Start-Up Town: Ben Casnocha Describes How a Quiet Little Hippie City, Boulder, Colorado, Has Emerged as a Serious Technology Hub

By Casnocha, Ben | The American (Washington, DC), September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Start-Up Town: Ben Casnocha Describes How a Quiet Little Hippie City, Boulder, Colorado, Has Emerged as a Serious Technology Hub


Casnocha, Ben, The American (Washington, DC)


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The discussion in the United States about national competitiveness has rarely been more lively. Two recent books, Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World and Kishore Mahbubani's The New Asian Hemisphere, stress the rise of other nations, particularly China and India, and suggest there will be a decline in American influence. These authors and dozens of other commentators prescribe steps the U.S. government can take to help ensure, among other things, America's status as the preeminent place for scientists and entrepreneurs to work.

Their suggestions are mostly sensible, such as reforming our immigration policy to accept a larger number of highly skilled immigrants. But they often emphasize a national solution--proposed reform in Washington, D.C.--and give short shrift to particular cities that are trying to be more attractive places for big brains.

Professor Richard Florida argues in his book Who's Your City? that it is in fact "mega-regions" (not nations) that will drive the economy in the 21st century and that the competitiveness discussion should take place on this front. Financiers choose between New York and London (or Hong Kong or wherever), not between the United States and the United Kingdom. Technologists choose from among San Francisco and Boston and Shanghai: specific cities. In other words, this desirable class of economic growth generating talent--entrepreneurs, scientists, bankers, engineers--choose exactly where they want to live with great precision and care.

We have had to relearn that location matters. When the Internet first emerged, globalization manifestos foretold a world where place was irrelevant. 'Anyone, anytime, anywhere" was the catch phrase. Yet certain industries continue to be overwhelmingly concentrated in certain physical places. For starters, creative output tends to come from teamwork, and teamwork still happens best in person. Florida calls this "the world is spiky" phenomenon, with the spikes representing economic activity bursting up from specific regions.

"Despite all the hype over globalization and the 'flat world,' place is actually more important to the global economy than ever before," writes Florida.

This is particularly true in the world of entrepreneurship and innovation. Think Silicon Valley. Think eBay, Yahoo, Google, HP, Intel, Apple, Facebook, Oracle, Cisco, Sun, and dozens of other companies populating that small geographic pocket in Northern California. Other regions envy Silicon Valley mainly because of how it has contributed to the economic vitality of the Bay Area and California in general. It is the poster child for how high levels of entrepreneurial activity can accelerate economic growth. Consequently, American metropolitan areas such as Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, and Los Angeles are eager to attract or breed start-up entrepreneurs and capital. They want to be start-up hubs.

They pursue this goal by asking themselves the question, "How can we be like Silicon Valley?" It is the obvious question to ask, but it turns out it might be the wrong one--if Boulder, Colorado is any example of how to do it right.

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 competiveness at a local level--learn from Boulder's success?

On November 10, 1995, somewhat on a whim, Brad Feld decided to leave Boston and move to Boulder. He had just sold his technology company and, flush with cash, was beginning a new career as a professional investor in start-up companies. He picked Boulder for personal reasons: "When I arrived in Boulder, I had no expectation of doing any business here. …

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