pomar gave me some freedom to explore. Immediately after leaving El Pomar, I turned that fellowship experience into a consulting business.
How did that go?
That’s where the path gets a little wacky. I had a friend through El Pomar who wanted to go into education reform. He started investigating programs on how to start high-performing charter schools for low-income students. He and I and one other gentleman who had an education background decided to develop a school called Atlas Prep on the southeast side of town. I was recruited to be a founding board member because of my nonprofit management background. It really inspired me. I spent six years getting it off the ground and developing it to where it is today. … The school is about to introduce the 10th grade this year and in two years it will be grades five through 12.
How do you go from an international relations degree to starting a charter school?
In college I had in mind going to law school or into foreign service. But I realized I’m not a suit-and-tie person. I don’t like bureaucracy. I want to be on the ground, building something where bureaucracies can’t really innovate. … We had a lot of freedom to leave the constraints of public education.
What needs did you see in the Springs that the prep school could fill?
It was startlingly clear. Vocational outcomes for low-income children in this community were abysmal and statistically as bad as any of the worst urban cores in the country. Our low-income kids are performing just as poorly as Harlem’s or Detroit’s. Before we got anywhere we needed to educate the community on the state of education for those low-income students. … Now we have 800 kids on the path to college. I learned so much but decided to leave the school in the better hands of people who had actually trained in education. I wanted to get my hands dirty and build something new. Now I have a startup called GetOutfitted.
Tell me about GetOutfitted.
We finished our first year and it validated the concept. We’re ready to expand like crazy. We will continue renting ski apparel to customers at resorts, and now we’ll also be renting skis and snowboards, but we won’t be shipping those. You can go to our website and get a full outfit, plus your ski package, but it will be locally filled by a local fulfillment partner.
Is anything missing from this community that would better facilitate startups?
One big issue we face in this community is access to capital. That applies to the social enterprise side and the startup side. There isn’t the density of resources here like other markets, and the nonprofit sector in particular is trying to claw for the same resources. It’s the same on the investor side. There’s capital; you just have to chase it.
After launching GetOutfitted, did you think of moving the business someplace else?
Everyone asks me that. I’m sure investors in the future will ask if I’m willing to relocate the company. I’ve been here since 2005 and have a family here who likes it a lot. There’s no compelling reason for me to go somewhere else. But I do have to find resources elsewhere a lot; venture capital, for example. Silicon Valley is the best, there are great ones in Denver and in Boulder, or even in Utah or Nebraska. But here there is one venture capital firm. If I want venture capital I have to go elsewhere, and [for companies outside the area] it’s an added risk because I’m not in their backyard.
How important was customer feedback in building your brand?
It’s huge. I annoyed my first five customers so much because I wanted this real-time feedback so I could make tweaks every day. I talked on the phone with 50 percent of my customers and did email exchanges with another 20 percent. A bunch of others have completed surveys online. I’ve interacted with probably three-quarters of my customers.
What’s next for you?
I want to create an outdoor equipment rental marketplace. Based on your location or interest, you can discover rentable products, lessons and guided trips all from an app or your desktop. If you’re going on vacation and don’t want to bring your mountain bike, or you want to try surfing, go through our platform and price compare and have equipment sent directly to you. Now I need a really sophisticated technology team to write the code. For that I need to raise money. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. We need to become a really brilliant technology company instead of just a consumer products company.
Are you an outdoorsman?
That was kind of the genesis of this company. I wasn’t an avid outdoorsman. One of my biggest regrets of having lived here almost 10 years is not taking advantage of the outdoors enough. One of the big joys for me now is trying all these new things and never having to commit to any of them. You’ll never see me buy a $5,000 bike. Like most people, it accumulates in your garage and it prevents you from trying new things.