Denver Startup Week 2015: Postgame Wrap-Up and Five Lessons Learned

Denver Startup Week was bigger and better than ever in 2015. The country's largest free entrepreneurial event offers a lot of free advice, and here are five of our top lessons learned this time around.
Downtown Denver got an infusion of ideas, inspiration and eager individuals as 10,000-plus people attended more than 200 free events during the 2015 edition of Denver Startup Week.

In its fourth year, the inclusive, community-wide, five-day affair, organized by the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) and the Colorado Technology Association (CTA), attracted a record-breaking number of participants and individual panels, tours, demonstrations, job fairs, pitch competitions, mentor sessions and more.

"This is about the best free advice you can get," said Erik Mitisek, CEO of CTA.

Though the information-heavy celebration has expanded dramatically since its start, the original goal -- to coalesce disparate entrepreneurial activities and stakeholders, showcase successful entrepreneurs, provide a platform to share experiences and provide resources for hopeful entrepreneurs -- has remained consistent.

To confirm the accomplishment of that mission, in the time since Denver Startup Week was conceived, the city has received national recognition from Forbes, the Kauffman Foundation and others, and ranked in the top five for highest startup activity and best places to launch a startup.

Last year alone, roughly 150 new startups were founded in Denver, 42 local startups raised more than $400 million in venture capital last year, including sizable funding rounds for companies including Layer3 TV, Craftsy, WellTok, Ping Identity and Altitude Digital.

"Denver is a vibrant, growing city where we are excited to expand our footprint, hire kindred spirits, and better serve our customers across the country," said Joshua Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Gusto, formerly ZenPayroll, which moved its headquarters from California to Colorado earlier this year.

For the community and by the community, this May, event organizers opened panel submissions for public contributions -- receiving 535 ideas and whittling the list down from there.

At the kickoff last Monday, Gov. John Hickenlooper told the crowd of 800 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed breakfast-goers: "My goal is to make sure that Colorado is the no. 1 place in America that attracts entrepreneurs."

From there, since it would have been outright impossible to check out all 200-plus events, we compiled a crib sheet of some of the insights and ideas that really stuck in the hopes of informing and inspiring the next Denver startup stories:

"Startups shouldn't rely on other startups."Gov. John Hickenlooper addressed the crowd at the kickoff breakfast.

Despite the week's worth of programming that might seem contrary to such a statement, at the "Back to the Future: Where is Media Headed?" panel, Layer3 TV's CEO Jeff Binder went on to suggest, "Startups are responsible for innovation and should outsource for stability."

Monday morning at Basecamp, launched by Chase, brought a discussion intended to transcend Denver's rich heritage in the cable industry, drawing Binder, Mike Marcotte, CEO of Acumen Digital, Ashish Patel, senior director of service engineering at Comcast VIPER and John Swieringa, senior vice president and CIO of Dish Network. Binder went on to predict virtual reality and wearables will continue to gain traction in the media business and for the small nimble companies in the industry to continue pushing boundaries.

"There are other ways to get into technology than going to Harvard for four years."

A number of panels throughout the week concentrated on tech education, a vehicle to ultimately deliver the coders and developers of the new economy. At the "Veterans & Tech: Delivering More for Those Who Serve" group discussion, Sean Maday of Patriot Boot Camp attempted to debunk any myths or preconceived notions that a four-year degree is required to pick up the skills required to get into tech.

A dream job isn't a guarantee.

Later in the week, the "Disrupting Education: The Inside Scoop on Software Bootcamps" panel brought together program founders, instructors and students to further expound upon the shifting education landscape. According to Jeff Casimir, founder of the Turing School of Software & Design, "Getting jobs in Denver is our single biggest ongoing challenge." His concern is that his graduates, who emerge from the seven-month program with understanding of the Ruby on Rails Web application framework are hired at small to mid-sized companies and startups, though, "95 percent of the market is not interested in what we're doing, yet," he said, pointing to Boeing and Raytheon-sized organizations that remain unfamiliar with coding boot camps as a funnel for their new talent hires.

Denver has been ranked in the top five for highest startup activity.Entrepreneurship is sneaking into unsuspecting places.

"Government has this fantasy that not being entrepreneurial is a luxury they can afford," said University of Colorado Boulder Law School Dean Phil Weiser on Tuesday morning.  Seeking to remove some of the bureaucratic stereotypes of government processes, agencies and so forth, Weiser -- alongside Colorado State Representative Dan Pabon and senior adviser at the State Department Zvika Krieger, who flew in from the nation's capital for Denver Startup Week -- discussed the necessity for an innovative approach to policy for progress to occur locally and beyond. Willingness to take calculated risks and alter government's culture around failure were ideas that the panelists tackled.

"If elected officials take risks, they draw ire from taxpayers and it can have consequences for their political careers," Pabon said. "For many entrepreneurs, if there isn't risk or excitement, there's no meaning behind the work, which is the exact opposite of what most folks in government think."

Focus on one thing.

Joining the local startup crowd, Siri co-founder and CEO Dag Kittlaus spoke Wednesday evening and quoted Apple's famed leader, Steve Jobs to suggest that rather than be an inch deep and a mile wide, wannabe entrepreneurs should find one expertise and pursue that voraciously. He also shared with DDP CEO Tami Door that Denver needs something really big to emerge from its startup scene to make it stand out as a national or international force to be reckoned with.

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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