Beyond the Bay: Denver Gives an Entirely New Meaning to a ‘Sharing Economy’

In Colorado’s most populous city, investments aren’t about collaborative consumption; they’re about collaborative creation

by Rutger Ansley Rosenborg

Denver’s ‘Share-First Mentality’

When we talk about the sharing economy, we’re not really talking about sharing in an egalitarian or altruistic sense. From a labor standpoint, we’re talking about people trying to stay afloat by becoming amateur taxi drivers, hoteliers, and handypersons as the tide of living costs continues to rise. For many non-salaried workers, the collaborative consumption model has managed to buoy them—at least for the time being.

In Denver, sharing isn’t just a fuzzy misnomer for a new economic model—it’s a part of the cultural landscape in the Colorado capital’s growing network of investors and entrepreneurs.

According to former Rockies Venture Club Program Manager Ian McConville, “From Colorado Springs to Fort Collins and Boulder … we collaborate with all of them [those Front Range cities]—sharing deals, sharing due diligence. And while it is somewhat of a competition, we’re a small enough city where the rising tide lifts all boats.”

“You’ve gone through the exact same thing as the investor next to you or the entrepreneur next to you, and sharing that hard-fought wisdom is important,” he added.

We have a share-first mentality.
— Ian McConville

Organized Sharing Builds Community

The logical extension of that sharing isn’t just caring about the budding ecosystem, it’s also about continuing to grow that sense of community. While Rockies Venture Club is still “a teeny tiny angel group” that goes “where the wind blows and where [members] can get affordable space,” it has nonetheless “led to a greater amount of collaboration,” according to McConville, and that has contributed to a greater sense of a place-based community.

In conjunction with the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center, Rockies Venture Club has helped create an accelerator called Trout Tank, which is a “cool community in that it’s super connected, and entrepreneurs are able to share space and interact,” McConville said.

Investors and entrepreneurs also have the opportunity to interact and share wisdom at the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Commons on Champa, where 395 mentors have supported almost 5,000 entrepreneurs with more than “2,250 hours of training, counsel, advice, leadership, and enthusiasm,” according to their 2017–2018 impact report. And when it comes to sharing, they mean it: “In 2017–2018, 85 percent of all 300+ events were free and open to anyone, and were geared toward each entrepreneur’s existing need.”

“We’ve certainly had a preponderance of co-working spaces, but our community is very giving in that people are very willing to share of their resources, and building community is beneficial and expected of the way we do things,” Commons on Champa Program Manager Jacqui Dietrich said.

The Commons is unique in serving as an organizer of the ecosystem.
— Jacqui Dietrich

This year—as in years past—the Commons will serve as a sort of epicenter for Denver Startup Week, perhaps “the largest free entrepreneurial event in the world,” according to Downtown Denver Partnership’s Vice President of Economic Development, Randy Thelen.

“Denver Startup Week and the Commons are managed by the same organization: Downtown Denver Partnership. We have a year-round responsibility for these programs. During Denver Startup Week, we give the keys of the Commons over, and it’s the base camp and headquarters for mentorship sessions. 9,000 people came through the Commons base camp last year, and we’re expecting 11,000 this year,” Dietrich explained.

Thanks to Downtown Denver Partnership, in 2017, Denver Startup Week hosted 19,000 people and 376 programs and events, making a conscious effort to include the Denver community and “celebrate Denver’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem and build the center city’s culture of innovation.”

“It’s entirely community generated. The marketing and outreach are all community generated, and it brings the entrepreneurial community together in a way that is largely unheard of,” Thelen added.

We’ve really created this multi-tiered service for entrepreneurship.
— Jacqui Dietrich

Denver Startup Week takes place Sept. 24–28. See Exponential Creativity Ventures CEO Adam Huttler talk about the future of financing creativity on Sept. 25 at CU Denver’s Jake Jabs Center.

A Deep Impact

A bold emphasis on impact investing might be the most apparent manifestation of the energy that the Denver ecosystem places on sharing—both inside and also outside of the entrepreneurial community.

“That’s what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard—especially compared to our size,” Impact Charitable Board President and Co-Director Ed Briscoe said.

“The cultural sensibility [as it pertains to social impact] is really strong. The movement of money is not as high as other markets, but we blow over places like New York, which is supposed to be this bastion of investment progressiveness,” Cornerstone Capital Group Chief Investment Officer Phil Kirshman, who works closely with Briscoe, added.

While impact investors are not solely interested in making a difference in the world—they’re looking for a great return as well—there’s something about Denver that makes it especially conducive to marrying profit with impact.

“[N]o city is better poised to become a national model of community wealth building than Denver. What sets Denver apart (and indeed other communities in Colorado, such as Boulder) is not just the number of wealth building efforts now underway, but the strategic intent among key local leaders to create a robust new economy ecosystem that can ultimately lead to a ‘new normal’ for how business is conducted in the city,” Democracy Collaborative’s Ted Howard writes in Cornerstone’s recent Colorado Impact Report.

According to Dietrich, it’s already happening: “Conscious capitalism” is already assumed if you’re an entrepreneur in Denver. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to even get people to come to events related to the topic precisely because of that fact.

“It’s just part of the way businesses are expected to operate here,” Dietrich said. And as a result, “There’s a tremendous energy here around impact investing.”

There’s a real potential for that energy to turn into a defining characteristic of Denver’s startup scene—just so long as the entrepreneurial community continues to embrace it and navigates the influx of giant tech companies responsibly.

“Business leaders and local officials have referred to Colorado as Silicon Mountain, in reference to our holistic startup community. While this is meant to be an illustrative point, we believe it does Colorado a disservice. This language continues the stereotype and visualization that Colorado needs to be saved and taught by Silicon Valley. The reality is that Colorado has some of the brightest and most experienced pioneers in the impact space and a vibrant and inclusive community of investors, philanthropists and entrepreneurs who collaborate, work together and want Colorado ventures to succeed. We should brand ourselves the Impact Frontier and not Silicon Mountain,” writes PeakChange’s Melanie Pease Davidson in Cornerstone’s impact report.

The Colorado impact investing landscape is booming.
—Melanie Pease Davidson

Scaling Silicon Mountain on the Impact Frontier

In the last few years, Denver has experienced a significant increase in attention from big tech companies—especially those headquartered in the Bay Area. With that, an important question has emerged: How will the city absorb the influx of big corporations—companies that haven’t necessarily developed within a sharing context—without compromising the identity of its own startup and investment ecosystem?

“We’ve captured the attention of Silicon Valley in an extraordinary way,” Thelen said. “The likes of Google, Facebook, Slack…. There’s a steady stream of connections and companies coming in.”

Thelen hopes to accelerate the stream of connections with Pivot to Colorado, a partnership between the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade, the Colorado Technology Association, and Downtown Denver Partnership that poaches higher-end talent from Silicon Valley to help scale local companies in Denver.

“We have been consistently attracting and developing talent, zeroing in on Silicon Valley talent that has helped scale companies there. The number of scaling companies here is really where we’re placing emphasis on…. Northern California is beautiful, but we like to think Denver’s a great place to live also, so we’re pitching to Silicon Valley people, and saying, ‘You can still have a great career and quality of life without being in the Bay Area,’” Thelen explained.

But recruiting talent to help local startups scale and encouraging out-of-state companies to set up shop here are two very different things. Thelen thinks both are good for Denver’s local ecosystem.

“We’ve got great companies here, but they are not household names. When young people see big names, they might get inspired and go into tech — maybe not necessarily at Google but at a tech startup down the street…. And when you have massive tech companies in our market, if they see a company they like, they might buy it, and suddenly we’re a more interesting VC market as a result,” he said.

“It’s a really interesting time for the startup scene where it’s a great blend of local startups and large corporations moving in. In downtown Denver, we have 626 tech startups in operation today, which is up about 50% over the past five years. That’s also made it more interesting to the VC community,” he added.

As companies move here, they can take advantage of our great quality of life, but what we ask of them is that they continue to help build our city.
—Randy Thelen

An Equal Slice of the Pioneer

There’s always the concern, of course, that big Bay Area tech will bring the culture and cost of Silicon Valley with it. As such, there are plenty of socioeconomic considerations Denver will have to account for as companies and individual talent do pivot to Colorado.

“More tax breaks will support more innovation, but there are definitely more homeless people here now, too,” Kirshman said. “The grittiness of life is more severe, and I don’t know how best to manage it in Denver. There seems to be this moral hazard issue, and I feel like we better provide a model that works more broadly.”

Let’s not become San Francisco in terms of unaffordability.
—Ed Briscoe

Denver is facing a big gentrification problem—as most cities are—and that, unfortunately, has contributed to a dip in the city’s diversity and an increase in underrepresentation of underserved communities in business.

“Colorado and Denver have actually slipped in the rankings…. What’s interesting for Denver is that our demographics, in terms of people of color, has changed, and we’re still trying to figure out as a community what that means. What we’re really lacking when it comes to parity is access to funding. That’s something our organization [Commons on Champa] is trying to tackle through innovative partnerships: How do we create more connectivity to the networks and bring people up to speed? How do we help our neighborhoods gentrify but preserve those businesses that are there? How do we encourage co-operative ownership that benefits the whole community? How do we tackle racial equity and encourage awareness for what that means?” Dietrich said.

“We were part of the Kauffman Foundation Inclusion Challenge grant two years ago, and we achieved 73 percent representation of women and people of color. We’re really proud of that number and how proud the Denver community is of what’s happening here at the Commons. We are having some really awesome early successes [not least of which is Women on the Rise] in starting to change and transform that future,” she added.

According to Thelen, the last 20 years have been a meteoric rise for Denver. The population has doubled and the city adds a new resident every 14 minutes. While all of that growth is exciting, it can also make it easy to stray from a share-first mentality. Luckily, Denver’s pretty good about thinking ahead.

The pioneer spirit is embedded in our DNA here somehow—that sort of willingness to be a pioneer, on the edge of where things are….
—Phil Kirshman

#BeyondTheBay is part of our effort to profile and promote startup, tech, and business communities outside of more established regions like Silicon Valley. We love discovering what makes each entrepreneurial ecosystem special. You can check out our Portland profile here, our Atlanta profile here, and our New Mexico profile here.

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