RURAL COLORADO IS INSPIRING AUTHENTIC, MISSION-DRIVEN OUTDOOR INDUSTRY STARTUPS.
Rural towns are the gateways to outdoor adventure in Colorado. With 58 fourteeners, 100,000+ miles of rivers and streams, the largest elk population in the world, and over 39,000 miles of designated trails in the state, it’s no wonder these same rural cities and towns are the hottest incubators for outdoor industry startups.
Rural Colorado has a vibrant startup scene, and the outdoor industry is a big part of that. Outdoor recreation is a major economic driver across the entire state. According to the Outdoor Industry Association (2021 figures), outdoor recreation in Colorado: adds $11.6 billion to the economy, constitutes 2.7% of the state’s GDP, and employs 125,244 people.
While the urban Front Range is a major industry center, Rural Colorado has a rich history of outdoor recreation startups and is home to a growing list of businesses walking the talk everyday. The state’s outdoor industry is undeniably booming, yet challenges remain for founders starting-up in small towns. At Startup Colorado, we’re tracking the success of numerous launch and growth stage brands, while supporting newcomers in their entrepreneurial adventure.
As most founders learn, success in the outdoor industry is driven by more than market forces. Outdoor customers seek out brands who share both their values and a sense of authenticity. With Rural Colorado’s abundant beauty, thriving tourism economy, and exceptional outdoor access and infrastructure, brands based in our rural communities have a built-in, competitive advantage toward delivering on those promises.
A RICH HISTORY OF OUTDOOR INDUSTRY STARTUPS
New outdoor founders will be in good company. Some of the industry’s canonical brands were founded, and still operate, from Rural Colorado.
- In 1990, Mike Pfotenhauer and Diane Wren moved to Dolores (now in Cortez) and turned their fledgling, made-to-order backpacking business into Osprey.
- With the conspicuously simple idea of bringing more comfort to outdoor pursuits, Big Agnes, was founded in Steamboat Springs, in 2001, and is now renowned for its innovation, comfort, and sustainability initiatives.
- Smartwool was founded in Steamboat (now based in Denver) in 1994 by two ski instructors who saw potential in renewable, merino wool.
- Melanzana, based in Leadville since 1994, was a staple wardrobe piece for core outdoor enthusiasts before the brand blew up in broader culture over the past few years.
- The founders behind RockyMounts, now in Grand Junction, would probably prefer to be riding their bikes, which is how they stayed laser-focused on efficiency through quality and dependability.
RURAL COLORADO EMERGING AS A SIGNIFICANT GROWTH SECTOR
When many people think of Colorado commerce, it’s natural to think of Denver, our biggest city. And, yes, outdoor brands and trade organizations are plentiful in and around the Mile High city.
The VF Corporation (12 marquee brands, including: The North Face, Timberland, Altra, and Smartwool) chose to relocate to the Denver area in 2018. A short drive away, the Boulder/Golden area is proud home to Topo Designs, Spyderco, La Sportiva’s US headquarters, among many more thriving outdoor brands.
While the Denver metro area has been booming for years, Rural Colorado has also been surging as founders and brands seek more affordable, equally attractive, and access-rich locations for their home base. State-level offices are supporting this growth by providing various funding, business development, and networking initiatives.
CONNECT WITH COLORADO'S RURAL OUTDOOR INDUSTRY
FERTILE GROUND FOR OUTDOOR STARTUPS
“People here really care and want to see small businesses succeed. Affordability and quality of life is key. It simply doesn’t get better than this.” – Jonathan Ballesteros, Founder & CEO of Geyser Systems (Montrose)
In an industry fueled by passion for the outdoors and recreation, founders are typically hitting the trails, the slopes, and the rivers with as much dedication as their customers. Living and operating from a rural region–directly adjacent to the landscapes that inspire the products–is an experience that informs more than a lunch run or weekend retreat. It’s street cred (or trail cred) that shapes product design, packaging, and marketing.
The unique sense of place, in part, becomes a pathway for brands to connect with their customers.
Added bottom line benefits:
- Access: In many Rural Colorado communities, access to recreation may quite literally be out the backdoor, or at least just a short ride away. This is a boon to serve the founders’ passions, as well as to attracting talent by way of lifestyle benefits.
- R&D: The capability to conduct real world testing and development is at your doorstep.
- Branding and Marketing: In addition to boundless inspiration for creative and authentic promotion, there are potential cost savings with the ability to create marketing collateral without the need to travel.
A WIDE RANGE OF OUTDOOR BUSINESSES
Rural Colorado attracts independent thinkers, with their entrepreneurial spirit evident in the range of companies thriving in our rural areas. The broad span of innovation coming out of these businesses emphasizes the diversity of background, creativity, and experience to be found in our rural communities.
Startup Colorado has supported an rafting cover business in Salida (Over It. Raft Covers), and a socially conscious, women’s apparel brand Gnara, formerly SheFly) in Gunnison, and an upstart sandboarding company in Blanca (SpinDrift Sandboards.) Around the corner in Grand Junction, Quikrstuff is revolutionizing car bike racks.
Pagosa Springs is home to PJ’s Fine Bamboo Rods that celebrates the hand-crafted artistry of bamboo fishing rods, and Cold Case Gear, which protects modern technology from frigid, winter temps. Van Cafe (Fort Collins) and Wanderful Wheels (Durango) are van conversion specialists and soon-to-be manufacturers. Meanwhile, Gravity Lab, in Durango, brings the outdoors in with a year-round climbing gym.
From gear and apparel, to technology and apps, to experiential play and tourism, there is room for out-of-the-box ideas, and there is support to execute them. Colorado is also home to a large number of creatives and service-based businesses targeting the outdoor industry. There are internationally known film production companies like Matchstick Productions in Crested Butte; major brand agencies like Backbone Media in Carbondale and Verde Brand Communications in Durango; and numerous freelancers connecting via the outdoor industry career community Basecamp.
“With the outdoors at their doorstep, businesses in rural areas have easy access to a natural testing ground for their products, as well as a market for them! Over 90% of Colorado residents participate in outdoor recreation each year. “
Conor Hall, Director of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office
How Startup Colorado supports rural entrepreneurs
Outdoor recreation has a starring role in Colorado history, present and future.
Natural hot springs around the state have drawn wellness seekers continuously since the late 1800s. Rocky Mountain National Park was designated in 1919, and has since regularly been among the top most visited Parks. The Colorado Trail, transecting the state from Denver to Durango, was officially completed in 1987, rivaling the great systems and through-hikes around the world. Hunting and fishing in the state are the top-revenue source funding Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
No story of Colorado business is complete without heralding our ski industry. With about 30 ski areas (numbers change based on snowfall), the Colorado ski industry has been one of the biggest drivers of tourism and economic growth since the mid-20th century.
And, as noted above, there are the venerable manufacturers and brands that are among the best in their respective categories. Those businesses have helped to define Rural Colorado, as much as their hometowns have defined the businesses.
With a new generation of outdoor industry startups in Colorado, the future is bright. Keep an eye on these up-and-comers from Rural Colorado: Tailwind Nutrition, Geyser Systems, Oveja Negra, TripOutside, Farm to Summit, and Town Hall Outdoor Co.
CHALLENGES TO GROWTH IN RURAL LOCATIONS
While launching a startup in a beautiful, rugged landscape is attractive, the practicality and profitability don’t always align for every brand.
For outdoor manufacturing companies, challenges of rural areas can include: access to warehouse or manufacturing space, logistical issues and increased cost of distribution, or the lack of a workforce skilled in a specific type of manufacturing. Retail, service providers, guiding companies, and other adjacent businesses can experience challenges such as: access to affordable real estate, reliable staff and the ability to pay a living wage plus benefits, and professional development opportunities.
On the bright side, these challenges are driving solutions from those committed to operating in the places they love. For example, when faced with a lack of skilled sewers, Oveja Negra (Salida), now teaches its employees to sew. It’s a win/win situation as employees gain marketable skills, and the company manages in-house production and quality control.
The biggest unsolved challenge to rural operations is that many towns are still experiencing a housing crisis. If employees can find housing, there is upward pressure on wages to ensure they can afford it. While this is true in the Front Range urban area, too, the effects to startups may be felt more acutely in areas with overall smaller workforce numbers and fewer housing units on the market.
This may be a reason why startups are now popping up in even smaller towns that have historically not been considered outdoor recreation hubs.
SUPPORT FOR COLORADO ENTREPRENEURS AND BRANDS
At Startup Colorado, our mission is to eliminate barriers to success and to build connections between entrepreneurs and the network of accelerator programs, mentors, funding opportunities, and resources that exist to serve them. For a quick snapshot, explore what Colorado has to offer.
To support the vibrant outdoor recreation economy, Colorado established a dedicated office of outdoor recreation in 2015. Housed under the Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) exists to support industry and communities whose livelihoods are tied to the outdoors.
According to Conor Hall, director of OREC, “Supporting rural regions to grow their outdoor recreation economies is a huge priority of the office.”
- OREC drives advancement of the outdoor recreation economy through four impact areas:
- Economic development, including grant programs for strengthening and diversifying rural economies
- Conservation and stewardship, especially protecting Colorado’s natural heritage
- Education and workforce training, including engaging college students around the merits and strategies of enhancing outdoor recreation economies in rural communities
- Public health and equitable access
“We assist outdoor recreation companies relocate to, or expand in, Colorado, and help them navigate state funding incentives. [We also foster collaboration at] our annual conference, the Colorado Outdoor Industry Leadership Summit (COILS), which brings together industry leaders from across the state to share ideas to build and sustain the outdoor industry in Colorado.” – Conor Hall, Director of OREC
City and Regional:
Startup Colorado connects leaders with incubators, accelerators, and mentorship programs, several of which are specifically tailored for outdoor startups. These support systems are instrumental in transforming companies and local economies to become both more successful and more resilient.
- Incubators: The Business Incubator Center (Mesa Country/Montrose Region), ICELab (Gunnison), Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center (Durango Region).
- Accelerators: Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator (Gunnison), Southwest Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs/SCAPE (Durango), Telluride Venture Network (Telluride), and Fulcrum Venture Accelerator (Boulder) for mission-driven businesses.
- Mentorship Programs and Access: Yampa Valley Outdoor Recreation Coalition (Steamboat), The Logos Group (Boulder), Greenehouse Coaching (Arvada).
- Funding: Join Startup Colorado for access to our Funding Database, including opportunities to secure venture capital, loans, grants, and other potential funding sources.
“The Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator program has a perfect home in rural Gunnison, Colorado. Yes, we have over 2 million acres of public land, more than 750 miles of single track trail, a mountain famous for steep skiing, and some of the best fishing in the country. However, the key ingredient for outdoor startup companies here is the passion our community has for outdoor adventures. From students starting freshman year at WCU thinking up the next big outdoor product, to retirees who have found a place as a business mentor, our happiness is found outdoors in the Gunnison Valley.” – David Assad, ICELab Director in Gunnison
FIND TARGETED RESOURCES
OUTDOOR STARTUP HUBS IN RURAL COLORADO
Many rural communities in Colorado are fostering viable, game-changing businesses. Steamboat Springs was the launching pad for SmartWool and Big Agnes, and continues to attract socially-conscious entrepreneurs like Town Hall. Grand Junction, the Roaring Fork Valley, and Trinidad are all surrounded with natural beauty and bring unique selling points to the table.
While outdoor industry startups are thriving in rural towns across the state, three hubs are experiencing especially notable growth.
Durango area: Located in the Southwest corner of the state, Durango (population: 19,000) sits at the base of the San Juan Mountains. The Animas River flows from Silverton through the center of town, and a massive trail system surrounds it. Outdoor recreation tourism and retail is a driving economic force and businesses are taking notice. Amidst a host of independent outdoor gear shops, the Durango region is also home to Osprey (Cortez), Tailwind Nutrition (Bayfield), Sasquatch Expedition Campers (Silverton), Venture Snowboards (Silverton), Voormi (Pagosa Springs), TripOutside (Durango), and Bedrock Bikepacking Bags (Durango). In summer 2023, REI announced plans to open a location in Durango.
“Sasquatch Expedition Campers are born, built, and tested in the San Juan Mountains amidst the rugged terrain that they’re meant for. It made sense for us to locate our business where the initial conception of our product was developed, and we relish the opportunity to bring customers into this rural area and experience the awesomeness that surrounds our community. [In addition to the] beauty of rural Colorado, we’ve found amazing support and skill sets, which allows us to grow while providing career opportunities to locals.” – Beth Kremer, co-founder of Sasquatch Campers, in Silverton
Salida Area: For a tidy, 5,800 residents, Salida is punching above its weight in innovative, new businesses. Located 2.5-hours south of Denver, by car, the active town has retained its distinctively “laid back” vibe even as it’s experienced increased notoriety.
It is the primary hub for rafting and fishing on the Arkansas river, one of the busiest commercial rafting experiences in the U.S., and a long-time favorite for elk and deer hunting. A growing trail system is widely regarded, as is nearby Monarch Mountain for family-friendly skiing. The Salida region is home to Oveja Negra, Antero Outdoors, Tuff River Stuff, Over It. Raft Covers, and Katabatic Gear, among others.
“We chose and continue to choose to do business in rural Colorado because this is our home. We feel loved, supported and inspired by our community and that is home to us.”– Lane Willson, Co-founder of Oveja Negra, in Salida
Montrose Area: Situated on the Western Slope, between Grand Junction and Durango, Montrose (population: 21,000) is in the midst of rapid transition from an agricultural town to an outdoor industry hub. The Colorado Outdoors LLC is transforming the river corridor into a live/work outdoor industry business park and enthusiast center. With the stated mission of becoming a “compelling destination for business,” the development is approved as a “Qualified Opportunity Zone,” providing significant tax breaks. The greater Montrose region is also home to Mayfly Outdoors, SFD MFG CO (manufacturing arm of SmithFly), Gnara, and Prois Hunting.
A 2022 economic study of Mesa County (surrounding Montrose) shows that the outdoor recreation transition is working. Outdoor recreation contributes 4.8% to the County’s GDP, as compared to 3.1% statewide.
“Colorado has made a name for itself as a major hub for companies in the outdoor industry, and headquartering here has allowed us to put ourselves right in the middle of the action. We found a crucial trifecta of factors that helped us to scale: 1) start-up resources, office space, mentors, and funding, 2) Incredible outdoor access, and 3) a core community of early-adopter retailers and a constant stream of target customers [through tourism].” – Georgia Grace Edwards, CEO and co-founder of Gnara, in Gunnison
BECOME A PART OF THE STARTUP COLORADO COMMUNITY
Founders and leaders: Join the growing number of outdoor industry professionals from across the state in our online community.
Investors: Support the entrepreneurs that are driving innovation in the outdoor industry, adding vitality to rural economies, and shaping the next generation of outdoor recreation worldwide.
Mentors: Ready to give back through sharing your experience and expertise, while extending your network? Let Startup Colorado connect you with the right organization to maximize your impact.
Join the Startup Colorado Community to connect with rural founders, mentors, funders, and business support organizations for free.
RURAL COLORADO IS A THRIVING ECOSYSTEM FOR OUTDOOR STARTUPS
“[We’re] advocating for a shift from extractive industries to a conservation-focused, outdoor recreation economy centered on preserving wilderness and outdoor spaces. We chose Colorado because of its strong support for outdoor recreation businesses and its many resources available to startups, like StartUp Colorado.” – Reet Singh, co-founder of TripOutside, in Durango