Marc Nager & Dave Mayer on building rural startup communitiesSeptember 05
This is a fabulous interview with two founders who live and work out of rural communities in Colorado. Nager and Mayer discuss how in the recent years small towns have grown in talent, and starting to breed entrepreneurial communities of their own. This is in part due to people moving back to their hometown,s after making a good living somewhere else, and in part due to different needs for the next generation of entrepreneurs. People who value living, adventure, outdoors and peaceful living, among other things, are all moving to start a new life outside of big cities. This is causing a boom in rural startup communities.
I'm Brad Feld,
co host of The Give First Podcast,
along with David Cohen.
In this podcast,
we talk about mentors and entrepreneurs in the start up world and discuss the concept of give First,
which means being willing to help other people without an expectation of return.
It's not altruism.
You do expect to get something back,
but you just don't know when from whom and what consideration over what time period.
Stay tuned for some great stories from some outstanding entrepreneurs about how making give first makes great entrepreneurship possible.
before we really get started,
the legal stuff spoken really quickly.
expression of personal opinion is not represent the opinion of textures or any company would discuss.
Our conversation is for informational purposes only,
including any mention of security funds. This is not legal business investment tax of ice and is not intended for use by an investor. Certainly, techstars funds own or may own in the future securities in some of the company's disgusting podcast. This is not in tiny little print at the bottom of the advertisement on your TV set. Get the podcast everyone. Today it's Brad Feld hosting get first podcast Mike owes. David Cohen is somewhere in Europe. As you may have heard for a previous broadcast today, I'm interviewing Mark Knocker and they may air to Colorado friends who have been involved in a bunch of things. Techstars related a bunch of things. Colorado related in a bunch of things. Entrepreneur related as well as other stuff. And they're both both super people. So Mark Dave, welcome. Thanks.
Grateful to be here. Thank you.
We're gonna practice the interviewer interviewing two people where the two people that are interviewed talk over each other so well, get good, but under the hood, let's start with three features of each of you. Mark, why don't you go first? Just 30 seconds. Give us your background and then Dave fall. Great. Thanks, Brad. Happy to be here. So my background I spent about 10 years helping get started, weakened up and off the ground from Seattle, and that grew into a global and partnership with start of America. And then we ended up partnering with tech stars to hand that off where I got to spend about a year as the chief community officer. Now I find myself in the mountains in Colorado really focused on how to bring entrepreneurship to rural America. Dave,
Passionate community builder Marc and I have been working together, off and on for many years, both in the front range and beyond. Mark is, as you likely know, and Telluride these days and all around Colorado, for that matter. But I after 16 17 years of building an ethical revolution in the recruiting community, specifically among startups with the gift first ethos at its core. My wife and I now live in Carbondale, so outside Aspen. But we do a tremendous amount community building, still in the front range as well as throughout Colorado
itself. So, do you remember the first time you met each other or physically in the same place? Was there like, a moment in time where you you connected? Oh, had to be one of the start of weekend events? If I recall. Right, Dave, you were given first before it was cool. I think you were sponsoring the start of weekends in Boulder and Denver, and as soon as started, we came out. So I had numerous interaction. I can't recall that very 1st 1
but I seem to recall. It was one of the first ones where you were involved in just approached you and just said I wanted to understand how we could be of assistance. I don't even think that we were sponsoring. I think I was just ah, started weekend organizer one of one of the first and training with you in Kansas City. And I know how to be a better organizer and yeah, I just sort of really threw ourselves into what it meant to give first and support the started because system in Boulder is a true partner.
So we have, ah, worldwide audience here at the gift first podcast. We're still trying to figure out names of countries because, uh, you know, we refer to things like your we have to talk about whether it's a country or city. My guess is people outside the front range might have heard of telling you, right or outside of Colorado, I mean, might have heard of Telluride. But I doubt many of heard of Carbondale. Dave, tell us a little about Carbondale and Mark.
Tell us a little bit tired.
Is this this really amazing little 6000 person town nestled in the what we call the Roaring Fork Valley.
It's a 40 mile,
50,000 ish person valley full of really smart people who really love the outdoors.
at the top of the Valley from a physical standpoint,
is Aspen and all things that that means both in summer end and in the fall.
in the winter obviously amazing skiing.
we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by a ton of incredible entrepreneurs.
There's more than 50% of the population here,
or either solo entrepreneurs or who are entrepreneurs who run small businesses.
yeah, you know, one of the first things I did after leaving the Boulder and Denver started ecosystems was toe started going and try to find my people here in the Valley and, well, there was a handful of different organizations. We were all sort of orbiting each other, and there was no sort of center of gravity around entrepreneurship on dhe started feature systems. And so I started something called Aspen Entrepreneurs back in 2014 that has now emerged with an organization called Co Venture. Then we can talk about that more later, but, you know, ultimately it was. The idea was to give resource is and knowledge and sort of, you know, sitting down with folks in the front range that happens all the time. The fireside chats that happened all the time in the front range that didn't exist here.
And I knew that there was a wealth of talent on a wealth of knowledge and just needed a little bit of prodding to get involved in the community. And so we've been We started out by just sitting down at the brewery and inviting entrepreneurs to come and talk about the problems they were having and see how we could be of assistance and bringing that give first ethos in two Aspen in the Valley. And then we we moved into these fireside chats with the old guard meets new guard in the first time. First event we did was with George Stranahan, who was an incredible is an incredible human being. You know, old friend of Hunter s Thompson's and all sorts of shenanigans that he has great stories about, but, you know, moved here as a physicist, you know, because he loved fishing and but ultimately also started the Aspen Center for physics as well, a cz flying dot brewing company and then later straining hands whiskey. But we brought him together with Duncan Klaus, who runs Aspen Brewing Company, and having those two in a room. All of a sudden, you know, we had 100 100 people and entrepreneurs and interested parties who were who were really wanted to get involved. And that's when things really started to go for Aspen mantra peers.
We've got a 6000 person town in Carbondale connected from sort of Aspen to Glenwood Springs for anybody that's come to the mountains and visited that part of the world,
Market shift to tell you Ride like described,
What's its size and what's it connected to?
so a little smaller,
another order of magnitude.
Almost about 2500 people in town here,
maybe 5000 Integrator Valley,
and I actually landed here a couple of reasons.
My family goes back to the 15 hundreds in a tiny little mountain village,
so it's like in my d.
It was born and raised in the mountains in California, actually in Mammoth Lakes, and after spending a bunch of time, kind of. In the start up, The tech World in Seattle found my way back to Telluride because on my honeymoon my wife, Ashley, and I came to take one of the startup weekend Organizer's out to a drink. The startup weekend that was hosted here in entire ad was from Dennis Linkous, and Dennis was the first person in the tiniest town, especially amount in town that had ever hosted a startup weekend. So that was near and dear to my heart. And of course, that was a good excuse on my honeymoon. And, uh,
we just fell in love with the community here. And, you know, there are a couple of great folks leading the charge. Jesse Johnson, who helped start the Tiger adventure accelerator Paul Major with the community foundation here, really focused on how do we look at Telluride is a microcosm for what's happening in the rest of the country and through the lens of economic development. How can Contra Preneurs ship play it a massive part of that vision to create a more sustainable economy over the long term? So both of you are entrepreneurs and start a community organizers in little tiny places, and I know both of those places. Well, I'm I'm sitting here in Aspen as I'm recording, I ended this this podcast and it's amazing when you look at Carbondale, Telluride and all of the entrepreneurial activity in these regions, just the amount of it. And it's almost the It's almost a defining statement that undermines the concept that you have to be in a major city to be an entrepreneur.
You know, if you wanna extend that even further, you have to be in Silicon Valley, an entrepreneur. I think this point. Most people realize that's nonsensical, that entrepreneurship happens all over the world and that there's lots of different places in the world where you can build will start up communities, but each of urine. He's very, very small cities and communities, and yet there's incredible vibrancy around entrepreneurship. Why, how What's the magic mark? Yeah, I'd say, you know,
10 years ago it would have been hard to imagine the level of density around entrepreneurs, as Dave kind of hinted at in their Valley. But you'd be surprised the number of people that are freelancers or entrepreneurs or have been in the entrepreneurial world and now looking for kind of a change of pace. You find you find some incredibly accomplished people in these small towns, and likely they're the people who grew up here who went off, had careers and came back. And they're looking to participate in different ways, as entrepreneurs again is investors. And you end up with just a vast resource of this intellectual and financial and network capital in these small towns. And I truly believe it's, you know, it's not just the mountain towns, it's the Montrose is the Grand Junction's the Durango's. You know, I know. For those of you not familiar with Colorado looking up there about six hours from the front range,
they really are kind of in the middle of nowhere. But we have proof. We just, you know, we just recently had a tech company called Get Prime Exit for $170 million out of Durango. We had ah, Mercury payment systems. I think it's one of the eyes at four unicorns that have come from Colorado. History also came from Durango, so you kind of have this level of activity that's that's already happening in these communities and I think it's just amazing opportunity to come in and put a little more organization. Community building. A lot of what we've learned in the big city is over the last decade in start up communities. 1.0, if you will.
But I think for me it's sort of borrowing a phrase from the Grand Junction,
Chamber of Commerce,
which is the,
the Colorado You are always promised,
and that that applies sort of fill in the blank,
It could be the Kansas you're always promised.
it's about quality of life,
right and broadband and the fact that people can work from wherever they want now and all you need is a laptop in a great Internet connection and a great idea and obviously an ability to execute and ability to build a great team around you.
obviously, we have an embarrassment of riches and aspen and in Telluride in these kinds of places, but it doesn't matter. It really is. Fill in the blank railroad, Kansas and you know, rural UK roll whales. You know, I was just in Kelowna, in Canada, which is sort of wine country. But, you know, I think it's about 100,000 people, but they're building a strong but small but mighty tech ecosystem. And I was really,
really impressed with the the entrepreneurial ecosystem there, and same with much smaller communities and Fermi and in Revelstoke. And there's, you know, start up Canada, little outposts. And you know, I think it's a matter of creating your own reality, surrounding yourself with people who are super passionate about, you know, raising their their families or just, you know, living the lifestyle that they really want to go mountain biking during the day. Go skiing first thing, get that powder day and then work on your You're either your side hustle or your your business, you know, for for you know, however many hours you feel is necessary.
The new American Dream is no longer to get a fancy job and climb the corporate ladder, but it is about living and working on meaningful work wherever you want.
So d of you and I have gone back and forth on this like the New American dream. Isn't, you know, getting a fancy job and climbing the corporate ladder anymore, right? It's more about living and working where you want and how you know, with qualification of having meaningful work.
Absolutely. And you're you know, I was listening on my trip around Canada. Listeningto nerve all raf con you know when talking about the definition of success, right? I mean, it doesn't mean that you're making a $1,000,000,000 exiting and stressing yourself out every single day. You know, everybody has their own definition of success. And if that means, you know, working out of a coffee shop and hitting a powder day and working with your friends on working on something that you've been dreaming about forever than that's an easy win, that's an easy success.
Jeff Key on the idea of Rural for a bit,
Anybody who follows us politics,
society culture probably has heard the phrase urban world divide,
and the challenge is sort of in our country around.
The difference between these urban areas and everything else will get tagged with rural.
If you look the map of the US from a certain you know,
which team are you on?
The red team or the blue team?
The coasts are blue,
the everything else is red except the Colorado,
which is blue.
So there's there's something going on different att,
least from that that lands when you think about how entrepreneurship and how started community impact things culturally in Colorado,
I reflect on John Hickenlooper,
who was our previous governor,
and some of the initiatives he had in one rock.
one specifically that Mark, you and I have been involved in it. You're now bleeding, which is the Greater Colorado Venture Fund, which was sponsored by the car on a venture capital authority. And Stephanie Copeland is very involved in. I was one of people on Hickenlooper's cabinet running off, so he got very involved in that whole activity, using that as a let's and thinking about the importance of economic activity and economic rejuvenation in non urban Colorado or non urban America. What do you guys learning? And how does that play into the whole notion of started community? And then how does that relate to the idea of gift First who? Good question, Brad, I feel like I have to answer or start the answer with Why is it so important? And,
you know, you alluded to American politics, you know, right, doesn't matter what side you're on. You have to agree. There's that growing division. Is that cliche right now? Right? And it's true. You can feel it right. You go to the small towns in America and you realize that there is a different level of access to the skill set, the jobs, the same things that you might find more on the coasts. And it's really about how do we solve that? Urban rural defied and I look at you know what a lot of the politicians are talking about and given all of my experience was startup weekend and,
you know, especially leveraging kind of give first mentality. And, you know, the ecosystems that we've seen evolved over the years without is an underlying value of it's It feels like entrepreneurship truly is the right solution. I'm a little biased. I think that's that's entrepreneurship is my hammer for every nail. But I think we've seen the power of it through what Techstars is leading, you know, both with the accelerator's around the world with the community programs started weekend, right? I fundamentally believe entrepreneurship is the most powerful force advancing human welfare, and that kind of sets the stage for, you know, the work that we're both of us are doing and why we're choosing to do it in places that everybody might think is a little bit crazy.
you know the tag on to that?
I think it's,
we started with this idea of fostering economic resiliency and economic diversity in a town that is largely based on tourism around ski community around folks who come to spend their summers in in Aspen.
But there is a tremendous service industry that makes sure that Aspen is successful.
That commutes up and down this 40 Mile Valley and even more.
And that's not really a long term plan,
Aspen Ski Resort.
Or I guess all Terra Company,
who's sort of the parent company of Aspen Ski Resort is outfront with regards to talking about climate change.
in 20 years from now there may not be a ski resort here or there's ski season is going to be a lot shorter.
And so that means we need to diversify the types of skills that are embraced in this valley and and there is an amazing quality of life in this valley.
But it's harder and harder to make a living here,
and so you know, Justin, Louis and I have been working to build ah tek ecosystem here. The growing for technologists grew from 50. Tow more than 250 people now and, you know, built fully on this give first ethos. You know how and why. It's important, you know, sitting down with Justin couple of years ago. I'm just explaining how it foster inclusion, how fostered collaboration, what I saw on the front range of how it brought people together, including competitors. You know,
the really the light went on for him, and it has been incredibly successful. You know, I think there's some fear on Mark. You can echo this as well. You know the word entrepreneur of the words start up. You know that we're somehow going to attract a Facebook to a 50,000 person valley, and that's gonna change everything. No, that's not really the goal, right? You know, I think it's, you know, five or 10 10 to $20 million companies can create real jobs that people can have great healthcare, raise their kids here and live the life that they dreamed of and not be forced out by. You know, these rising prices of you know what it means to live around Aspen or
that's probably you point out,
one of the big differences to Brad's question of what's what are we learning?
And you just have to right size.
It's not about creating the next Facebook in these communities.
It is about,
the 5 $10 million companies,
Because those air the full time,
year round benefit paying jobs that you know are double the general average median income,
It's those of the things that attract the right type of individuals to these communities.
And those communities set up families and,
you know, own houses. They get involved in local politics in the school system they become, You know, the entrepreneurs and the jobs they create become kind of heart and soul of these communities. And you know it. As long as we kind of right size the expectation for what type of companies in the you know, the definition of entrepreneurship on what that means In these places, it's you can see it being successful already, and the opportunity is really there for us. Tow again. Just get get more organized and take the lessons we've learned and apply them on being a little more intentional about that mark When I When I show up at events on the West load I was just which I learned Now the new the new tagline is West Lopez lock Exactly. I'm old, so I called the Western slope still, but I was just at Ah, West Slope,
started week and started with Questlove, and it was in Grand Junction. And whenever I show up on the western slope, I was feel like when I say hi, I'm from the front range. I'm here to help. It's kind of like saying when the IRS guy shows up at your house and says, Hi, I'm the iron from the IRS. I'm here to help nurture office right? Something something doesn't feel awesome. I feel that way whenever I refer to rural Colorado versus the phrase and I, sometimes he's non urban Colorado. So you know, for everybody out there that is trying to think about, the importance of language in this context isn't important.
Doesn't matter. Does the word entrepreneurship trigger people in a way that's different than small business? Maybe specifically from a Colorado frame of reference, but properly generalizes pretty well? Yeah, and we've had conversations about about even using the word rural. And some of the feedback we got from folks in Grand Junction early on was that actually rural is for the most part of pejorative term, and it's generally used by politicians. And it's talking, you know, down to those people. And that's the connotation that it's had. So we've been careful about, you know, creating identity that's not associated with terms like that, despite kind of the practical nature of the term rule itself. That's that's definitely another learning we've had.
I think you know,
I had that fear as well.
I moved to Carbondale and started putting on events and bringing people together and Aspen that I was the guy from Boulder.
And I was I was here to help,
and I even got a warning from my wife that,
be careful with that,
you don't want to be perceived as any sort of desire to turn Aspen into Boulder,
because that certainly never was the intention.
But it didn't want people to perceive that For me,
it was always, you know, I'm here for the community to help Think about the next 20 years. What do you want it to look like? And here is une ethos that get first youth is that has been powerful in communities all over the globe, and I believe that it's a rising tide lifts all boats, you know, walk into something, walk into a room and just say, How can I be of assistance to you instead of, you know, what kind of car do you drive in? What kind of do for me? And here's my business card, you know, really flipping it on its head and helping people understand why to get first.
Ethan is just so powerful, rural or urban or otherwise. You know, it was just sort of the great equalizer for me. It was just Look, we're all in this to help this community Look at the next 20 years. What do you want it to be? Obviously, everybody in Aspen or lots of folks in Aspen may have a different definition from folks in Carbondale from folks and Glenwood about what they want for the next 20 years. But there are plenty of areas for agreement. And if we're all just in this inclusive, collaborative get first ethos together, you know, and asking each other how we can help solve one another's challenges and being genuine and authentic about it. Then, really, there's no argument to
I wanna meet.
He mentioned to that There's incredible value in the vocabulary and the values that are tied and connotation to certain words.
you mentioned the difference between entrepreneurship and small business,
and we have this conversation time and time again.
But keep coming back to know we need to stick with the vocabulary that's new.
It's a little different.
Because it's an opportunity to bring with that an entire new value set.
for at least all of the work that we're doing and the folks that were associated with,
like give First is one of those values associated with the term entrepreneur and start up with the work that we get to Dio.
And that's an opportunity for us,
same with diversity and inclusion.
I think entrepreneurship, if you think of it as a movement, is one of the first movements that's been able to take of value like that and truly instill it from day one. And Techstars has just done an incredible job with that. I remember back to the early days of start of weekend where we were going and doing events in international countries where entrepreneurship and start up. We're very foreign words. And we constantly asked ourselves, Do we need to re brand? Do we need to tweak the vocabulary for each language or, you know, each each new, setting each community we go to And we kind of stood strong on entrepreneur and start up. And now you wouldn't even question that in the vast majority of the countries that started weekends they're happening in. And with that came this incredible value set that is unified globally, which makes makes this so much more than anyone, community or anyone founder part of something much bigger. Well said,
thank you for that Mark.
And you know certainly will echo that.
Textures has been at the front and been inspiration for us.
And when it comes to and you specifically Brad have been an inspiration for me when it comes to speaking out and giving first when it comes to mental house and speaking about your depression,
and really just helping people understand that they need toe.
You can and should be open about their struggles,
especially among the founder community,
on being vulnerable and authentic and is critical to being a great leader.
And Bart Loring does a great job of that as well and so super grateful for your leadership there.
And and that's that's why you know,
you inspired me to put together a panel on mental health and the start of ecosystem in 2014.
Maybe we can link to that here.
that was one of the most rewarding things that I I've gotten,
you know, again sort of no expectation of anything in return. But you know that video. That panel was filmed in 2014 at Boulder Startup weekend. Only three or four months ago, I had ah founder going through a really nasty break up and come to me and say that that video was really, really powerful for me. Then it really helped me understand that I'm not alone and so grateful for the opportunity. Oh, impact folks, you know, even years later, I mean, same thing, absolutely. On diversity and inclusion.
Grateful for other work. Techstars is pioneering there, and Um and we just did a panel again. It started 2019 on the topic and super powerful stuff. Marco wanted Thio say one of the things that inspired me most from years ago. Recollecting what? What you just said in bringing folks together and other cultures was, you know, in the power of this gift first ethos in the power of the start up and, um, entrepreneurial ecosystem is when you brought Palestinians and Israelis together for the first time, I wonder if you'd be willing to talk about that briefly.
Entrepreneurship as a transcendent force for the world. Marc tells a story how a Startup Weekend company from Palestine was able to participate in SW in Israel. Teams of entrepreneurs worked side by side for the weekend, and you would not see a difference between anyone, other than they were all entrepreneurs — a unifying, powerful, and singular identity.
One of one of the really events hosted by some incredible community leaders that were collaborating,
And they saw entrepreneurship as kind of a transcendent force.
And they were able to actually organized with the government's A bus with armed guards going from Palestine to into Israel,
to the president for peace,
where entrepreneurs got to work side by side for the weekend.
And if you looked at the pictures,
You couldn't tell the difference of anything other than their own entrepreneurs.
And that was a unifying,
such a powerful one.
And we've seen that play out in countries and cultures all over the world.
As we're starting toe wrap up at the end of the podcast,
I want to go into a quickfire round which we've happily lifted from Harry. Stepping is great. 20 minute, DC. I'm gonna try something a little different today, which is I'm gonna ask you guys each of question and what I'd like is an answer. That's a proper now. Could be a couple of proper noun strung together and then a one sentence. Why not a 32nd wife? But one sentence What? And you just whatever comes to mind ready? And when we do, why don't we do it after 1/4? So, Dave, first mark second. I want just for granted, but he's gonna be way last name to alphabetically Day first mark. So question one best city in cholera.
Woof. Gotta say Carbondale hometown. Just an amazing first Friday. If you ever get a chance to come down first Friday, it's just closed down the streets. Everybody comes together, everybody's smiling and and hugging. And, uh, it's an incredible monthly event. So come say
that was a run on sentence, but I'll let you get away with it. Thank Mark TIR ed hometown as well. It's ah, just this incredible, unique density of people from all over the world, all walks of life and constantly have these amazing global best globally relevant festivals from the arts to music to film. Just a wonderful place to be a part of another run. Assess. All right? No, no. Why No Internet? No, no. Why with this one, Justin Answer. Go best hiking trail in Colorado.
There's a There's a secret waterfall outside of marble that, uh ah, I will leave intentionally vague. But if people google around, it is well worth looking around. And there's a great Discover course up there as well on the old marble quarry site,
the Colorado Trail, the whole thing, the whole thing. That's a long one. Some Someday, maybe I'll be Oh, all right. Next one best restaurant in Colorado that no one knows about.
I'll go, Ah, temper, neo and assault. Ah, I think there's a lot of people to know about it, but not as many is that should temper. Neo is incredible and definitely highly recommended.
Eatery 66 in Ridgeway, Colorado. Lovett, a local organic called the things but amazing. They are a hub for the community. Second, the last question. If you could be an insect, what insect would you be
a man, Mark? God, I'm gonna go Dragon Fly. Dragon Flyer owned. Uh, tacos. They do have a longer
life span. Survives nuclear war. Right, Marco? A Jaffa last one favorite book that you read from the past year.
I'll turn it on its head and, uh, not not something you said in an event we get together. Brad, The five love languages is on my next to read lists. And I was politely given the book on the plane Home From Canada Last night by my wife. So looking, looking
forward to it.
I will give it.
This has kind of the recency bias Jimmy Kaunas reboot,
but leadership in the art of growing up I had the chance to work with Jerry.
his podcast is amazing.
And it's just good tried and true advice to arm yourself with and help you be more introspective about your journey as a leader.
Totally group either.
Jerry's book Reboot may be the best book of 2019.
It's certainly the best book of first half of 2019.
Which impairs to indeed,
Thanks for all the time.
Awesome to have you guys on get first and, uh, missing. Thanks for listening to the show today. We'd love to hear your feedback ideas or any person that you love to hear from you first. Please also leave us a reading in review and reach out to us at podcasts at techstars dot com, where you can reach me on Twitter at be felled. See you next time. And don't forget to always get first.