For six years in a row Colorado has been named as America’s 'leanest state', with the entrepreneurial jewel in its crown – Denver – boasting a collection of start-ups focused just as much on enjoying their quality of life as achieving a good bottom line...
Having spent quite a bit of time exploring the raft of start-up hubs to emerge across the US in the past few years, two things are immediately apparent when you meet the people embedded in them. They’re all very different and, at the same time, very much the same.
What sets them apart are their local expertise and skill sets; Detroit is home to some of the country’s most exciting makers, Los Angeles boasts the most innovative storytellers and content kings, Chicago has a thriving collection of start-ups that enable commerce, and so on. Yet these differences tend only to deal with the output of the businesses within these hubs, not their characteristics.
Ask someone what sets the start-up ecosystem in their city apart and you are guaranteed to get two answers. Firstly, it’s always a 'very collaborative place' with everyone just as concerned with the bigger picture as their own fortunes. And secondly, as long as you’re not sat in Silicon Valley, there’ll be an explanation as to why funding can be hard to come by and that local start-ups have to be fairly lean as a result. It’s not that these two traits are being misrepresented, it’s just that they’re a lot more common than entrepreneurs tend to realise.
So when you spend time in a place where the first answer on everyone’s lips is not one of the above, it makes you sit up and take notice. Which leads me to Denver, one of the world’s most exciting start-up hubs and one that boasts a unique selling point which no other city appears to want to lay claim to. In Colorado, quality of life seems to trump all else.
"Typically it’s not uncommon to have walking or hiking meetings here, I would have suggested it today but I know you want to take notes,” explained Hannah Davis of MergeLane, an accelerator focused on female-led businesses, when we sat down for a meeting.
"It’s not that people don’t work hard or for long hours, but there is this idea of a bigger picture lifestyle – it’s so important for the people who live here. Everyone seems to be so fit, there’s the start-up crowd and then there’s the outdoor crowd, but increasingly those two are merging. We have several mentors who have run Iron Mans. These people are just very driven, whether it’s to start a big company or run a marathon."
Whereas your time between meetings in many US cities will be spent on public transport or in a taxi, the lifestyle in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins or any of the other entrepreneurial strongholds in the state, dictates a different approach. Hikers and cyclists are a common site, with the quality of air and rugged landscape seemingly replacing start-up bluster with a calming overtone.
Yet despite Colorado’s ranking as the country’s the leanest state it still has its own issues to deal with, with one in four children currently classed as obese – a problem compounded by the removal of physical education from the school curriculum.
To tackle this trend the Colorado Innovation Network, in partnership with LiveWell Colorado, has launched Imagine Colorado, a state-wide ideas challenge aimed at mobilising local entrepreneurs to encourage the Colorado’s youth to follow healthier lifestyles.
"The intersection of quality of life and social impact is very important to folks here," explained Kelly Underell of the Colorado Innovation Network. "Although there’s a misconception that we spend a lot more time playing than working, it’s not true, we just find the time to spend a good amount of time doing both.
"There are a lot of entrepreneurs out there trying to combat the growing health and obesity issues, so we felt that what we could do was to mobilise the whole community to focus on the issues that the state is facing."
When looking for further evidence of this ‘healthy entrepreneurship’ trend in Colorado, it’s tempting to point to factors such as the state’s massive health food industry.
Or the fact that Kimbal Musk (Elon’s brother) decided it was the right place to set up his chain of restaurants designed to "connect people to real food and empower them to make healthier food choices". But this would be missing the point, as the trend is not bound to any one industry.
When first looking to attract the millennial start-up crowd to Denver the non-profit organisation in charge of developing downtown, the Downtown Denver Partnership, didn’t look to offer tax breaks or financial incentives, but started off by creating more bike lanes. There isn’t any aspect of the decision making process that doesn’t seem to take into consideration how people’s quality of life will be impacted.
And as Richard Branson points out, an entrepreneurship hub with a good quality of life is worth so much more than many of the other factors that people take into consideration.
"I just don’t understand why some people set up their companies in the most boring cities in the world. If you set up your business in Denver then you can go skiing, have a great time with your children and enjoy a really good quality of life,” noted the Virgin Group founder on a recent trip to the city.
"I might not be the Mayor of Denver but I would encourage entrepreneurs to find a great place to run their business and their life from, life’s too short not to."