WHAT IT TAKES TO CREATE A VIBRANT STARTUP COMMUNITY IN RURAL
Startups are born out of chic coffee shops in busy downtowns, where fortuitous encounters between future-billionaire-cofounders happen daily. Right?
Startup culture is urban culture. Right?
Entrepreneurship is part of the rural DNA. Anyone who lives in a small town has experienced this. What cities have in convenience and abundance, small towns make up for in ingenuity and self-sufficiency. Though today’s small towns are composed of all types of work, the ethos remains. If the equipment breaks, the field still has to get tended to. Fixes are invented constantly and unceremoniously.
So why do rural communities trail their urban counterparts in key economic opportunity metrics? Over a decade after the Great Recession, rural employment rates had still not recovered and 9/10 jobs created went to cities.
While the think tanks ponder the “why” of these questions, Startup Colorado has been busy focusing on “what” to do.
THE RESEARCH IS CLEAR
- Entrepreneurship is responsible for all net job creation
- Local businesses play an outsized role in local economic health in rural areas
- The rural community’s role in supporting these businesses is even more vital
The answer lies in building local, rural startup communities. The activity is known as ecosystem building. In Rural Colorado, communities across the state are developing vibrant startup scenes featuring businesses across all industries, from scaleable tech to brick-and-mortar retail.
This is where Startup Colorado’s expertise comes in handy. Whether you’re in an oil town, ranching town, farm town, mining town, ski town, or river town, there is an entrepreneurial ecosystem waiting to get activated.
Unlike traditional economic development, often pointed tactics for job creation or retention, ecosystem building is about cultivating a community’s existing assets, with an eye toward entrepreneurship. It underpins and amplifies all other economic growth. True to the metaphor, it is about nurturing the soil so that the community feels empowered to plant its own seeds for a vibrant, prosperous future.
So how do you start ecosystem building in your Rural Colorado hometown?
AN EMERGENT PHENOMENA
A startup community is a collection of citizens who, together, create a culture that fosters innovation and business creation amongst each other. Traditional economic development methods, such as business recruitment or tax incentives, may play a role in the startup community, but they are a subset of the broader community movement, which includes any and all forms of pro-startup activity.
This can mean happy hours, coworking, pitch events, online forums, and every other initiative no matter the size or format. There is no hierarchy to hand down a directive, scope of work to agree upon, nor method to quantify success. Rather, a startup community emerges through the collective enrollment and actions of its members. It is a culture.
The task of kickstarting a leaderless community can sound daunting.
Luckily, Startup Colorado has helped countless communities kickstart their communities. We have collaborated with mayor’s offices, economic development organizations, nonprofits, and lone leaders alike. Since everyone is part of the local culture, everyone is qualified and capable of putting our ecosystem-building playbook to work.
CULTURE BREEDS DENSITY; DENSITY BREEDS CULTURE
Where does culture come from?
This leads us to the most obvious small-town startup community hiccup – there are fewer people in small towns. No way around that.
As a leader, the key is to simply embrace the local, pre-existing culture. It doesn’t always look like the stereotypical t-shirt and sticker-clad, tech-fanatic startup culture. In fact, it shouldn’t. In your hometown, the startup culture should be a function of the local culture that your community already prides itself on.
What brings people together already?
Across Colorado’s wide array of communities, we have seen a myriad of local cultures which became the kernel for a local startup community. Whether your hometown has famous green chiles, a world-renowned theatre, or a fervent adventure race culture, the local startup ecosystem can embrace and grow from it.
A STARTUP CULTURE "DRIVEN BY NATURE"
Grandiose peaks rise from the valley floor of Chaffee County, while the Arkansas River cuts a windy, rapid-filled path through canyons and city centers. There are smelly running shoes and muddy bikes on front porches and rafts, SUPs, and kayaks around back. It is an outdoor sports paradise. While nobody is thinking of local wages, unemployment, and industry diversification while they are on the water or trail, that is what made for fertile soil for the now budding local startup community.
In 2019, a community inventory workshop in Chaffee County did not yet reveal a thriving ecosystem.
The overwhelming theme was a myriad of assets, but no fabric for collaboration. Successful and retired homeowners were looking to support the next generation of local businesses. The outdoor recreation community was well identified as a business force within tourism, but not yet as a business creation asset. So how did its startup ecosystem emerge?
Just look at PT Wood. He first came to be a raft guide–a strategic angle to recognize the opportunity to start a local distillery. He now owns Wood’s Distillery alongside six other Chaffee County breweries. It turns out outdoor enthusiasts love their local spirits too. This is a perfect example of the adjacent possibilities that open up when you start with your local culture.
There’s one other nugget from PT’s story–he became the mayor. His role as a local business owner gave him the connections and credibility to become a leader. While many of his governmental roles include top-down directives, a key role of having this local business leader in charge is the tone he sets. It says, “We align around our founders.”
This founder-centric culture has proven to be fertile soil for other founders and community members.
Come 2021, Jake Rishavy recognized this fertile soil when he became the Executive Director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation. His cornerstone initiative is Central Mountain Entrepreneurs (CME), found at DrivenByNature.co. Even the language of the initiative exemplifies the emergent nature of the initiative. While Jake’s EDC may own the website, the initiative encapsulates the efforts of numerous entities.
It carries forward the work of his predecessor Wendell Pryor, whom Startup Colorado first collaborated with for the 2019 workshop. It also lends itself to Jamie Billesbach, Director of the Central Mountain Small Business Development Center and leader behind the Outdoor Industry Summit and Power of WE speaker series. It even makes space for the up-and-coming music scene of Buena Vista, led by local bands such as Rapidgrass (note the outdoorsy name). Driven By Nature is everyone’s initiative.
And it worked. In just two years, the Ascent accelerator, one of many programs headed by the Chaffee County EDC, has supported twenty different companies with curriculum, mentors, funding opportunities, and more.
None of this was planned when PT Woods first left raft guiding to start distilling whiskey. Rather, he set the tone as a founder. This prompted an unpredictable domino effect of activities that led to today’s palpable spirit of entrepreneurship and optimism across Chaffee County.
DISCOVER CHAFFEE COUNTY
Down river from Chaffee County, where tight canyons give way to the great plains, lies Fremont County with the towns of Florence and Cañon City.
Despite its dramatic red rock canyons, rumbling river corridor, and quick access to mountains, it is not known as an outdoor sports hub (yet). In fact, most outsiders only know Fremont County for its primary industry – prisons. This does not lend itself to adjacent business creation quite as naturally. Nonetheless, another rural Colorado startup community is emerging here.
Remember, entrepreneurs are the critical resource to create an entrepreneurial hub. They are the fuel for the engine. Now imagine an entrepreneur who is willing to channel his or her energy and talents toward building the entrepreneurial community itself. That is super premium unleaded fuel for a startup community.
THE RIGHT DIRECTION DEMANDS THE RIGHT LEADERSHIP
Brad Rowland is that super premium unleaded community leader in Fremont County. His day job is serving as a marketing executive for later-stage software startups. Yet, in the evenings, weekends, and in between his normal duties, Brad builds Fremont County’s startup community.
He started with a modest shared space in an upstairs Main St. building in Cañon City. Then he added an internship program for local high-schoolers to work for the companies in the shared workspace, allowing them to gain real-world experience and see less obvious, higher-paying local career paths.
He added “Tech Night Out” to meet fellow techies in the area – a regular happy hour that continues to bring technologists and entrepreneurs out of their home offices and into different Fremont County businesses. Without anyone’s permission or any proper title, Brad had built a startup ecosystem where no one expected one.
As this ecosystem grew, the soil became increasingly fertile and possibilities of what could grow in Fremont County expanded. Today, Brad’s efforts are housed out of the Emergent Campus, formerly known as the Florence High School. The second floor is home to a satellite hub for Pax8, one of Colorado’s fastest-growing companies and noted as one of the “best places to work” in the U.S. Downstairs, in another classroom, Barn Owl Drone Services builds robots to help farmers tackle manual labor and embrace regenerative practices.
Without Rowland’s efforts, which have even been written up in Forbes, these businesses and their jobs may have never come to Fremont County. It is stellar entrepreneurial leaders like Rowland that can will their startup communities beyond all expectations.
Renovating a 100-year-old building to house your local startup community is exceptional. Participating in your local startup community at this level is not expected, but when someone does, it is up to the rest of the community members to rally around them. They have elected to convert their super premium unleaded fuel into momentum for the community. The community is then responsible for supporting, celebrating, and removing friction.
LISTEN TO BRAD'S STORY
It is tempting to hear “removing friction” as a set of mechanical tasks for the community–move barriers, add lubricant, and reduce regulation. These tasks may be necessary, but they will naturally arise on a case-by-case basis. If you need special permission from the city to host your maker fair on the street, you’ll discover that and conquer it when the time comes.
At the ecosystem-building level, however, reducing friction is achieved through no-questions-asked inclusivity. Building this into your local startup culture allows these exceptional leaders, big and small, subtle or bombastic, to emerge. Your community wants any and all contributions.
So how does your startup community make itself to all of these contributions? It starts by identifying where ideas are coming from.
FLOURISHING THROUGH INCLUSIVITY
The startup ecosystem of Grand Junction started as a tech startup scene. All too often, this alienates large swaths of the local community who don’t identify as techies.
Fortunately, the leaders of Grand Junction’s tech startup scene weren’t content cultivating an insular community within their community. When they started their coworking space, FACTORY, they went above and beyond to make sure they were inviting of the broader community. Their hackathons were balanced out by book clubs. They reached out to a wide range of niche communities in the area to invite them to use their space.
When West Slope Startup Week was first hosted, it was a no-brainer to hold the region’s cornerstone event in Grand Junction with FACTORY as the event headquarters. Hundreds of Western Slope citizens, farmers, investors, marketers, politicians, artists, and techies, all convened naturally thanks to FACTORY’s years of practicing an inclusive culture. Each community, no matter how small, contains multitudes of niches which all have something to contribute to the local startup scene. A leader’s role is not to select which groups or ideas have the most merit to the local startup ecosystem, but rather to demonstrate how every person and idea is welcome.
Each Colorado startup community will look and feel different, a testament to the varied people and places across this state. Success in one community may not even mean the same thing to the community just one valley over. Some of our communities are recovering from aging industrial economies, while others aim to diversify from tourism. Startup Colorado has seen grassroots startup communities emerge from each of these histories, providing a platform for an entrepreneurial future.
Expand your professional network through peer-to-peer networking, curated business resources, and events. Anyone with a vested interest in the success of Rural Colorado’s startup scene is welcome to join: founders, ecosystem builders, mentors, and funders.