The Endless Struggle That Boulder Has With Itself

I’ve now lived in Boulder for 19 years. It was an amazing place when I moved here and has evolved into an even more stupendous place over the past 19 years, notwithstanding the irrational and self-limiting struggle that the Boulder City Council seems to have with change.

Over the past decade, the Boulder Startup Community has had significant success and impact on the culture and dynamics of the city. I wrote about some of the history and impact in my book Startup Communities and the Boulder Thesis that I came up with has now been used as a template for creating startup communities all over the world.

Since being inclusive of anyone who wants to engage in the startup community” is the third principle of the Boulder Thesis, I get sad when I see phrases like the following in articles in the NY Times about Boulder such as:

“The locals say they don’t like the tech folks pouring into town to work at places like Google. They’re insular. They’re driving up housing prices. And they fear those newcomers are more like invaders than people trying to fit into their new community.”

Earlier this year, Macon Cowles, a member of our city council asserted that Boulder’s startup economy brought a lot of very highly paid white men to the city, and they were pricing out families and others. He then followed up with the statement “I don’t think that’s what people want.” If you know the Boulder Startup Community, you know that it’s actually bringing diversity to what is historically a very ethnically white town. A group of Boulder Startup Community leaders, including Nicole Glaros, Rajat Bhargava, and my partner Jason Mendelson wrote an OpEd titled A necessary education on Boulder’s startup community where they challenged Macon Cowles’ perspective.

“We are women and men. We are parents. We are veterans of the military. We are ultra marathoners. We are musicians and artists. We are foodies. We are sportspeople and environmentalists. We are philanthropists. We are educators. We are graduating students with entry-level jobs gaining valuable experience. We are techie nerds. We are clean energy inventors. We are natural food creators. We are of all races and ethnicities. We are young. We are old. We are straight. We are LBGTQ. We come from every religious background. We are the cross-section of our entire community. We are risk takers who have decided to create our own jobs and jobs for others.”

Cowles eventually apologized but couldn’t help but include a link to an article about Google’s diversity record in his tweet.

I fear Cowles doesn’t realize that the National Center for Women & Information Technology, led by long time Boulderite Lucy Sanders, is on the front edge of the tech / diversity issue. I’ve been immersed in the gender side of the diversity issue as chair of NCWIT since 2006 and Google is a strong, positive participant in this. Ethnic diversity in tech, especially in the US, is a big struggle, but it’s a big struggle in Boulder as well, since the population here is over 90% white.

Boulder ethnicity per US Census

 

I wish the NY Times article titled A Google Gentrification Fight That Doesn’t Involve San Francisco had a broader, and more than one-sided perspective. It stood out in stark contrast to several other articles I read this morning, including From startup to $7 billion, Zayo encourages ideas, entrepreneurs and Nancy Phillips followed her passion to go ViaWest. These Denver Post articles do a great job of highlighting the positive impact Dan Caruso and his team at Zayo and Nancy Phillips and her team at Viawest have had on the Boulder (and Denver) Startup Communities. And, as a bonus, Nancy has been an incredible leader and advocate for NCWIT.

At this point, the Boulder Startup Community is deeply woven into the fabric of Boulder. There is an incredible positive feedback loop between everything going on here. For those who have so quickly forgotten the global financial crisis of 2008 – 2010, one of the main reasons Boulder was so minimally impacted was the strength of the startup community – not just for employment, but for discretionary spending as well.

But ultimately this isn’t really about economics. Or innovation. Or ethnicity. Or gender.

It’s about change. And evolution. The Boulder of 2015 is not the Boulder of 1970. It’s also not the Boulder of 1995. It’s the Boulder of 2015. And we need to keep being inclusive and working together to keep it great, and make it better.

  • This is an awesome article, as someone who was born in Boulder and has seen the change brought by the startup community you outlined above, the progress made in the last 20 years has been nothing less than remarkable. You’ve been a huge driving force/catalyst for all of this Brad, Boulder thanks you!

    • Thanks Paul. I’m just one of many, which is something that is so critically important, especially as we go through our next phase of evolution. Can you imagine how complicated this is going to get when AIs become sentient?

  • Sarah

    Thank you for your amazing support of Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup, and all you do to increase diversity in tech in Boulder and beyond.

    • Thanks Sarah. I’m off the Meetup list as I don’t want any “meeting emails” in my inbox but send me a note whenever I can do something to be helpful.

      • Sarah

        Thanks, Brad. Sounds great – will do.

  • Andrew Leto

    My new company/startup is based in boulder. The city has an abundance of talent and is one of the best start up communities in the country. We are still hiring and have 30 highly talented software engineers. I look forward to 2015 and to see the products coming out of 10-4 systems , look out for us! Thanks for your great posts Brad.

    • Awesome – excited to see what y’all do in 2015.

  • Laura in Boulder

    Interesting. I’ve lived here since 1996 and have a slightly different take as most of that time I’ve been in academia tech, not private. In the former we still have a long way to go toward gender and color balancing. Academic conferences in my area can be shockingly male and white. It is a tough road. That being said, there is increasing realization.

    As for the city itself. I live in Gunbarrel and there is no fighting progress, if by progress I mean exponential population growth, increasingly bad traffic, and sprawl.

    • Oh, I’m not suggesting that we don’t have a long way to do – we do. But lots of people are working on it and to suggest it’s not part of the activities and energies in the startup community is just wrong.

      I’m curious what field you are in. I see the gender dynamic different in lots of different fields.

      Colorado is going to have significant population growth over the next 20+ years, especially along the I-25 corridor. Rather than be in denial about it, our city leaders should work together across geographies to get in front of it and continue to make policies that advance our growth as a region, the beauty in the area, while being responsive to the obvious demands that will exist.

  • I think what they might be referring to is this data from Zillow I scraped this AM. Note the definite lack of affordability present here. Its the same dynamic thats going on in SF. While I understand that people want to come into this environment and prosper, you can’t deny that all this free and easy money thats fueling the tech startup sector is having these kinds of effects in multiple locations. I don’t think the solution is to deflect it or just point to how kewl this new techie entrepreneurial community is but to engage the problem and try to find the proper solutions. That said, I don’t know what they are. But here’s a thought, how bout you take 20% of each of your VC funds and provide housing subsidies to counter the inflationary effects of the injection of your VC money into this local economy?

    • The cost of living in the Boulder core has always been expensive. This is not a new issue and has nothing to do with the growth of the startup community, but rather the highly restrictive growth and zoning policies the city of Boulder has had for many years. It’s a classic supply / demand problem – there is very little supply of housing in the core of Boulder, so it’s very expensive.

      Fortunately, there are very affordable areas within 15 minutes of downtown Boulder. There’s been huge affordable living growth in these communities.

      Low cost and affordable housing is definitely a problem in Boulder. But it’s not a new one. And some of the policies by the people fighting against things like Google showing up is exactly what caused the dynamic in the first place. Ironic, I know, but such is life.

      Comparing Boulder (city: 100k, metro: 300k people) to San Francisco (city: 900k, metro: 4m) on this issue is silly. The dynamics are so different. But, it makes for good headlines I suppose.

      Re: putting 20% of our VC funds into affordable housing – that makes no sense to me, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t contributing meaningful dollars to this. My wife and I do this via our foundation (Anchor Point Foundation), my partners make significant philanthropic contributions, and the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado, funded by gains from startups in Boulder / Denver, have contributed over $3 million to Boulder non-profits.

      • I laud you on your efforts to assist! Having followed your activities for a little while now, I know that you spend time thinking about good causes and how to help with them.

        I’m also aware of the restrictions Boulder has and the supply demand issue. SF has the same problem on the peninsula.

        All that said tho, I’m observing that your discussion here isn’t that much different from what I’ve heard VCs and tech types in the SF/Valley area say. It comes off as self serving and somewhat defensive and it should. The reason is because there is something going on here and you are actually contributing to it despite using nice language to downplay your role.

        My central point is this. Rather than defending the direction that things are heading towards, it might be better to focus on the factual problem and then talk about the solutions and how you can help get the solutions implemented. In this case, that probably means talking starkly about the housing inflation, how your firm and other tech companies have contributed to it, and what can be done to solve it. I was mainly tweaking you about the 20% thing. How about this tho. You’re good at organizational things, why not put together some kind of summit between Foundry, Google, Level3, Oracle, etc., Boulder planning and/or other relevant govt. folks and whatever other serious community advocates, etc. and figure out what to do. I have a feeling this isn’t an insurmountable problem and if the right folks got together, I bet some good ideas would come out of it.

        • I’m engaged in many of those types of things already.

          FYI – I don’t feel defensive about this at all. It’s reality. I prefer to deal with reality.

        • Rick

          Didn’t you say here one time you were launching a new fitness app? If so what’s the url?

          • I don’t think that was me.

          • Rick

            No. I thought Frank posted he was releasing a new app. With all the hooligans on the web it’s hard to know what’s real.

          • Nope, not me. I do have a website I play around with but its not fitness and I’ve never mentioned it to anybody.

          • Rick

            Well… I guess you need to get to work right away on that fitness app! lol
            .
            Opps… First you’ll need some funding. So find that first. Forget about the rest until you have funding!

      • Rick

        Supply and demand will work itself out. Invest in other areas until the problem gets solved. BTW… Don’t spend 20% of your funds on this problem. Just send that 20% directly to me and I’ll spend it on sports cars and beeutiful women!!! Then you won’t have to worry about failed investments. I’m certain I can find sports cars to buy and women to spend money on.

        • If only you had stuck to sports cars, I would have upvoted.

      • Doug

        Boulder has always had a “Shut the gate behind me” problem. Once I build my McMansion on the mountain, no one else should be allowed.

        Still, it is hard to see how the counsel or the county getting involved would help more than make it a bureaucratic nightmare, or stifle the economy. Don’t forget there are also thousands of students in Boulder competing for affordable housing. Many lower priced units go to students, and it is hard to have a day job and live next door to students.
        Plus, I had the experience years ago, while working as a junior engineer, I made to much to get into the “affordable” housing, but not enough to buy or even rent in Boulder. Had I bought, I would be have equity out the wazoo now. 20/20 hindsight.

      • FOUND STARTUP THAT SOLVE BOTH EXPENSIVE TECH HOUSING AND NOT-EXPENSIVE NON-TECH HOUSING?

        ME THINK IT POSSIBLE.

      • Bryn Weaver

        I agree that this is basic supply and demand. It’s life. You can’t have it all, but you can have a lot if you are creative and willing to embrace change. My mother went to CU in the 70s. When driving over the hill last year she remarked how although things had changed, it very much seemed like Boulder is frozen in time. Maybe that’s a positive; maybe note, but it completely makes sense in light of zoning laws in Boulder.

        Surely throwing money at the issue isn’t the answer. That will just increase costs further and decrease independence. It’s very much like the Malthus’s old essays on population. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Essay_on_the_Principle_of_Population. If you just throw money at it it exacerbates the problem by increasing demand but not supply.

        FWIW, I’ve been fairly actively involved in the Boulder entrepreneurial community for a number of years and choose not to live in Boulder in part due to housing costs and having multiple young kiddos running around. And I don’t view that as a “problem.” I can still get to Boulder just fine when I need to do so.

  • Michael M

    Excellent post Brad. This “success tension” plays out in communities all over the world…just part of the process.

    Note that the Zayo link is wrong though (points to the NYT/Google article).

    • Oops on the Zayo link – just fixed it. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Rick

    How many founders have become first-time millionaires starting their biz in Boulder?

    • No idea. Hundreds (not founders, but early employees also).

      • Rick

        Cool.
        .
        About your housing and diversity problem… I think it’s exacerbated by dividing people. There are groups for everything – men, women, race, size, etc. No one wants to have those things pointed at. They want to be successful based on what’s inside them! Based on their hard work. No one wants to be set apart because of their gender or race etc.
        .
        Stop segregating people with labels. Start using the word person instead of women or man or minority. Hasn’t anyone ever told people if they pick at a sore it won’t heal.

  • Doug

    Wow, open mouth, insert foot.
    I have worked in and around Boulder for 20+ years. I have worked with Russians, Indians (American and Asian), Taiwanese, Chinese, Hispanics, African Americans and other, men and women. There are parts of Boulder where you hear Spanish more than English, but maybe that is not the diversity he wanted.
    He is forgetting that many people who work in Boulder don’t live in Boulder. It is crazy expensive for basic housing, but the surrounding communities are nice. In many ways nicer for families and real life than living in a college town, even though a good couch burning party is fun now and then.
    The world epicenter for disk drives is just North in Longmont. Broomfield has dozens of companies doing telcomm, GPS, and more. All of Northern Colorado is booming in the tech. Believe me, I have tried to hire good developers and they all have jobs. If you are qualified, you can get a job, even if you are green with polka dots.

    Boulder needs to ask, are they pricing themselves out of the start-up boom? Housing prices chased me out of Boulder, and employers just over the Boulder county line. The business taxes are crazy. Longmont is doing a municipal Gigabit fiber loop. The surrounding communities are happy to take the business and revenue off of Perl St.

    • Rick

      “If you are qualified, you can get a job, even if you are green with polka dots.”
      .
      What companies? Unemployment is still raging in the US. You should post more information so that people can find work. I always try to give people leads when possible.

      • Unemployment is at 5.8% nationally and at only 4.3% in Colorado. This is the lowest rate since mid 2007, and half what it was in December 2010.

    • Rick

      BTW… If you know anyone who wants someone to do some development in
      Delphi by Embarcadero. I’m looking for a project for the winter. I don’t want to use any other technologies anymore so it’s just Delphi.
      .
      As far as other people. I talk to people looking for work who use every technology out there. So true “hiring company” leads would be great for people.

  • Thanks for speaking up and continued leadership.

  • James

    It is a shame that some people are being priced out of their hometowns, but solving the issue I believe is more complex then “booting out” highly paid white men.

    As pointed out there are diversity issues in technology based companies, but its not a problem other industries don’t face themselves. More importantly, I think the “tech” world already is working on improving this issue, and I feel they will make better progress long before other industries. It’s in their DNA to improve not only their lives and their shareholder’s lives, but make the world a little better for everyone.

    How would the Boulder city council feel if the “tech” boom in Boulder, and Colorado as a whole, was an oil boom instead? Would there not be diversity issues? Would there not be huge environmental concerns? They should feel lucky that the world’s second industrial revolution is happening in their city. Heck, it’s like Detroit in its hey-day – without the pollution.

    The Boulder city council should feel very blessed, because there are very few places in the world, probably less than 15 cities, that could compare to the innovation that is happening in Boulder. Yes, it’s unfortunate that people are being priced out of their childhood homes, but ‘capital goes where it’s welcome and stays where it’s well treated’.

    Right now it’s being treated very well in tech startups, at-least it appears that way by the frequency and size of financing rounds. As a result, companies flush with cash are looking to scale and need employees to do so. It just so happens to be that software engineers, developers, etc. are in high demand and in short supply. This leads to very well paying jobs, mixed with an limited or fixed supply of housing-units in Boulder- of course the prices will go up.

    in fact, I believe rising housing prices is a Marco issue, but it’s happening dramatically on a Micro level in Boulder. More and more of the economy is being sharply divided in terms of wealth and income, and maybe there can be a bigger debate about why a family can’t afford their houses instead of blaming people with good jobs.

    So you’re left with either kicking those people out with good jobs, some who might be future innovators of the world, or work towards a solution. What would that be? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t feel like asking a select group of individuals to leave for the sake of diversity is a good idea. In fact, I believe its antithetical to Mr. Cowles’ goals of increasing diversity. It might seem like they’re invaders, but I wonder how many techies support mom/pop lifestyle businesses in Boulder?

    I know its a very heated discussion and people are very passionate about these issues, but I find some extreme ironic humor in that fact that Mr. Cowles used Twitter to complain about that “techie crowd”.

  • As paul graham said so eloquently in http://www.Paul Graham.com/ecw.HTML

    “When experts are wrong, it’s often because they’re experts on an earlier version of the world.”

    #keepchanging

    • Paul A. I. Jones

      Ha! Hilariously accurate and far too common in today’s world.

  • I think it’s ironic that the city council is trashing entrepreneurs whose taxes give them a great deal of insulation. But perhaps the bigger problem is their scarcity focused mindset, and instead of starting at, as Jerry Colonna says, “we’re good and how can we get better” they’re starting at “there’s only so much to go around & how can we control what we already have.”

    On the bright side Boulder/Denver is light years ahead of other places. Attitudes like this one in Albuquerque ( http://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/blog/morning-edition/2014/11/viewpoint-for-innovate-abq-board-diversity-is-not.html ) frustrate me to no end.

  • Doug

    I finally hit on what really bothers me about the comments made by Cowles. Somewhere in there is the worst kind of bias, a hidden and unknown bias in the speaker. Boulder is not diverse, so we need lower cost housing. … Because poor people are “ethnic”? Is that what he is saying? (It is very hard to find the right words that won’t make me sound even more biased.)
    The whole of Boulder County should thank the lucky stars they are getting high paying software jobs, not fracking well workers who are not staying once the boom is over. No one wants a meet packing plant in town, even if it provides good jobs.
    Just keep opening breweries and web startups and let the house prices work out on their own.

  • esrellaboulder

    Thanks for this post, Brad. This is exactly what’s at the heart of Open Boulder! Diversity, inclusiveness

    • Glad y’all are taking a leadership role here. And happy to be a supporter.

  • heyehd

    Boulder has always been in battle with itself it seems. When I visited relatives going to CU in the 60’s (when Folsum was the edge of town) there was a lot of complaints about hippies and their micro buses and the city instituted parking bans. So they moved to the hills west of Boulder. You can still find abandoned buses along Left Hand Canyon. Then in the 80’s while I was going to CU, Paul Danish (city council) passed construction controls to curb “scrape and build” high density apartments on old large city lots. That started the “Danish Connection” where builders simply added a small enclosed hall between the original house and the new structure to side step the law. So to the city of Boulder, learn from history and “embrace and balance”.

    • Good history lesson. Some things never change.

  • Oh Boulder, where incredibly bright and talented people come to compete in a small town atmosphere.

    Great post Brad.

    • And for anyone who doesn’t live here, put the actual dynamics in the “it’s complicated” bucket.

  • Brad, thanks for another great post – it’s been referenced to prepare the Downtown Boulder Inc. board for our next meeting and beyond. DBI has been taking important steps to better understand the startup community, particularly as it grows and evolves. When DBI was formed startups as we know them today did not exist – the process to familiarize an organization and community with them continues. I appreciate you helping us move forward on this front!

    • Thanks @virtuallybing:disqus. Happy to come to one of the DBI meetings if it’s useful for additional context from my perspective.

      • I may take you up on that – thanks Brad.

  • Rob Ryan

    Hi Brad – glad you posted this. I always chuckle when people move here and then say, everyone else stay out. I don’t want it to change. Not just in Boulder, but a lot of places. Come on progressives…allow Boulder to progress. This town is going places! PS. Was really good seeing you and Amy a couple days ago at Pauls & Renees. Happy New Year!! – Rob

    • Back at ya – nice seeing you Christmas Eve. Happy New Year!

  • Great comment. I’m perplexed that in the midst of a piece about rising housing prices, no one mentions housing supply. The tools necessary to increase housing supply in the face of rising demand have been available since the early 1900s—as discussed extensively here, in The Rent is Too Damn High—and yet this endless series of articles doesn’t mention the obvious.

    • estrellaboulder

      Not in this article but in the public discourse, there is actually a lot of discussion about supply which takes form of “density.” People are afraid of changing the “charm” in Boulder and fear skyscrapers. We have policies that don’t allow more than 55ft high so that fear is moot. Take a look around, there’s a lot of improvement potential with old shopping centers, empty parking lots and such. Case in point, Boulder Junction is a project that would increase housing and give people a place to live where they can walk to work. However, that project is being touted as an example of how Boulder should not change. As Brad said in a previous comment, “it’s complicated.”

      City Council has been hinting toward capping jobs. CAPPING JOBS! As an answer to housing and traffic problems – rather than providing more workforce housing.

      What’s clear; however, is that we need to engage a broader group of working folks – especially the tech community – in the public discourse. Not just on Brad’s blog but out in front where our elected leaders can hear us.

  • catherine_louis

    Great post. There’s a white paper by Tim Mazzarol about how governments could better support entrepreneurs, and perhaps the Boulder City Council could benefit from this: http://seaanz.org/sites/seaanz/documents/reports/SEAANZ_WP_01_2014_Mazzarol.pdf

  • I cannot wait to have this problem in Chicago.

  • channel_one_networks

    Here we go again with you.You don’t get Boulder. Brad. You and your pals operate in your own bubble. You are unreachable and disrespecful. You think you know everything and you don’t actually kn I w anything about Boulder. I have tried to talk to you about this before….and you just smoke a joint and twist off in the wind. You miss the people who count in this town…and now they are blowing you off…wake the fuck up.

    • ILOVEBOULDER

      For those of you reading this who don’t know “Channel_one_networks”, please disregard these comments from an insane man. Although I’m sure Brad just chooses to ignore him, some of you might be wondering…
      For more info about him, you can go here
      http://www.redstate.com/diary/goppolitx/2013/04/25/jann-scott-boulder-colorado-troublemaker-who-despises-free-speech/

      • Channel_one_networks

        Of course I love Boulder is a right winged gun nut job who sides with the extremest right. Her red state hates everything Boulder. Sorry lady…. There are those of us who do not want to see our city destroyed by right winged republicans like you.