When Artifact Uprising co-founder Jenna Walker attended her first Denver Startup Week in 2013, she had no idea the event would change her life.
“We had been operating for close to a year, but when we attended Denver Startup Week, we started to realize how many resources were in Denver that we didn’t know existed,” says Walker, a Denver-based wedding photographer whose company lets photographers create professional-quality books, prints and cards right from their laptops. “We didn’t even know the whole startup landscape existed. We were just photographers on a mission to put a better product out on the market who then kind of accidentally ended up in the technology realm. At that point, it really felt as though we knew nothing about the technology scene in Denver.”
Denver Startup Week 2016 takes place Sept. 12–16; visit denverstartupweek.org for more information
That quickly changed for Walker at Denver Startup Week. The brainchild of University of Denver alumni Ben Deda and Erik Mitisek, Denver Startup Week has emerged as the nation’s largest free gathering of business and tech entrepreneurs. With a mix of seminars, workshops, panel discussions, happy hours and pub crawls, the annual event draws throngs of young bootstrappers and techies to locations throughout downtown Denver. In fall 2015, its fourth year in operation, the thriving Front Range phenomenon reeled in more than 12,000 participants.
“It was because of Denver Startup Week that we learned about the vast number of people and resources in Denver, and that we weren’t alone in the struggle to build a business,” Walker says. Thanks in part to the knowledge and contacts she gained at the event, Artifact Uprising has grown from a handful of employees to more than 30. It was acquired last year by California- and New York-based art and technology business Visual Supply Co.
Such is the power of Denver Startup Week, which over four years has grown into the city’s biggest signature business event and has served as a model for other cities looking to launch their own celebrations of startups and entrepreneurship.
Behind it all are Mitisek (BS ’99), co-chair of Startup Colorado and chairman of BuiltInColorado, as well CEO of the Colorado Technology Association, and Deda, executive vice president of marketing and business development at Galvanize, a Denver-based tech education business that combines classroom space with co-working areas and community-building events for startups.
Four years ago, in response to the startup boom that was just beginning to sound in Denver, the two joined forces with Tami Door, executive director of the Downtown Denver Partnership, to create an event that harnessed and celebrated the Mile High City’s entrepreneurial energy.
“In every community, there are a few people who have big ideas, who are also able to build relationships, articulate their vision and get things done,” Door says. “That epitomizes Ben and Erik. When your motives are pure — when you really are committed to the success of the people for whom you are creating this environment and helping to build this environment — people recognize that authenticity and they gravitate toward it. With Ben and Erik, that is what happens. They really believe in making a difference, they really care about the success of our entrepreneurs and our community, and they’re willing and able to get things done.”
In 2012, its first year, Denver Startup Week drew 3,500 attendees to 60 events over the course of five days. In fall 2015, 11,000 participants attended more than 200 events. Topics covered in 2015 included virtual reality, 3-D printing, the future of PR, mobile technology and equity compensation.
Admission is free to nearly all Startup Week events, which, as Mitisek puts it, “democratizes access to information to be an entrepreneur.” And with events held at tech- business hubs around the city — including Galvanize, the Commons on Champa and the TAXI development — Startup Week also gives attendees a mini-tour of Denver’s red-hot startup scene.
On a recent fall day at Galvanize’s new Platte Street location — just across the Highland Bridge from Denver’s trendy LoHi neighborhood, and within stumbling distance of bustling Union Station — Deda and Mitisek sat down to discuss the past, present and future of Denver Startup Week.
UNIVERSITY OF DENVER MAGAZINE: Tell me about the origins of Denver Startup Week. According to your website, it all started — as so many great things do — over a round of beers?
ERIK MITISEK: There was an existing program called Boulder Startup Week. There was lineage as to what was happening in our sister city. Seven or eight of us got together over beers and said, “Let’s do this our way. Let’s celebrate everything in Denver; let’s do this 100-percent community-led; let’s throw our shoulder against it; and let’s create something that’s never been created in Denver — or in Colorado, for that matter.” And that’s when the ball started rolling. We approached the Downtown Denver Partnership — which we discovered had a similar idea to develop a startup event in the city — to be deep partners in the program, and through their leadership it became something that was not just a group of entrepreneurs, but a group of entrepreneurs with an incredible platform. With that partnership, Denver Startup Week was born.
UDM: What did you see happening in Denver in 2011, 2012, that made it seem like the right time to kick off an event like this?
BEN DEDA: I think the timing was just about as good as it could get. You not only had great tech companies setting up shop in Denver; at the same time there is a tech boom, you’re coming out of a recession, and Denver has become the No. 1 destination for millennials in the country. So all those things came together to create this incredible environment and this incredible opportunity. I don’t necessarily know that this could have happened 10, 15, 20 years ago, and it’s not because there wasn’t the talent back then; it was that we hit it at the right cycle at the right time.
UDM: Since the first Denver Startup Week in 2012, how has the city’s entrepreneurial landscape changed? How has Startup Week played a part in that?
MITISEK: When we were getting ready for Startup Week this year, we took a look back. At the time that we were just getting started, 2011, 2012, there were nine monthly meetup-type of activities that were happening in the community around innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. Nine or 10 things that you could do if you wanted to get involved. Fast-forward to 2015. We looked at the same monthly activity, and this year there are 96 different meetups and activities in the community. We really look at Denver Startup Week as a huge catalyst that brought together and convened not just the big things, but microcategories like women in entrepreneurship and kids who code. There are 96 things that you can choose from now, and Denver Startup Week is probably highly responsible for a lot of that creation.
UDM: You both attended DU at different times; how do your experiences at the University connect to what you have achieved with Denver Startup Week?
MITISEK: When I was at DU, I was in the first class of the Pioneer Leadership Program, and I was simultaneously involved, my sophomore year, in 17 different organizations. The concept of community leadership that I learned at DU manifested in giving back and trying to help lead the community through Denver Startup Week. The biggest corollary for me was Winter Carnival. I was the chair of Winter Carnival my sophomore, junior and senior years at DU, and I think of [Denver Startup Week] as a gigantic winter carnival to celebrate startups in the Front Range.
DEDA: I did the Executive MBA at the Daniels College of Business. At the time, I was working for another Denver startup, on the manufacturing side. The whole reason I went to DU is because I was invested in Denver. I spent seven years in the Marine Corps, and all of my fellow Marines, when we got out, they all went to Ivy League MBA programs. But my wife and I had planted roots in Denver, we wanted to be here, and I said, “OK, DU has a great program, and it’s a great way to build connections here and help give back to this community.” And that’s what happened.
UDM: What advice would you give to DU students and alumni who want to get involved in the entrepreneurial scene in Denver? How does that scene reflect the economy and the work world those students will be graduating into?
MITISEK: You’re welcome, with open arms, to engage with all these programs. They’re free. There’s no membership pass required. If you’re interested in learning about Galvanize, come down and hang out at Galvanize. Meet some folks and orientate yourself. Denver’s an open door for that. Be involved; get engaged. Show up and say, “I want to start a company. I want to be involved in a startup. I want to learn about working in a high-growth company.” The ethos of what we’ve grown in Colorado and what we’ve grown in the greater Denver area around startups is we want to welcome new folks into the community. This is not a place where it’s all about who you know — this is a place where, if you get involved, your number will come up. I would go so far as to say that students probably have an unfair advantage. People want to help those who are thinking about entering the tech sector and the entrepreneurial sector. Everyone has a story of the first company they started, how they got their first job in tech, or how they got their first job in a startup — everyone has those stories, and those are big stories that I think students need to understand as career paths. There are lots of companies of varying sizes right here in our backyard that would love to have them involved.
DEDA: Those 93 meetups that Erik was talking about? Anyone is welcome. People can just show up and learn. And who knows; you might find, “This isn’t what I want to do,” or, “I want to do this, but I don’t want to do this,” but you at least have the ability to engage and truly feel like you’re part of the process. Part of it, too, is to understand that this community is completely welcoming. Countless people have reached out to me and said, “I’m moving to Denver,” or, “I just got here and I want to get connected.” Within a day, a week, you can essentially meet every person you need to, and they’re willing to talk to you, willing to help you.
UDM: Other cities have tried similar concepts around startups and entrepreneurship, but many aren’t nearly as successful as Denver’s. What’s the secret to the success of Denver Startup Week?
DEDA: There’s a lot of stuff written about what makes a successful startup ecosystem, and probably the key point to all of it is that it has to be community-led. You need the government, the private sector, the public sector — they all help to make it happen, and they create the environment that’s conducive to it, but if it’s not led by startups, by the community, it’s not going to work.
MITISEK: You always have to peel back and uncover where the self-interest is. And if the self-interest is not aligned with the needs of the community, the community is always going to reject it. I think the magic of Denver Startup Week has been that, from inception, the self-interest of the community is to engage, celebrate, assist, mentor, help grow, collaborate. That ethos permeated the program from year one. As long as you play by those rules, it works great. If you’re there just to sell and self-promote, the platform by itself rejects you.
UDM: What is the future of Denver Startup Week? Where does an already wildly successful event go from here?
MITISEK: We want to watch where the community takes it. There’s definitely a velocity of growth here, but the community is going to help drive the future of it — the intentfulness, the programming, the engagement — so we want to make sure we stay in lockstep with that. We would love to see this be an event that draws 15,000, 20,000 people, but if it stays at 10,000 people for the rest of its life and it becomes this awesome celebration of Denver, that’s amazing too. The No. 1 thing that we’re trying to do as we continue to move forward is make sure that we keep the free ethos intact. It may require us to raise more capital or to be strategic on how we manage the event, but the no-barrier to entry democratizes access to information to be an entrepreneur. We want to keep that.