The story of Boulder’s ascent to becoming the startup capital of America

Although it may look like any other idyllic mountain city, Boulder is an entrepreneurial powerhouse that has experienced tremendous growth in this sector over the last decade. It can be noted that this small city had at least 6 times more the number of high tech startups per capita than the country’s average.

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Boulder has a vibrant culture that helps its economy prosper. The county is ranked among the 20 top productive metro areas in the nation (in terms of GDP). Unemployment is below 5.4% and the county is home to the startup incubator called Techstars as well as a healthy VC community.

Boulder has been experiencing development in the startup field since 1960. The region happens to be the original home of herbal tea pioneer Celestial Seasonings, Ball Aerospace, StorageTek and the biochemistry lab leading to Amgen.

The story of how the county became the startup capital of America is pretty impressive. It involves a local community that put together individual efforts, counterintuitive choices and shared sacrifices to grow. Although providing means for fostering a local economy, Boulder could very well teach other cities in the US a thing or two on how to become a hotspot for start ups.

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At first, Boulder was dry and barren. Its residents however, committed themselves to bettering the city via beautification and education. The city became home to Colorado’s first public university in 1877, with nearly 104 families donating money as well as land to build the campus. The Chautauqua, a bucolic TED conference for visiting Texas schoolteachers, was built in 1889. The city hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., a landscape artist in 1908 to gain ideas on how to plan the city to be a place where they can stay and live, and not just earn money in and move out.

In spite of these developments, Boulder continued to remain a sleeping community until 1949 when the government decided to expand the nation’s research labs outside Washington D.C. Boulder beat over 11 other cities to grab the opportunity and create the National Bureau of Standards’s new Radio Propagation Laboratory within the city premises. This was followed by the installation of the 27 building nuclear weapons manufacturing facility called Rocky Flats by the government in 1952.
During this period, Boulder started seeing the rise of many natural food companies like Celestial Seasonings, Horizon Organic Diary, White Wave and Alfalfa, etc. The city was the perfect area for these companies to test their products as the friendly locals were more than happy to try out these products and give their feedback on the same. This enabled these companies to refine their products before launching in bigger markets.

In 1959, instead of hiring developers to build offices and houses, the city drew a line around itself and the surrounding mountains, claiming that it would not offer water or sewer services beyond this point. This decision was based on the city’s determination to preserve the natural beauty of the region.

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The residents also created a 0.4% sales tax for those purchasing green space in the region from 1967. The city also reduced the number of housing projects in the region to just 2% every year. These initiatives paid off well as the city now enjoys more than 97000 acres of open, green space.

Forget the sky-high housing costs, the mountain lions and even the limited office spaces. The quality of life in Boulder is great for those who wish to do business and settle here with their families. Of course, the city would not be suitable for companies wishing to expand into other regions or those that equip heavy equipment. Those who chose to remain did so after selling off their companies and joining the list of VCs and angel investors in the city. Over the past few years, VC firms from Boulder have invested over $587 million in Colorado.

Question these entrepreneurs and VCs about leaving the city for better prospects and the answer would be the same. They love the city and its natural beauty. And when the city becomes a great place to live in, everyone would obviously figure out a way to make a living there.

Summary

Boulder seems like an idyllic mountain city that is however, far from idyllic. It has slowly grown over the years to become one of the biggest startup capitals in America. This was possible owing to the community’s joint venture to develop the place and preserve its natural beauty at the same time. Entrepreneurs and VCs from Boulder rarely leave the place, citing it to be the perfect place to raise their families in while concentrating on their livelihood.