How Denver is winning the race to be the next Silicon Valley

DSW Ambassador: Lex Roman

“You flew in just for Denver Startup Week?” someone asked, quite surprised that I had made the trip. Yes, in fact, I had and with good reason. My friend, Mary Kenny, had informed me of their Ambassadors Program which sponsors 50 people from outside of Denver to come to learn about the tech scene. I had never been but now, I’m encouraging everyone to go. Let me explain why.

Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock talks about how the city supports entrepreneurs.

The moment I arrived in Denver, I heard the Mayor come over the loudspeaker on the airport train announcing that it was Denver Startup Week and encouraging people to come out. As you may be aware, many cities host some version of a Startup Week. But it was very clear that Denver took it seriously — as a city investment — not just as a tech networking event. I can assure you Startup Week in LA does not compare to Denver’s.

As an over-preparer, I had spent a decent amount of time going through what Startup Week had to offer. On the schedule, I saw Jeff Patton, one of my favorite product speakers, a fireside chat with Steve Case (co-founder of AOL, now speaker and investor) and a session with designer/writer/teacher Aaron Draplin. In addition to the core programming, the Ambassadors were set to visit several Denver-based startups.

In the opening session for Denver Startup Week (DSW), the Mayor once again came out to speak to a packed room of several hundred attendees. Mayor Hancock underscored Denver’s commitment to entrepreneurship and explained the city’s support of new ventures. He encouraged people to reach out to the Office of Economic Development for guidance with funding. Sharing the stage with him were local executives from JPMorgan Chase who once again articulated how they could help founders get capital. In addition, they announced their donation of half a million dollars to four Denver nonprofits.

I’ve lived and worked in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for the past ten years and it has not been my experience that these kinds of financial resources are so enthusiastically shared.

My sketchnotes from the kickoff event.

Denver is clearly a supportive environment for founders. We visited a few locally raised companies — Guild Education, Ibotta, and Evolve Vacation Rental Network. SendGrid and HomeAdvisor also established their headquarters in Denver. For companies that start elsewhere, Denver is attracting them to build a substantial local presence. Gusto (founded in the Bay Area) now has more employees in the Denver area and calls the two offices co-headquarters. Slack is building out an office in Denver and even the arts collective MeowWolf is opening their second campus right downtown. What’s more — nearly all the founders of the above companies I mentioned joined us for Startup Week to share their backstories, why they chose Denver and how they wanted to see their companies growing.

Riley, me and Tara outside Gusto.

Aside from this impressive group, I met many talented Denverites throughout the week. Nearly everyone I came across was themselves a successful founder, a product lead, a nonprofit leader or an experienced practitioner. My first day I met a guy who had sold his accelerator and was onto a new venture. I also met Karen Brown who is the chapter lead of Aging2.0 in Denver. She’s working to support and invest in companies innovating in the aging space. Typically at tech events outside Silicon Valley, I mostly encounter novice founders, engineers or designers. I was surprised at the collective experience of this place. (I shouldn’t have been, I actually have many respected colleagues based in Denver and Boulder). One thing I kept hearing from people I met — I used to live in the Bay Area.

If you are considering your next move, I’d strongly consider Denver. From what I can tell, the community is supportive of both entrepreneurs and individual contributors. Resources abound — most importantly money but also talent, space and a city people love. Denver is setting an example for other cities wanting to entice the tech industry. Focusing on capital and talent will create the conditions that foster local innovation and attract companies nationwide.

True to its namesake, the Mile High City has high ambitions. The energy there is contagious. The resources plentiful. They are just waiting for you.

Big thanks to Conor Swanson and Emily Tucker for their hard work leading the Ambassadors Program. And to Riley, Tara and Cory for their time. Also, much gratitude to the sponsors of the program and our host companies: Southwest, Polsinelli, Guild Education, Ibotta, Evolve Travel and Gusto. Lastly, much appreciation to the Denver Startup Week founders and organizers. That confetti drop at breakfast was truly inspired.