boco and a bit of the Boulder, Colorado, startup scene

While I love the Portland startup scene, it’s always nice to venture out to some other towns every now and again. Especially towns that are similar to Portland. With interesting startups and strong communities. To see what they’re doing and—hopefully—to borrow some other ideas about what we could be doing around here.

So when the opportunity availed itself to visit Boulder, Colorado—thanks to a brand new event called boco—I jumped at the chance.

What’s boco? It’s a one day conference designed to bring together a diverse yet likeminded groups of folks in the tech, music, and food scene around Boulder. A selection of folks who typically remain siloed away from one another but who share very similar thoughts and goals. Even if “siloed” isn’t really a word.

People like Rick Levine—one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto—describing how he became a chocolatier, Emily Olson of Foodzie talking about digital food, The Autumn Film sharing the adventures of an early stage band and playing one of their tunes, Ingrid Alongi talking about “how to get shit done while staying sane,” and Ari Newman of Filtrbox exploring the reality of real-time.

There were even a couple of Portland folks in the mix. Amber Case presented on the prosthetic culture of cyborg anthropology and Scott Andreas who talked about Sunago and the online community and membership management needs of nonprofits.

Who came up with this great idea? Andrew Hyde, a force of nature—or more accurately, community—in the Boulder area. Andrew is the guy behind Startup Weekend, Ignite Boulder (which promises to eclipse Ignite Portland attendance records the next time around), and VC Wear. He’s an accomplished blogger, a great photographer, a budding filmographer, a road warrior who spends a great deal of time visiting other towns and startups, and—last but not least—the community director at Boulder’s premier startup incubator, TechStars.

Apparently, he had a little too much free time. So he came up with boco. And I’m glad he did.

Like BIG Omaha earlier this year, boco was an inspirational gathering of really smart folks sharing their stories and experiences, coupled with breakout sessions that let folks do deep dives on topics of interest.

It was like an unconference for local culture.

When you get all types of creative folks in one room talking about what they do and listening to what others are doing, you quickly discover that they have an awful lot in common. And then some interesting alliances start to form. And some interesting things begin to happen.

I’m already looking forward to the next boco. And it looks like I’m not alone in that regard.

Briefly exploring Boulder

While I didn’t get to spend as much time in Boulder as I would have liked, I did get time to chat with quite a few folks.

The verdict? While Boulder has a surprisingly high number of startups per capita, it still tends to suffer from a bit of the “not the Valley” syndrome. It also falls prey to the perception that it’s “a lifestyle town” instead of a business town. And that, of course, is immediately followed by the misplaced assumption that folks don’t seem to work as hard. To compound the issue, Boulder has experienced a glass ceiling problem, where companies reach a certain size and then uproot to relocate in more traditional business locales.

Oh. And one last thing? The town seems filled with creative people who are filled with great ideas—and, as such, are juggling innumerable side projects.

Sound familiar? I thought it might.

That’s not all. There are far more similarities between Portland and Boulder in terms of culture. Like lots and lots of bikes, respect for folks in the crosswalk, great green spaces, overly crowded farmers markets, an interesting music scene, a wealth of restaurants and bars, a solid microbrew scene, and on and on and on.

Suffice it to say, Portland and Boulder are sister cities in many ways.

In other ways, however, the Boulder startup scene is way ahead of Portland. Especially when it comes to the care and feeding of good ideas—and the folks who come up with them.

The most obvious example of this nurturing has to be the relationship between the early stage funding folks and the startup scene. That’s something that is, at best, nascent in Portland. And at worst, completely nonexistent.

But in Boulder, that collegial relationship is alive and well. From the work of early stage investor Brad Feld of Foundry Group—who also spoke at boco and is regular part of the Boulder startup scene—to the TechStars incubator, which provides up to $18,000 in seed funding and mentorship for a handful of startups every summer—and attracts a wealth of talent to Boulder in the process.

That collaboration between those who fund and those who could use said funding is something we in Portland could definitely stand to emulate.

But that’s just a brief seat-of-my-pants assessment. I need to get back there to spend some more time. To see what they’re doing right. And to see where we can share some of the things that Portland has done so well. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to get some more of those awesome Boulder folks out to Portland to visit, too.

For as amazing as Portland is, we can always find some ways to improve. And better to learn from others’ successes than to try to recreate the wheel.


  1. Rick –

    Thanks for the great review on Boco! Like you said, next year we’ll have to align our schedules so we’re in Boulder at the same time!

    Take care and look forward to seeing you at Big Omaha 2010!

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