Tap into Boulder's creative side

Mix the start-up energy of Silicon Valley with the craftiness of Portland, and you’ve got the most-inspired town in the West

Jess Chamberlain

It takes only eight minutes to see that something big is happening in Boulder, Colorado. That’s about how long it takes to pedal through downtown—from your energy-bar stock-up at Whole Foods Market toward the Flatirons—assuming you can make it without stopping. Which is unlikely these days. As you cruise along Pearl Street east of the Mall on a cherry red ride from B-cycle, Boulder’s nonprofit bike-sharing system, every other storefront begs you to slam on the brakes: an artisanal cheese shop, coffee roaster, craft-driven bar, DIY workshop selling handmade everything, and on and on, until every new stop leads to the question: Is this the next Portlandia?

Perhaps, but one with an overachieving edge. “Most people don’t believe you can be the best in advertising, tech, or anything else unless you’re in a big city like New York or San Francisco,” says Alex Bogusky, who moved here from Miami to establish a Boulder branch of his advertising firm, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, in 2006. (He also helped found B-cycle, now in 15 cities nationwide.) “Boulder doesn’t have that attitude. Boulder expects that the hottest restaurant in the country will be here.”

This little big town of just under 100,000 people attracts a certain type, says Dave Schiff, chief creative officer of Made, an online retailer and marketing agency that represents companies making products domestically. “Both venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are pulled here for the lifestyle, which means VC money is in the same place as start-ups,” Schiff says. “So this place becomes a self-perpetuating machine.” One where business execs who’ve traded the big city for the mountains mingle with retired pro athletes looking to apply their hard-training spirit to new business ventures—and where business meetings happen on bikes.

The new Boulder is part locavore-spirited Portland, part mini start-up-driven Silicon Valley. The Boulder Startup Week convention began in 2010 with about 1,300 attendees, and this year grew to more than 3,000. “Many came from out of state because the buzz was so loud,” says Ef Rodriguez, director of the event that’s as casual as Boulder itself. “No registration, no badges. Just start-ups, geeks, and enthusiasm.” It all feeds into the town’s unofficial motto: Anything is possible.

Take David Gilman, 22, a newly certified welder who worked on projects using the tools and facilities at Factory­Made, a design workshop, creative lab, and showroom that opened last February. Creative types come here for classes in graphic arts and fashion design as well as entrepreneur meetups (like Startup Women twice a month).

“We needed some tables built, so we did a trade with him,” says Sam Randall, FactoryMade’s creative labs coordinator. “As soon as we had a few out in view, people asked, ‘How much are those?’ ” In a month, Gilman had sold four tables, and he has since launched a company, Wellington Fabrication & Design, making tables and signage for local businesses. “He’s now the metal guy,” Randall says.

Like Gilman, half the workshop users are pursuing business ideas, but the other half come here just to scratch the creative itch. There’s something for every type of dreamer here, whether you’re an entrepreneur or hobbyist, local or tourist. Boulder could be the place that feeds your desire to try something new, as long as you listen to that creative calling and pull over.

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