What We Learned By Moving To Boulder

In a follow up to our Who We Are post, Ryan and I thought we would compare VC life in Boulder, CO to that of the Silicon Valley. In some ways it’s remarkably similar and in some ways wonderfully different.

For those of you who don’t know, Ryan and I met in 2000 while at the California offices of Mobius Venture Capital, became quick friends and even started a band or two. (Shameless Plug Alert: Our band Soul Patch has recently released a new album. Check out the web site and buy on CDBaby, iTunes and Amazon. Become a fan on Facebook!). When the concept of the Foundry Group was born, one thing that the five of us agreed on was the need for one (and only one) office.

It didn’t take us long to decide that both the Boulder and Foundry Group opportunities were what we wanted to pursue with our careers, so, after a combined 27 years in Northern California, we sold our homes in the Bay Area and moved to Boulder in mid 2006. We’ve now been here almost 2 years. What have we learned?

Boulder is an entrepreneurially vibrant community. We were both surprised and encouraged by the sheer amount of startup activity there is in Boulder. It’s not just a by-product of having several good universities nearby; rather it’s really part of the culture and fabric of the community. I’d compare this to Ann Arbor, MI, where I went to school. Many people compare Ann Arbor to Boulder (without the mountains). While I see plenty of similarities, Ann Arbor is missing the ingrained culture of entrepreneurship (and associated risk profile) although it may have similar engineering and management talent.

Boulder is a supportive community. There really is a sense of community here. While there is a ton of activity, I don’t know if we’ve ever been to place that is as supportive in each other’s efforts. Instead of competition, there is collaboration. Whether it’s the Boulder NewTech Meetup, the Boulder OpenCoffee Club, Boulder Software Club, or TechStars, there is a general sense of community and responsibility to help the entrepreneurial community grow. I can’t say that I ever felt that sense of responsibility and “giving back” in the Silicon Valley that I feel here.

Boulder makes nationwide travel much easier. As national investors, it’s much easier for us to travel anywhere in the US from a central location like Denver. We’ve even been able to take day trips to New York, an impossible feat from the Bay Area, at least without a private jet. While an East Coast day trip is not the most fun one can have, our families appreciate us being home at night. And getting back and forth to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where we travel most frequently, is a relatively painless and efficient experience.

Speaking of travel, both Ryan and I (coincidentally) live on the same block in a neighborhood a few blocks away from our office. Our “commute” to the office is infinitely easier than our prior commutes in the Bay Area. The time saved can be spent on work or play, but either way, it’s not spent in the car. (For those voyeurs among you, you can check out our neighborhood by going to Google Maps and clicking “Street View”.

Being in Boulder helps focus our West Coast activities. There is no doubt that the volume of startup activity in the Bay Area dwarfs that of Boulder, and we have often been asked if we are concerned that we are missing out on opportunities by not having an office in the Valley. On the contrary, we consider being outside of the (sometimes provincial) echo-chamber of Silicon Valley to be genuinely useful. After experiencing life as VCs in the Valley for several years, we experienced a very real “time tax”, which resulted from taking meetings with entrepreneurs and executives we knew we were unlikely to invest in, but we felt were ultimately necessary to participate in in order to maintain our relationships with friends and colleagues in the area. Not being in California every day means we can opt out of that process. With our new location in Boulder, we still have our great networks and deal flow in California, but we have removed the Sand Hill Road friction from our day-to-day lives. When we do go to California to look at deals, meet with entrepreneurs or attend board meetings, we are better focused at the matters at hand and tend to have higher quality meetings, since those meetings have passed the “is it worth hopping on an airplane to meet face to face?” test.

Boulder’s culture encourages a healthy work-life balance. Boulder has an incredible amount to offer with easy access to mountains, hiking trails and natural beauty. People actually have time and focus to concentrate on things outside of work. It’s definitely a slightly saner pace. It’s not that people don’t work hard – they do – but there is a certain amount of balance that isn’t completely explainable unless you live here. For us, it’s meant that the hours we do work are more efficient and our brains are sharper.

So is Boulder utopia? No, nothing is. Ryan and I will “forever” tease our partners who told us that winters were mild in Boulder. Upon our arrival, we had the “opportunity” to experience the worst winter “ever” in 2006-2007. We’re also being told this winter is “below average,” which means that we’ve clearly brought bad luck with us. Either that or we were sold a bill of goods. More on that next year, I suppose. Also, we both miss some of the culinary options of the Bay Area, but we’d be in the same situation if we lived anywhere else but New York or Los Angeles (with apologies to Chicago). Finally, we must mention that the Denver Airport has the worst parking facilities in the world. They are regularly full, making for some tense moments pre-departure.

But in general, Boulder is a great place to live, work, play and (in Ryan’s case) raise kids. We’ve embraced our new hometown, and we look forward to continuing our integration into the community, both from professional and personal standpoints.

  • http://ben.casnocha.com Ben Casnocha

    I love Boulder. And I think this is a good post, Jason. But I wanted to challenge your benefit “Boulder helps us focus our west coast activities” where you say that, contrary to the concern that you miss out on deals, you find it “genuinely useful” to be outside of the echo chamber.

    My sense is that anybody who's in tech who's not in the Bay Area spends a lot of time rationalizing this decision in weird ways. I think the most compelling reason why being outside the Bay Area can be helpful is not that you don't waste time on unnecessary meetings (in fact, I think part of what makes the Valley work is all the spontaneity and randomness that comes from a giant ecosystem) but that you can be a big fish a small pond. Like many markets, the Valley is winner-take-all, and a handful of firms get to see the best deals before anyone else. In secondary markets, like LA, Boston, New York, and Boulder, there is less competition and thus a greater chance you can be the 800 pound gorilla and scoop up all the best local deals. And who knows? The best Boulder deals may be as good as the best Valley deals.

    The reason no one talks about this is because it implies that they're not good enough to be the 800 pound gorilla in the biggest market. Maybe this is true, maybe it isn't. But they don't like this implication.

    Just like a California firm that tries to invest in Colorado is, in time, going to lose deal flow to Colorado firms, so will California firms that re-locate to Colorado, as their local networks in California grow stale. Location still matters.

    • Jason Mendelson

      Ben, this is not what we are seeing from our collective experience. We've seen nothing but a solid increase in the size and quality in our network since moving to Boulder. I think this is due in part to the fact that between Ryan and I we have close to 30 years of residency in the Valley. We have long-term relations with a lot of people and I frankly don't see see them any less often then when I lived there. I think one other factor is that our thematic investment approach attracts entrepreneurs from all over the country that want to work with us, regardless of where we are located. I think the last factor is that we've all been successful in this business and we spend a lot of time with outwardly facing activities that only enhance our contact base. I strongly believe that you don't have to be in the Bay Area to be successfully involved in the tech community there. There are advantages (see our prior post on Geography), but as national investors, we've not found Boulder to be a hindrance whatsoever to our national (including the Bay Area) networks and I certainly see no evidence of them growing stale.

  • John May

    Try parking on the east side. You end up at the same security lines anyways.

  • Gino

    Guys, this is a great post (via Brad's blog); I had to laugh several times. I left SF in 2000 and moved to Boulder, and I stayed there for two full years before returning to California. You did get hoaxed on the winter story. Winter in Colorado is LONG. It doesn't keep you inside, but after living in California, winter there is shite. The whole “300+ days of sun a year” is a laughable exaggeration; the Colorado Climate center actually says “there are 115 clear days, 130 partly cloudy ones and 120 cloudy days, on average, each year.” So yep. You got punk'd.

    As a user experience person, and not a VC person, I found Boulder's economy (and Denver's) to be much more volatile, and less conducive to healthy career choices than the bay area. Many of my engineer friends left for the same reason. In two years, I was involved in two companies that folded, one after 22 years of being in business.

    You're dead on with the food as well. Boulder cuisine is just fine, even with a few gems, but it's no big city for food options.

    All that said, it would beat the hell out of the bay area for raising kids, if you're a breeder. Bay area house money still seems to go a long way in Boulder, judging by the area you live. Good luck in Boulder.

    • http://www.techstars.org David Cohen

      keep telling them that winter is long and hard. helps keep them away!

    • Wendi

      Winter in Colorado is not long and hard–unless you live in the mountains. Boulder does get more snow than Denver, but it doesn't stick around for days upon days afterward. The snowstorms we've had over the last two years are pretty atypical and probably say more about global climate change than anything else. I'm a Colorado native and have lived here for almost 30 years. I think that trumps two, and I certainly don't want to encourage more population growth. Sure…we have cloudy days, but they aren't nearly as dreary as Southern California's so-called ideal climate.

  • http://www.toolpax.com/speed.htm Tim Stephens

    Great post – I came here two years ago as well, and my experience is the same as yours except for the winter part … I spent 34 years in Detroit and the winters sucked – THOSE were long winters. Prior to moving to Boulder, spent six years in Phoenix. We have as much if not more sunshine here in Boulder as we did in Phoenix, but without the heat, scorpions, etc. Having spent an accumulated several years in Europe and Asia, I think this is the best place to live overall and the best shot at getting software startup to critical mass.

    • Jason Mendelson

      Detroit? That's scary – I spent over 20 years there. I agree, Boulder is nothing compared to Detroit in the bad weather department, but I was spoiled by the 10 years in the Bay Area.

  • James D Kirk

    Informative post, and nice few opinions in the comments. Relocation has been on the noodle of late, with CO being one of the options. This helps. Thanks.

  • http://www.derekscruggs.com Derek Scruggs

    Gino – 2000 was a pretty rotten time to move to the Front Range because of the telecom and dotcom meltdowns, which had serious ripple effect. It was also a terrible time to move to SFO.

    Ben – the only time I find myself “rationalizing” living in Boulder instead of the Valley is when people from the Valley ask why I live here. I give them reasons that Ryan & Jason listed, then I get on my bike for a quick commute through campus to the office. Unless it's the weekend in winter, when I opt for epic powder. :)

  • http://www.bearonbusiness.com Dan Caruso

    Jason and Ryan, welcome to Boulder. We might have met at VC of the Rockies but if not I look forward to meeting you soon. Zayo, Envysion, NGT, and most recently Datavail are the local companies I am involved with. I moved to Boulder about 10 years ago; over the past 4 years, I became active in Boulder's start-up entrepreneurial community. Though I have silicon valley and east coast investors, I cannot compare Boulder to these other VC areas. Nonetheless, I find the work-life environment of Boulder to be very condusive to launching and growing companies. Best of luck.

  • Kirk Holland

    Great post guys. As an experienced Nomad– the son of a Navy pilot and officer, I have lived in 16 cities and 7 states in 40 years, I can say that Boulder and Colorado are the best place that I've experience living, from a business, social and family point of view. I moved here from the Bay area a the beginning of 2002 and they'd have to drag me kicking and screaming from here.

    And it's great to have both of you here in Colorado now.

  • Michael Stack

    I dunno, Jason. I challenge your “people in Boulder work hard” statement. Seems to me you, Ryan and I are the only people in the 'hood who don't spend our days at Vic's/Amante/Trident/Spruce. Not sure what we did wrong . . .

    And I agree with David—the winters here are awful. OK, everybody? 300 days of sunshine is a myth. Really, it is.

    • Brett

      “the winters here are awful”

      That depends entirely on your point of view. Try northeastern Ohio, you wouldn't last 3 months. (300 days of clouds instead of sun, where the grass is hidden by snow from Halloween to April.) I moved to Boulder from Austin, TX and don't really notice any fewer sunny days. Meanwhile, I'm daydreaming about another big ski season… in JUNE.

  • Lauren

    Jason/Ryan, it's nice to hear about people in a somewhat-similar transplant situation as me. I moved to Denver from LA last year and it's been an interesting adjustment. I do love Boulder and think it's a very fertile business area especially for health/natural products.

    I can't say I don't miss the balmy weather and prolific food options in California though. Where are the Trader Joes? In-N-Outs? Pinkberrys? I'm a huge fan of the recent frozen yogurt explosion in SoCal. My favorite by far is Cefiore and they're actually coming to Boulder, CO!!! You guys should check it out if you get a chance: http://www.cefiore.com/location.php. It reminds me of home =)

    Welcome to CO! Cheers!

  • Jill

    This was an informative posting that answered many of the questions I've been pondering. My husband and I are considering moving from New York City to Brooklyn to escape the rat-race and not only increase our quality of life, but actually have a life. Our concerns are about how we career-driven, type A personalities would survive in CO. The cold is in problem, though. I'm from Canada. We had many a stormy blizzard growing up!

  • http://www.ryanmcintyre.com Ryan

    Jill, come and join us out here in the mountains! Even though we've had rough winters the past couple of years (and I tell my CO partners who convinced to me move out here that they bait and switched me with their claims of mild winters), Boulder winters are nowhere near as bad as Canada winters. And even when it is cold, it is usually sunny.

  • Specialros

    I need help.u00a0 My husband and I are thinking in relocating to Boulder CO from Orange County, CA.u00a0 This will be a big step for us but we are ready to make a move and try to horizons.u00a0 Life here in OC is to slavery, to stressful and spoiled.u00a0 But we have a couple of concerns and need help.u00a0 We have sister-in-laws that just move to CO a month ago and she loves it but again, it has only been a month. So, where do we start, what’s a good city to live in? Is it easy to find a job, apartment? We have so many questions, is it easyer to just sell are your items here in CA and start fresh and buy 2nd hand furniture, etc?u00a0 nnI”m so confused but at the same time excited.

  • Sunnysideup333

    thanks for the article, although rather short, it is always nice to get others perspectives.  Me and my partner lived in so. Cal.  on the coast for our entire lives.  then we moved to Asheville, NC to get away from the stress and congestion in CA.  we love it here but it’s bloody humid(to me), allergies are ridiculously wicked, and people are kinda judgemental and not as easy going as californians are.  they don’t come out openly about it, but they just are. they don’t speak there minds.  Anyways, Boulder is at the top of my list, but now that i have a 3 yr old, i am very concerned about movign to a state with such loose gun laws.  minors can by them, no safety locks , no background checks.  it seems everywhere but CA has almost a lawlwssness when it comes to firearms.  i am wondering if you have a sense of what the “gun attitude” or reality is in boulder or just CO in general.  does it seem pretty safe and do the obvious gun owners seem pretty balanced and sane?  out here a lot of the gun owners are hillbilly white trash folk or people who think they have to protect themselves from all the evil people in the world.  those people scare me.  most of them, in my eyes, shouldn’t even be allowed to have drivers licenses, let alone firearms!  thnks for the help! 

    • Derp

      Don’t be so damn closed minded. Colorado (and most areas with high gun ownership) are much safer than California. Do you really think putting up a sign that says *no guns allowed* is any kind of a deterrent for criminals…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AYCZAWYJEY5R3CK6EF2LFUZRPE siena and david

    hi my husband 3 dogs and 2 cats would like to relocate to the Boulder area.  we currently live in long beach ca. my husband is a professional dog trainer and I am  a dog groomer.  we have to sell our house first but would love to know if our industry is promising in the boulder area.  any comments or suggestions wuld b helpful.  also my husband has agraphic design background.TIA siena

  • Jeanne Leasure

    I too moved to Boulder in 1997 after a friend told me that it was Ann Arbor with mountains. Also a Michigan grad, I detected similarities and differences. In Ann Arbor, a good idea is a secret, never shared and only for the benefit of the brilliant person who came up with it. In Boulder, great ideas abound and so does generosity among some very smart, successful people. After 2 years in Seattle, I’m anxious to get back to the People’s Republic. Before I left in 2010, I could think of many reasons why Boulder isn’t really “perfectville” as dubbed by Outside Magazine several years ago-too dry, too small, gross reservoir, no diversity. Nevertheless, I miss the sense of community in Boulder and all of the attractive, fit people who like the same activities, vote the same, recycle and love life.

  • Alhood Van Lines

    Great place to call home. I hope everybody in Boulder is surviving mother nature. I am volunteering my services to the people in need. It is the most i can do at times like this. Hope everybody is OK!