Abram Olmstead  | March 3, 2014

The Denver Disruption: Startups Soar in the Mile High City

Over 150 years ago, a group of gold prospectors from Lawrence, Kansas hunkered down on the banks of the South Platte River in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains to pan for specks of gold during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush.

Today, a brave new group of prospectors are staking out claims on Denver’s tech landscape and making a name for themselves in this thriving and cheerful metropolis of 2.5 million. But it’s not gold these thirsty upstarts are after, it’s another type of posterity.

Colorado’s laidback, outdoorsy culture has always attracted a highly-skilled, highly-educated crowd. The Centennial State is the number one relocation destination in the U.S. for skilled workers ages 25 to 44, according to Census data. That great wave of talent migration helped the state snag the number five spot on Forbes’ list of best states for business.

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Boulder has long been considered Colorado’s startup hub. After all, Boulder is home-base for startup guru Brad Feld. Feld is a co-founder of the Boulder-based Techstars – one of the nation’s best known tech accelerators, as well as the venture capital firm- The Foundry Group.

But several other cities across Colorado are jostling for the startup spotlight. In a recent New Engine/Kauffman Foundation report, four of the top 10 cities for startups were in Colorado. “We’re really startup Colorado. From our point of view, the more success we can drive in Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, we think the more successful everyone is going to be,” says Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Denver in particular has been creeping out of Boulder’s startup shadow. Recently ranked the fourth hottest startup scene, Denver is the birthplace of some pretty famous startups including Chipotle, SendGridPing IdentityRally Software (which went public last year) and many more. In fact, Denver outpaced Boulder in raising capital for the first time last year. According to Built In Colorado, Denver digital startups led the way in raising capital in 2013 with 70 companies raising $305 million, up from 33 companies in 2012. Boulder’s digital startups remained steady with $147 million raised by 43 companies.

Part of what makes Denver so popular is the undeniable quality of life benefits that come with living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, particularly the outdoor living. Want to live within biking distance to work? No problem. Denver has more than 130 miles of designated bike paths and lanes, and bike paths link the city’s 205 parks. What about the weekends? There’s plenty of hiking, fishing, camping, white water rafting, rock climbing nearby. What about the winter? Denver is about an hour and ten minute drive to Vail, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and a slew of other resorts.

Not surprisingly, that outdoorsy lifestyle attracts quite a few travel startups to the city, including Challenge Cup Denver competitors Auckland Outdoors, FreshJets, and Project Travel.

What if your idea of the great outdoors is drinking beer on a patio somewhere? You’re in luck—not only does Denver get approximately 300 days of sunshine per year, but the Mile High City has one of the nation’s best beer scenes, according to Imbibe Magazine. More than 139 breweries, including Coors and Fat Tire can be found in and around Denver. And, since Denver is one of only two cities with a whopping seven professional sports teams (Philadelphia is the other), you can probably find one of those beers at any major sports arena.

Aside from an educated, young workforce, a plethora of outdoor distractions, and some really great beer, Denver has a growing tech ecosystem eager to support startups. Organizations like the Denver Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Denver Partnership and the Colorado Technology Association—as well as the popular and rapidly-growing Denver Startup Week—are also focused on helping startups.

Then there’s Galvanize, a 30,000 square foot co-working facility housing 160 companies and connecting entrepreneurs with “capital, community and curriculum.” In addition, Galvanize’s gSchool produces developers eager to work with the next great startup. “What we’re trying to do at this campus is create a continuous learning ecosystem of not only formal education, but learning from the companies that are in the same space,” Galvanize Co-Founder and Managing Director says.

Galvanize, which opened in October 2012, got the Google blessing last September when the Google for Entrepreneurs program included the co-working space and similar sites in six other cities part of its newly formed network, where entrepreneurs can tap into Google’s expertise, products and training.

More importantly, the tech hub has an in-house coffee café and a bar. And we’ve already touched on how beer and entrepreneurs go together.

But more than coffee or beer, the Denver startup scene runs on congeniality, Mandes says. “People are willing to collaborate and that’s where a lot of value is gained, learning from other entrepreneurs as mentors. When you’re working with someone who’s in the trenches or experienced something similar recently, you can learn a great amount as you grow your business.”

The Denver Chamber’s Bough agrees, and adds that Denver’s pioneer spirit and sunny disposition is lighting a bright future for startups. “Part of our attraction is we have great jobs, but we also have a culture where you can make it based on your skills. We don’t spend a lot of time asking where you went to school, if you’re family came over on the Mayflower. When you come here, we’re a very open community that welcomes you and then figures out how to help make you successful. We’re extremely optimistic, even during the downturn, we were much more optimistic than the rest of the country on our capacity to come out of it, and be stronger and better, and here we are. Startups need that optimism. These guys really want people around them who believe they’re awesome.”