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From Denver to the World: Startups Surging from a Mile High

Swiftpage has created 300 jobs in Colorado.

The Shwayder brothers stand on one of their suitcases in the early days of Samsonite.

Denver Startup Week is the largest free entrepreneurial event in the country.

Union Station reborn.

Denver in 2014 is like an entrepreneurial rocket ship, and in many ways, it's always been like that. Today's leaders have recognized the intersection of the startup mindset and Colorado culture and harnessed the synergy with impressive results. Case in point: Denver Startup Week.
Ask any tourist: Denver is probably best known across the U.S. for beer, bud and burritos. These days, you can buy a six-pack of Great Divide Denver Pale Ale in a podunk town 2,000 miles from the Colorado state line. 

But the city and state are also leading the nation for its diverse and growing economy. In fact, in August, Business Insider ranked Colorado as the nation's top state for economic growth. 

The capital city and its companies are making moves to ensure that Colorado remains at the top -- not only in terms of elevation  -- by helping local startups grow and spread down from the high plateau, like the snowmelt that flows from the Rockies to both coasts. 

And no event encompasses the spirit of Denver's entrepreneurialism more than Denver Startup Week

"The power of the entrepreneurial community is that it aligns with the culture in Denver," says Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership and an organizing chair of Denver Startup Week. "A large population comes from elsewhere. People want to make it great. The entrepreneurial community is no different. We're building a city and we're building it through business."

"The whole western 'can do!' spirit has been alive in our community for generations," asserts Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for Denver's Office of Economic Development. "That certainly is true in firms that have started up here and succeeded." 

Collaborating from the start

The collaborative, entrepreneurial spirit of innovation has been with Denver since its early days as a mining town in the late 1850s. Before there were airports, interstates, before even the railroad tracks that course through Denver like the city's lifeblood, the only way to make it in the West, was to make it yourself. 

In fact, Denver's railroad story itself typifies that spirit. 

When the first transcontinental railroad was set to pass through Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the late 1860s and not Denver, local citizens raised $300,000 (no small sum in those days) in three days to build a line to Denver, which was ultimately completed in 1870. It was an important lifeline that allowed the young city to stay alive as the industrial era pushed West. 

As it became a more metropolitan hub, Jesse Shwayder and his family started making premium luggage in Denver to meet the needs of travelers. The "strong enough to stand on" luggage, dubbed Samson, famously took the weight of Shwayder and four portly members of his family. That company, founded in 1910, eventually became Samsonite, a top international brand. 

It's a story you hear time and time again. Something pops up in Denver -- the Chipotle burrito, the Rockmount snap shirt, the iTriage app -- and it takes off from there. The city has definitely seen more than its share of startups and inventions going national in the its 150 years.

The Rocky Mountain startup zone

And Denver keeps finding ways to fill or create niches across all industries. "People often forget that MapQuest, which has 30 million plus users is right here in downtown Denver," says Erik Mitisek, CEO of the Colorado Technology Association (CTA), and an organizing chair of Denver Startup Week. "In that original tech bubble, MapQuest was the de facto mapping tool."  

Likewise, Photobucket is a Denver-based company. "Photobucket today has 60 million impressions a month. "It's a bigger photo site than Flickr," Mitisek points out.

Newer companies like Ibotta and Swiftpage are carrying that torch forward.

"Ibotta is 16th most used app in the marketplace," Woodbury says. The coupon app was developed in Denver in 2011 and is quickly gaining popularity throughout the U.S. In celebration of Denver Startup Week Woodbury's office named it a Denver Gazelle in 2012. "The Denver Gazelles program highlights new businesses that are kicking butt," he explains.

"Swiftpage has really built a brand over the last four years," Mitisek says. "It's a national provider of small business software for email services and communications." He says the company now has roughly 300 employees in Colorado.

"There are a number of factors that make us a vibrant place for startups," Woodbury says. "First and foremost is our workforce. We're a top city for 25- to 34-year-olds to relocate. Just as important is a highly educated workforce. We have the second highest concentration of college grads in Colorado across the nation."

Just like when those pioneers took it upon themselves to build the railroad, access to transportation remains a key to Denver's vitality. "We're centrally located in the country," Woodbury says. The city's investment in Denver International Airport and its continued expansion of international flights has made it easier for businesspeople and investors to visit Denver-based companies. "That infrastructure investment is paying rich dividends in global connection that we're realizing."

Denver's government is doing far more than just leveraging its transportation network to ensure its a great place to launch startups -- the city is taking an active role to foster entrepreneurship. "We're a direct lender to businesses that are expanding in the community within given areas," says Woodbury, explaining that the city can loan out up to $5 million annually to support startups.

Denver also offers other businesses incentives, like a property tax credit for companies buying land in the city. "There are approximately a dozen different credits available," Woodbury says. "When you boil it all down, it's around three major buckets: access to capital, access to labor and access to markets."

"The unique factor that Colorado has in its favor is we have an amazing community that's collaborating to make Denver the number-one technology and innovation hub in the United States," Mitisek says. He highlights the work of Sen. Michael Bennet pushing the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, Gov. John Hickenlooper driving the Colorado Innovation Network and Mayor Hancock collaborating with the CTA and DDP to open a new entrepreneurial center at 1245 Champa St. "We have a trifecta of collaboration at each level, not to mention the public-private nonprofit organizations that support all those activities." 

"There's not anybody in the community that doesn't want Colorado to win," he adds. "I think because of that you have this overwhelming spirit of generosity that's pushing the flywheel harder and harder to accelerate, which is kind of the extreme value of the state. I don't see that happening in a lot of other communities. We're building mobile businesses, we're building businesses that are software companies, we're building physical spaces like Galvanize. We're outfitting all the infrastructure that we've already been building for the last 30 years and providing the bells and whistles to make it work better and faster."

A week to celebrate and support the startups

Denver Startup Week "is just the latest evolution of what's next," Mitisek claims. "Denver's been very good at adjusting in the digital economy to be on point." It consists of four main tracks: Business, Design, Tech and Manufacturing, each tuned to Denver's unique startup scene.

"We're focused on all of those, including emerging technologies like 3D printing and advanced manufacturing as well," Mitisek says. "Denver Startup Week is truly about those people who want to build businesses in Colorado." 

It is also the largest free entrepreneurial event in the U.S., if not the world, and it's quickly being cloned in other cities. "We're already seeing people across the country trying to replicate what we're doing here," Door says. "We're getting calls from all over the U.S. and Canada about how we structured it and funded it."

Colorado's newest legal industry, cannabis, isn't well represented in this year's startup week, but it will likely be part of it in the future, and the flurry of entrepreneurialism that's taking place around the industry harkens back to Denver's early days. "I liken it to selling picks to the miners," Mitisek says. "When you think about the gold rush. There were those who were mining and those who were selling to those who were mining." 

With marijuana, everyone thinks first about growing, but the entrepreneurs, the innovators are even now thinking up all new ways to meet all the other needs of the industry, from tracking to testing, to reducing energy use in grow houses. This is new goldmine in the industry. After all, not all of the miners struck paydirt, but the merchants, the sellers and the makers certainly did.

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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