Benjamin Kunkel on Colorado

Benjamin Kunkel is one of young American writers I follow. I loved his novel Indecision and try to stay on top of his magazine n+1 when I can. Over at the Amazon.com blog they write about Kunkel's contribution to State by State, the book of essays by writers about each state in America. It's on his native state of Colorado. Here's how he describes growing up near Eagle, Colorado:

The first of the beautiful ordinary things I remember are the creek gabbling away in its bed and the smell of rained-on sage bringing out an unsuspected sweetness from the land: thoughts of water in a dry place. But the thinness and dryness of the air on clear days–as of something brittle that would never break–was also thrilling, and what I liked doing on days like that was to clamber up the red mountain, which always offered some new place to be discovered among its troughs of brilliant dirt and tilted spines.

Nice. I love nature and the outdoors and enjoy Colorado for this reason. I plan to spend most of my life in major world cities but also plan to spend significant chunks of time in remote nature settings.

See the whole post for Kunkel's picks on the best books of or about Colorado.

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How Boulder Became a Start-Up Town

I have a ~2,600 word piece in the latest issue of The American, the publication of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, on how Boulder, CO became a start-up town. Excerpt:

In the past 15 years, Boulder has gone from a little hippie college town to a little hippie college town also boasting an impressive and growing congregation of Internet entrepreneurs, early-stage venture capitalists, and bloggers. How did Boulder pull this off? And what can other cities, policymakers, and entrepreneurs who want to boost their own start-up quotient—and overall competitiveness at a local level—learn from Boulder’s success?

The formatting — namely section breaks — is better in the print magazine.

Arnold Kling, in reflecting on the latest issue, called The American a "top notch" publication. I agree (my article excepted, of course!) it’s an engaging read for anyone interested in business and policy.

TechStars 2008 – 15 Days Left

If you’re thinking of starting a company, or are still in the early stages of a start-up, think about spending your summer at TechStars in Boulder, CO. TechStars in a summer camp of sorts for entrepreneurs. You get some seed funding, constant attention from mentors and business experts, office space, and immediately placement into a community of likeminded souls (fellow TechStars entrepreneurs). What could be better?

I’ve written a lot about how mentors have changed my life. One of my mentors, Brad Feld, wrote a whole essay on the topic for my book My Start-Up Life. What’s awesome about TechStars is it connects you on Day 1 with a group of engaged mentors who will help make your idea a reality. I have yet to find another organization or opportunity that so seamlessly brings together highly screened entrepreneurs with highly screened mentors.

Last year, I lived in Boulder for a few months and worked with my friend David Cohen — the ringleader of TechStars — as he was putting together the inaugural summer. Along the way I became friends with many of the Boulder tech entrepreneurs. I have fond memories of my time there mainly because of the wonderful people who call Boulder home. Most of these people — the Foundry Group gang, Paul Berberian, Lucy Sanders, Ryan Martens, Niel Robertson, Jared Polis, Wendy Lea, and many others — are involved with TechStars.

You have 15 days left to apply. It’s exclusive: only the 10 best teams get in. What do you have to lose? Come hang out with my friends (and me) in Boulder this summer — submit an application today!

Oh – one more thing – I’ll be hosting the second annual Casnocha Ping Pong Tournament in Boulder sometime over the summer. All TechStars entrepreneurs are automatically entered!

TechStars Gets Going in Colorado

One of the projects I worked on when I lived in Colorado during Q1 ’07 was TechStars, a start-up bootcamp to help incubate and launch new business ideas. It just got going! Ten outstanding teams of young entrepreneurs have moved to Boulder and are working hard at developing their concepts.

You can follow the progress at the TechStars Blog. David Cohen has posted a couple video updates of the progress, including this panel which talk about whether your idea needs to be brilliant on day one, how to consider customer feedback, and other useful topics.

I’ll be in Boulder from July 18 – 20 this summer. Among other things, I’m hosting the First Annual TechStars Ping-Pong Classic.

I look forward to meeting all the entrepreneurs this summer and battling it out on the ping pong table!

Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain Park

My folks came to town last weekend to celebrate my 19th orbit around the sun. We went to Rocky Mountain National Park to hang in the mountains and, most notably, snowshoe. Chalk up a new life experience!

The weather for snowshoeing was absolutely spectacular. Good snow on the ground but sunny and not a cloud in the sky. Majestic mountains never out of sight. Snowshoeing is drop dead simple: just walk. We trekked through the woods and hardly saw another person. It’s most fun when you walk on virgin snow and therefore create your own tracks.

If you’re a California softie but want to feel "hard" like Rocky Mountain folk, snowshoeing is an awesome, easy exercise. And I highly recommend Estes Park / Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Small Town, USA: Limon, CO

Smalltownamerica

Today I drove across the eastern planes of Colorado to Limon, a small town which fulfilled my every expectation: a town hall, a post office, a high school whose athletic program is the subject of most townspeople’s Friday and Saturday nights, the occasional abandoned building, and just a single stoplight.

On my tour of the town in a white pick-up truck, I got to witness the feeding of horses and a donkey. I got to see a Union Pacific railroad line and a gas station operation that services the ranchers who guzzle fuel.

At lunch with family friends, the question was not if we should have steak, of course, but what size steak and how well the steak should be cooked.

Similarly, for families there, it seems the question is not if you should hang an American flag on your house, but how big the flag should be and where the flag should be placed.

There have been many articles over the past few years about the decline of small towns in America. The trend is not limited to the States: cities everywhere are a stronger magnet than ever. Living in a city is a no-brainer for a knowledge worker, but after an afternoon in Limon I appreciated the accoutrements of rural living and wouldn’t mind having a second home in Small Town, USA someday. As a place to sit out in the sun and read, and go to the local high school basketball games, and barbecue steaks.

I drove home to Boulder as the sun set. Me, the setting sun, open plains and open roads. To finish off the Americanism thing, I put pedal to the metal as the quintessential expression of individuality and freedom.

I knew I arrived back in Boulder that evening when I swung by Starbucks to pick up the Sunday newspaper. After completing our transaction, the short, stocky white guy behind the counter said, "Hey, Happy Chinese New Year." I starred back at him quizzically for a second, and then said with a half-kidding grin, "Gung Hay Fat Choy to you."

By Locating Your Start-Up in Silicon Valley, Are You More Likely to Succeed?

New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson, in a blog post and in a private email, asked the question:

Does starting a company in Silicon Valley increase your chances of success?

Here’s what I would ask Fred: Are you more likely to succeed in the finance world if you’re located in New York City? I would strongly argue yes. You can be equally or more successful than a New York finance person if you’re based in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles or anywhere else. However, due to the congregation of finance-resources in New York City, your chances of success improve there.

The counter-argument is that by going to a smaller pond you aren’t fighting for finite resources. In other words, chances for success improve if you’re a big finance fish in San Francisco than a medium size fish in New York City. It’s a somewhat compelling line of thinking, but not ultimately persuasive: To maximize your chances of succeeding in finance or law, you should go to New York City.

To maximize your chances of succeeding in a movie or acting career, you should go to Burbank or Los Angeles.

The analogy carries over to start-up technology and the Bay Area. It’s the biggest pond in the world. Your chances of succeeding increase due to the sheer volume of resources and networks. Here’s an example. I’m now living in Boulder, CO and engaging in the entrepreneurship scene here (after 5 years engaging in the SF tech scene). There’s tons happening here and it’s a great place to do a start-up. But it’s a small ecosystem. A start-up here won’t be exposed to the same range of ideas and people as in the Bay Area and won’t have access to the same amount of capital or talent. Moreover, the ecosystem seems unipolar in the sense that influence and power is concentrated in the hands of fewer people, whereas in the Bay Area it’s more distributed. This hardly precludes success in Boulder, but it makes it a tad more challenging.

Now, someone should not choose where to live and start their business on the basis of maximizing possible professional success alone. I haven’t met a single person in Boulder who moved here to “Give their start-up the best shot”. They’re here for quality of life, for skiing, for a low cost of living. And by the way, they also run a tech company. I haven’t met a single investment banker in San Francisco who’s there to “try to become king of the hill in i-banking”. They’re there because San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the world. I think this is fantastic — quality of life should trump all.

But if you’re a person who doesn’t care about those other factors — like 20-somethings who don’t have a family to raise — you might end up choosing your geography based solely on maximizing your possible professional success. And that’s why many work-driven tech entrepreneurs end up in the Bay Area, and end up creating some of the world’s most prominent technology companies.


My friend David Cohen, of ColoradoStartUps.com, says:

So don’t pack up and move to Silicon Valley just yet. If it’ll work there, it’ll work here too.

I would say that is probably true. But this is probably more true: if it won’t work in Silicon Valley, it won’t work here too. Given that most start-ups fail, do you think there are failed start-up entrepreneurs who ask themselves, “I wonder if this would have gotten off the ground if we did it in the Valley.” Probably, just as there are SF-based investment bankers who probably ask themselves, “I wonder if I would be partner already if I were based in New York.”

A California Softie Meets Boulder

I’m writing a bi-monthly column for NewWest: The Voice of the Rocky Mountains — think Slate for the Rocky Mountain West.

My first column is titled: A California Softie Meets Boulder. Here it is:

The weather is the ultimate common denominator in a population. It follows, then, that Boulder’s cold, snowy welcome to me has been the subject of at least a dozen conversations I’ve had with locals since moving here two weeks ago from San Francisco.

There are several angles to these conversations. Most important there is disagreement among the locals over how long, exactly, it’s been since this town has seen so much cold and so much snow. If you feel the urge to wager a guess (3 years? 9 years? A lifetime?), go right ahead: a conversation among "locals" is maximally inclusive, since Colorado seems so short on bona fide natives that, in a year, I could probably legitimately call myself an old-timer.

This is because flocks of transplants from the Bay Area and New York migrate to Boulder in search of mountains, clean air, good schools, and – let’s face it, the factor which trumps all – a lower cost-of-living. The Economist recently reported that five million Californians now live outside the state, many in the Rocky Mountain West.

These non-natives have a seat at the weather table. They speak in unison: Good weather does not doesn’t involve heavy snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Like the good activists they are, they seem to have beamed these anti-winter sentiments into the offices of the local newspaper, the Daily Camera, which last week somewhat neutrally asked, “Are People Living in Colorado Becoming Soft on Snow?”

Soft, you see, is not as much insult as genuine descriptor, and a complex one at that. It is a term reserved for Californians like myself who shudder at the thought at not being able to walk five blocks to pick up the Sunday paper without several layers of clothing. It is also a term deeper than intellectual flailing. I have, after all, made good mental progress in comprehending the reality around me. Having been here for two weeks, I can answer many of the questions my soft soul murmured upon arrival: What is "snowdrift"? What is real windshield wiper fluid? How do I scrape the ice off my windshield? But, I still feel unable to emotionally embrace the snow as useful or good. Rather, I imagine I’ve been transported into a Christmas movie, or trapped in a snow globe. Hence, I’m soft (or maybe just sane!).

Fortunately, Boulderites are friendly folk, and there seems to be a direct correlation between their chipper personality streak and the awfulness of the weather. (They probably feel bad for this short-term resident.) I have talked with many Boulderites – strangers or friends of friends – in a variety of local joints, and without exception, the overall sense of happiness is sky high notwithstanding the outdoor conditions.

It is quite easy to locate and then bask in the carefree chitchat of the warm indoors. After all, everything you’d want to do is within a 10 block radius of the Pearl Street Mall. When I first arrived and scheduled meetings at various offices in Boulder, I remarked several times to my companions, “We’re really close to each other!” Then I realized that Boulder is a small town, and everybody is close to everybody else. Whereas I could easily get lost in San Francisco, I can’t imagine ever truly losing my way in Boulder. Why or how there is such a thing as “North Boulder” and “South Boulder” is beyond me – the town should embrace its size, not yearn for the punch of a big city.

It is its size, in the end, which allows the community to transcend a spell of bad weather. Whereas I can imagine a city such as Chicago hunkers down in the depths of an unusually treacherous winter, a city like Boulder seems to awaken, precisely because its close quarters promote an osmosis of positive thinking: We’re going to get through this together, and have a great day!

It’s a testament to the DNA of the city that Boulder has accommodated a couple months of intense wind and snow in high spirits. It has even accommodated California softies like me.

TechStars Colorado: Summer Start-Up Camp

The Boulder Daily Camera reported today the launch of TechStars, a start-up camp that brings aspiring technology founders to Boulder, Colorado for an intensive three month period, provides seed funding, education, and connections, and will result in the formation of ten new companies during the summer of 2007.

TechStars will be like Y Combinator in the sense that the chosen applicants will be given seed funding, but the emphasis here in Boulder will be more focused on the mentoring and connections, which I believe is probably more important than dollars in the early days. An all-star roster of entrepreneurs and investors will be engaged throughout the summer to nurture the ideas from concept to conception.

I’m helping proprietor David Cohen launch the program and will also be a mentor over the summer.

If you’re thinking about starting a company, regardless of where you live, this is an incredible opportunity. Send in your application by March 31st. If you have any questions, check out the TechStars web site, or feel free to send me an email.

18 Hour Drive to Boulder and Learning about Snow

The drive from San Francisco to Boulder, CO took two full days of driving, about nine hours on each day. The I-80 East drive took me through such states as Utah and Wyoming, places I’ve spent little-to-no time, and at a trucker stop in Wyoming I began wondering whether this ranching state is more of a culture shock for a San Franciscan than western Europe.

In Laramie, Wyoming all cars came to a dead stop. The winds were too fierce, blowing snow all over the place. The roads were icy. As the cars stood stationary for 45 minutes, waiting for the winds to die down, my car shook violently. Finally, we could proceed. As we snaked our way out of the rough patch of road, we passed several cars which had spun into the median or turned over completely — including this picture of a huge big rig on its side:

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When at long last the Boulder sign appeared, I was relieved to find the snow scarce. Sure, there were packs of snow pushed to the side of the road, but it looked nothing like the news reports of the past few weeks. Instead, there was ice; which, upon further reflection, may be even worse than snow, since the ice opens the possibility to slipping and falling whereas snow simply ensures getting your pants a little wet. When I woke up the following morning in my new apartment, however, I was stunned to find snow falling softly on the entire parking lot and neighborhood covered in the white stuff. Having never lived or visited a snowy climate, I truly thought for a second I had been transported to a Christmas movie, or perhaps had been stuck into a snowglobe.

When I first saw snow near Tahoe, my heart jumped a beat, excitement at an unknown which I’m sure will be fully numbed by the time I leave Colorado.

My wide-eyed wonderment soon turned to the practical: How am I going to drive to the office in this snow? Should I wear my winter boots when I walk to my car? Do these conditions call for a winter coat, or simply a thin fleece? The first question, on driving, proved the most elusive. The snowplows only plowed "high priority" roads, which means the side roads leading to the main highway I take to the Mobius office were covered in snow. Street signs were also covered in snow. I drove slowly but within 5 minutes I had already lost control of my vehicle twice (I turned the wheel too far to the left).

Call it divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I miraculously made it to the highway safe and sound, got in the right lane, and tried to imagine that it was just another day on a clearly marked, clean, and safe highway. What really happened, of course, was that my California plates timidly followed the Florida plates in the right lane, while the local Coloradoans whizzed by in the left lane.

This was nothing compared to my drive to The Kitchen restaurant in the evening — I found my windshield frozen with ice! "I’m fucked," I thought to myself, after foolishly thinking my California squeegee could scrape ice. Fortunately, Chris Wand came to the rescue by lending his ice scraper. He did the passenger side of the window, I did the driver’s side. Oops. My shoddy job made me lean over to look out the passenger side of the window while driving in the dark on unfamiliar, icy roads.

The locals here tell me time and time again that the current weather is "abnormal," so I’m optimistic it will improve. In any event, I’m on my feet in Boulder, and have a great set-up, and I see myself assimilating nicely over the next few months.