Denver Startup Trek
Blog post by ELP Student Daniel Blyum (Industrial & Operations Engineering | Class of 2020)
Having done a Michigan to California road trip at the end of freshman year in an insane 3 days (11 hours of driving per day), I was left feeling somewhat incomplete: I saw so much but experienced so little. One of the places that peaked my interest was Denver. I’d heard a lot about this up and coming city, and I even got to step foot in the Mile High City last year. Yet, before I had enough time to so much as think about stretching my legs, I was back in my friend’s truck heading west on I-70. This year, I promised myself that I would take my time and do the trip properly. The plan was to absolutely send it for the first half of the journey, spend a few days exploring the startup ecosystem in Denver and then take my sweet time driving through the beautiful landscape of everything that lies west of Denver.
After talking to a few people, Emma Kirst also expressed an interest in trying to organize a two person startup trek to Colorado. Over the next few days we each made a list of companies we wanted to reach out to and naturally, neither of us reached out to anyone. So we met up again, and fueled by a combination of coffee, feedback, and mutual accountability, we spent three hours sending cold emails to people who we thought would never reply. Thankfully, we were wrong and our response rate was actually a pretty respectable 60-70%.
Pictured: Our faithful chariot.
As expected, the drive to Denver was unremarkable, albeit exhausting. We got to Denver at midnight on a Sunday and were greeted by our Airbnb host. Cruz was a friendly guy and did everything in his power to make us feel as welcome and at home as possible. Unfortunately, not even his friendliness could give him the ability to split a double bed into two singles so one of us ended up sleeping on an air mattress. This would also be the first time either of us had stayed in an Airbnb with the host sleeping in the same apartment. Although, at $286.35 for four nights for two people in the center of Denver, we were in absolutely no position to complain.
Pictured: WeWork in the Lower Highlands (LoHi)
Our first meeting was with Ernie Graham, CEO and Co-Founder of Homebot. We were greeted by his assistant at the LoHi WeWork building. A glass of cucumber infused water later, we had a chance to sit with Ernie and ask him some questions. Homebot is a company which uses AI to give homeowners financial advice regarding their property. The main sales however are done to real estate agents and mortgage companies who then tell their customers (the homeowners) about Homebot and how it can provide value. What makes Denver the perfect location for a company like Homebot is that 20 of the nation’s 30 largest mortgage companies have a strong presence in the city. Therefore, by gaining traction in Denver, it will be easier for Homebot to expand into other cities.
Pictured: Gentrified Lower Downtown (LoDo)
Later that day, we had an opportunity to explore the city by foot. This is when Denver really won me over. Denver is probably the most cohesive big American city I’ve been to. In the 1980s Denver was starting to go the way of most cities in the US: All of the business happened downtown and the people lived in the suburbs leading to mass suburban sprawl. In the early 2000s however, the city quickly learned the lesson that took Detroit too long to learn. The planning commission started revitalizing run down areas like Union Station and re-zoning the city to be more mixed purpose. With retail, residential, offices, and green spaces being interspersed throughout the city, people could live, shop, and work all within a few blocks of each other.
Pictured: CU Boulder Campus
The next day we set off on a day trip to Boulder. We had a meeting scheduled with Sam Schanfarber, the Program Coordinator at the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at CU Boulder. Sam was incredibly helpful. He gave us a good overview of the startup scene in Boulder and pointed us in the direction of other people that we could talk to. After hearing about my interest in real estate and construction, he also set up a meeting for us with Conscious Bay Company, a real estate investment firm which makes long term investments in real estate, water, and renewable energy. We then took a quick tour of the CU Boulder campus and proceeded to visit Impact Hub and Galvanize, two of the biggest startup incubators in town. In the evening we met up with the CU Boulder partners of Contrary Capital and went to the Techstars Demo Day. The event was huge with good turnout and a great vibe, although it did get a little corny and over the top at some points. It was easy to see that Colorado’s startup ecosystem is very tightly knit yet also friendly to newcomers.
Pictured: Boulder Theater
Our final two meetings were with Kane McCord, COO at iBotta and Megan Andrews, Head of People Operations at Artifact Uprising. Both iBotta and Artifact Uprising are growing quickly; iBotta is one of Denver’s largest startups with 350 employees and a valuation of $312.5M. Kane started out in management consulting and joined iBotta as the tenth employee just a year before he was due to become a partner at McKinsey. Megan worked at SolarCity and MuleSoft, two startups which she saw go through a stage of hyper growth. Both Kane and Megan are very accomplished individuals and it was very interesting to see how their backgrounds helped them get where they are today.
As you can probably tell by now, I like Denver, a lot! The city is growing rapidly and doing so in a smart, sustainable way. Currently the raw number of things to do is still a little smaller than in some of the real giants like San Francisco and New York, but I truly believe that right now is the best time to move to Denver. It is like joining a startup with a great team, a great product and a clear value proposition right in the middle of its exponential growth phase.
Pictured: A terrible collage of the wonderful people we met.