I’m intensely proud of both the amazing startup community in Boulder as well as the many significant companies that have been – and are being – created in the little town of 100,000 people I call home. I regularly talk about the ones we’ve invested in through Foundry Group, but this only covers a part of the awesomeness that is going on here as Foundry Group has a very tight thematic focus.
As Boulder continues to gain visibility as a great place to create companies, I’ve decided to highlight some of the entrepreneurs – and their companies – who have contributed to Boulder in significant ways.
Dan Caruso, the co-founder/CEO of Zayo Group, is one of them. I first met Dan around a decade ago when Howard Diamond, another incredible contributor to the Boulder startup community, introduced us. Howard was at Level 3 at the time – they had acquired his previous company Corporate Software (which I was an investor in) – and he knew Dan through that experience. Over the last decade, I’ve gotten to know Dan, watched as he’s built an incredible $6 billion market cap company headquartered in Boulder, while contributing relentlessly to the Boulder startup community.
I asked Dan to write a guest post talking about Zayo’s story. It’s great – and follows. Dan – we are lucky to have you – and Zayo – in Boulder.
“Fiber in Downtown Boulder?” was the title of an email sent to me by Brad, after he had heard from one of his CEOs that Zayo is constructing fiber in Boulder. “If true, how can I help?”, he continued.
Years ago, when I first met Brad, I didn’t “get” him. I had recently left Level 3 Communications. I was one of the day one execs of LVLT, as well as an early member of the management team of MFS Communications. It is understandable that I considered myself to an accomplished entrepreneurial-minded executive. Yet I felt so disconnected to Brad and the culture around him. It took me several more years to understand Brad, and during this time I developed a deep appreciation of his passion for entrepreneurism. I was drawn to his unique ability to promote ideas, create awareness, and fuel momentum. I sought to mimic his propensity to leverage social media.
“How can Brad help?”, I pondered.
“Help me create more awareness about the contributions that Zayo is making toward the Front Range entrepreneurial community.
Brad, entrepreneurial as ever, delegated the task back to me. “How about you write a post for my blog?”
Sensing an opportunity, I responded “How about I write two?” This is the first. The next one will describe our extensive fiber build across the front range.
I will provide a quick synopsis for those who prefer a two-paragraph summary. In late 2006, Zayo was a pure start-up headquartered behind Nick and Willy’s on 8th and Pearl. Today, Zayo has eclipsed $1.1Bin revenue and $600M in EBITDA, leading to an estimated Enterprise Value in the vicinity of $6B. We have 3 offices in Colorado, with our headquarters on the 2nd floor of 29th Street mall. In addition to directly employing 250 people across the Front Range, we indirectly employ many more related to our multi-million dollar fiber build across the front range. Dozens of recent graduates of Colorado’s university system are Zayo-ites.
Boulder is an incredible entrepreneurial community, and I enjoy being immersed in it. I am excited to see this innovative energy spreading across the front range, through Startup Colorado and other initiatives. I am proud that Zayo is a vibrant example of our community’s robust start up ecosystem.
For those who prefer a slightly longer version, here is the Zayo Story in a nut shell.
In June of 2006, we sold what remained of ICG Communications to Level 3. The ICG team went to Level 3 as part of the transaction. I didn’t.
Two years prior, ICG was a public company preparing for its second bankruptcy. My group was the only that offered an alternative to Chapter 7/11. We paid them $8.7M and took them private. By the time we sold to Level 3, our total proceeds to equity owners and management were $225M. For those without a calculator nearby, that’s a 25X return in 2 years.
Nonetheless, I was out of a job.
Though ICG was headquartered in south Denver, we opened up a small satellite office on 8th and Pearl — right behind Nick and Willy’s. In the sale to LVLT, we kept a portion of this office. One by one, many of my colleagues extracted themselves from Level 3 and pondered “what now”. By late 2006, we formed Communications Infrastructure Investments. Today, CII d/b/a Zayo Group.
Our investment thesis was simple. Bandwidth was busting — and this would continue beyond our children’s lifetimes. Fiber was the workhorse of the Internet — and nothing would alter its importance for as far as the eye could see. Most importantly, drinking too much tequila leads to a hangover that makes it hard to look at — let alone taste — tequila again.
Point 3 requires more of an explanation. The late 1990s saw a fiber tequila party that started out wild — investors poured money into start-ups and fiber networks were constructed throughout the land. Way too much fiber tequila was gulped, and the ensuing telecom meltdown caused a hangover of epic proportion. As we hit the early 2000s, investors and strategics felt their stomach’s gargle at the sight of a fiber-labeled tequila bottle. You know that feeling?
Our ICG experience gave us different perspectives. First, many fiber networks had consolidated into a handful of platform. The balance between supply and demand of bandwidth was rapidly improving.
Second, we saw an opportunity to be a consolidator of the remaining fiber properties. We called these fiber orphans — companies whose roots dated to the telecom boom but which had not yet been consolidated into a nationwide platform. These companies somehow navigated their way through the meltdown. By 2007, they were doing quite well. However, the tequila hangover persisted and few investors or strategics were paying attention to them.
Third, we developed a thesis around “Bandwidth Infrastructure”, a term we coined. We did not desire to be a traditional telecom company. Instead, we sought to provide raw fiber, wavelengths, ethernet, IP, and technical space to those entities that needed a whole lot of bandwidth. Circa 2007, this was considered a ridiculous approach. Even today, we are sometimes poked by rivals for our infrastructure approach.
Between 2007 and 2013, we acquired 25 companies. We now have over 80,000 route miles of fiber, mostly in the U.S. and London. Our fiber is connected to nearly every significant colocation, hosting, and carrier hotel facility. Our biggest customers are the wireless carriers and big content/Internet companies. We raised $2.7B of debt and $870M in equity in three rounds. Our initial investors have not sold, though they are enjoying a 4 – 5X mark. Our equity IRR has averaged around 50% since inception.
Zayo is in this for the long term… the very long term. My aspiration is to be at the helm of Zayo for a few more decades. Zayo will be to bandwidth what Amazon is to the cloud and what Equinix is to colo. Zayo will foster the development of additional start-ups, either within Zayo or as spawning-offs. The bandwidth supplied by Zayo will positively effect the lives and livelihood of countless people throughout the world. As Zayo continues its quest, it will bolster Boulder and the Front Range’s reputation as a top tier centers for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Fred Wilson had a post yesterday titled Mentor/Investor Whiplash. His recommendations for dealing with it can be summarized as “collect all the data, think about it, discount what investors have to say, and ultimately listen to what the market is telling you over what advisors / investors tell you.”
I then read through the comments on the post and was bummed out. Many missed the point of what I thought Fred was trying to say. Then I reread the post more carefully and noticed how he framed the issue. The paragraph that caught my attention was:
I call this constant advising/mentoring of early stage startups “mentor/investor whiplash” and I think it is a big problem. Not just with the accelerator programs but across the early stage/seed startup landscape.
I bolded “I think it is a big problem” – that clearly set the tone for the comments.
I disagree with Fred. It’s not a big problem. It’s the essence of one of things an accelerator program is trying to teach the entrepreneurs going through it. Specifically, building muscle around processing data and feedback, and making your own decisions.
At Techstars, we view mentor whiplash as a positive attribute. We talk about it openly – all the time. I believe that if you ask five mentors the same question you’ll get seven different answers. This is especially true early in any relationship, when the mentors are just getting to know you and your company.
That’s good. That’s how business works. As an entrepreneur you get an endless stream of conflicting data on every issue. Your job is to sort the signal from the noise. Tools like Lean Launchpad and the concept of Lean Startup can help early on, but in some cases they’ll just collect more conflicting data, or validate (or invalidate) a particular hypothesis.
As the business grows, there are more points of stimuli, more agendas, more exogenous factors, and more potential whiplash. If you don’t build your own muscle around collecting, synthesizing, dealing with, and decided what to do with all the data that is coming at you, then you are going to have massive problems as your company scales up. So learning how to do this early on your journey is very powerful.
I view the accelerator environment, at least what we are creating at Techstars, to be an example of a safe environment. It’s an artificial construct that includes a massive amplification of stimuli and data over a short period of time (90 days) from people who – as mentors – should have the ultimate goal of being helpful to you. Now, every mentor – and investor – who you interact with – has their own emotional and intellectual construct of what they are doing and how they are interacting with you. That’s another layer of the positive impact – you have guides (your lead mentors, the people running the accelerator) who can help you decode the feedback. Your peers are interacting with the same mentors – often on the same day – and a short conversation with some of them can help you calibrate quickly.
Now apply Fred’s points (per my summary):
Collect all the data, think about it, discount what investors have to say, and ultimately listen to what the market is telling you over what advisors / investors tell you.
At Techstars, we repeat over and over again the following mantra to the entrepreneurs going through the accelerator.
It’s just data. It’s your company.
If you are in an accelerator, don’t be afraid of mentor whiplash. Don’t view it as a negative. Embrace it. Build muscle around it. Learn to process it. Filter out the noise. Run experiments on the stuff that seems valid to confirm or deny it. Make your own decisions!
I’ve been fighting with creating charts and data visualizations – well – forever. Anyone remember VisiPlot and VisiTrend? Harvard Graphics? Eventually Excel dominated for a while, but it was always sheer misery for me. Eventually I figured out how to make rows and columns of data look like a chart in my mind, and I just stopped making charts for myself.
Last year we made a seed investment in a company called DataHero. We loved the founders and their vision to make it trivial to turn rows and columns of data into charts. They’ve created a magical product that just works and includes the concept of Live Charts. You simply connect to whatever data source you want, go through their hero-like wizard to set up the visualization you want, and your charts automatically update.
The data I want to chart lives all over the place. In Excel spreadsheets in Dropbox. In my Google Drive. In apps like SurveyMonkey and Salesforce. DataHero connects to each service and just does the right thing. No more exporting and importing data, reformatting it, and tearing your hair out.
Try DataHero. Tell me what you think.
Following is a guest post by Zack Rosen, co-founder and CEO of Pantheon. Pantheon is building “A big badass platform that will run 30% of the Internet.” They are making it easy for professionals to build, launch, and run websites. Pantheon is one of the Silent Killers in our portfolio – and I’m immensely proud of the progress they are making and excited about their future.
This post was an internal email to the Pantheon team following a major feature release (Multidev). When I saw it, I asked Zack if I could post it on my blog as an ode to all startups. Many of you are out on the frontier, and I thought Zack captured the essence of it in his message to his team.
From: Zachary Rosen
To: Pantheon Staff
Date: Thursday, July 18, 2013 2:19:42 AM
Subject: Welcome to The Frontier
The Frontier Thesis was a theory advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American Frontier.
“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”
You may have noticed me acting slightly more neurotic or animated lately. There is a reason for that. Apologies if I am bugging you out—it’s going to get worse.
I am very, very excited to be back here, on The Frontier.
I’ve been here before.
When I was was in college, I found some books written on the future social impact of the Internet on the World. I was a poor student, so I added them to my Amazon wish list as auctions.
Then one day I messed up, clicked the wrong button, and ordered hundreds of dollars worth of non-refundable, esoteric, nerdy used books…and over-drew my bank account. I remember thinking when they arrived, “Well, I guess I may as well read all of these stupid books that bankrupted me.”
I’m very glad I did.
That summer, this bumpkin/badass former governor from Vermont running for president (Howard Dean) had found this guy Joe Trippi to run his presidential campaign. It became clear to me that Joe had read the same books I had, and that he intended to see if the shit in the books actually worked.
I had to be there. The summer of 2003, I started an open-source (Drupal-based) project for the campaign (Deanspace), got a job in the campaign HQ in Burlington, VT, dropped out of school, and had about the most profound professional experience one could at age 19 in 2003.
I spent a year on the Dean campaign Web Team during the presidential campaign of 2004. We lost the campaign badly, but we won a major battle on The Frontier of Global Politics in the age of the Internet.
The Dean campaign Web Team proved a very simple but important idea to the world that year. We proved that you could challenge the political establishment and beat them at their own game (fundraising) by appealing directly to supporters via the Internet. That idea—which our team made work—has changed the world.
Barack Obama would not be president today without the path the Dean web team blazed. Knowing this has permanently altered the way I view my work.
Friends from the campaign went on to run Obama’s Internet operation. You’d have a hard time making the case that Obama could have won without their help.
That experience set the bar for me in my career. Ever since then, if my work is not on that scale, then I feel like I am wasting my time on this planet.
I’m at home back here on The Frontier.
What it’s like on The Frontier
For me, launching Multidev put Pantheon clearly on The Frontier. We’re doing new shit the world has never seen before.
Here are a few of my thoughts about our time here:
1. You know that quote from Margaret Mead? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The Dean campaign Web Team was 20 people, about the same size as Pantheon is today. Small teams can do huge things.
Accomplishing huge things is not easy. On The Frontier, there’s no rule of law and there are no guarantees. There are consequences if we get it wrong. We won’t be destitute, but we’ll always wonder if we could have done better.
On The Frontier, we know this, and we still go after the big problems, six-shooters blazing.
2. There are not very many people out here on The Frontier. It can be strangely quiet and peaceful. Everyone has so many opinions when you make your journey out! “Well, what will you do when X happens?” “That won’t work.” “I don’t get it.” Or, my favorite, “I’d do it this way.”
But when you get out here, you get to see what will really work and what won’t. You survive by your wits. You learn to listen to and trust your gut.
How many other people are out here working as hard as we are to fundamentally fix website tech? …. *crickets*
3. What we are doing will look obvious in retrospect. “Duh, you can raise a ton of money for a presidential campaign online” is now common knowledge, but in 2003, we were looney. “Duh, websites are developed, launched, and run in the cloud” will be common knowledge soon enough.
The biggest ideas are usually the simple ones. They seem so confusing and hopeless before, somehow, all of a sudden, they are taken for granted.
Before any big city, there was once The Frontier.
4. We are blazing the path for everyone else. We are the leaders in our market, and they will follow, after we’ve found and laid the path. The entire world will follow us after we’ve found out how to make building, launching, and running websites easy.
Notice the other paths laid by other teams out here on The Frontier. This work is holy. When you pass another team blazing their path, tip your hat. This shit isn’t easy. Be gracious on The Frontier.
5. This is a special experience. We’re not saving the world directly. We aren’t surgeons in the O.R., or soldiers in harm’s way. We’re engineers laying down foundational tech that others will build on top of. Most will never see our work. But, through our work, we have the opportunity to shape what’s possible in the world around us.
With Multidev we set a bar for the software industry on what is possible when custom software is built, launched, and run in the cloud. The other leaders in our space are behind us. We are the ones who have built a cloud platform with such deep (full website stack) and broad (dev -> deploy -> scale lifecycle) capabilities, so we get to be the ones who discover what is possible.
You will remember this work, your time on The Frontier, for the rest of your life.
I’m excited to announce the launch of the Colorado Startup Community Fund. This is a $200,000 fund for providing financing to support activities, events, and organizations in the Colorado startup community. It’s part of the Startup Colorado initiative and is going to make the first round of grants at the end of Q3.
The Startup Colorado Community Fund from Startup Colorado on Vimeo.
One of the four principles of my Boulder Thesis (discussed in my book Startup Communities) is that you need to have activities and events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack on a continual basis. If you look at the activity in Boulder and Denver, there is at least a one activity every day at this point – sometimes as many as five. It’s amazing to observe and experience – this super-saturation of activities and events around the startup community is awesome.
Many of them are entrepreneur-driven events that are free to participants. Many are done in a bare bones, scrappy way – which is awesome. While many have contributed venues, there’s always some minor cost, especially as they scale up. Beer and pizza isn’t free.
As a result, many of these entrepreneurs run around rounding up small amounts of sponsorship from local service providers. $1,000 here, $2,500 there. Or they start charging a modest fee – say $10 / event.
Our goal with the Colorado Startup Community Fund is to eliminate the need for the entrepreneurs putting on these events to have to scramble to raise a small amount of money. Or charge the other entrepreneurs who are participating. Instead, we’ll be giving grants each quarter, ranging from $1,000 to $25,000, to underwrite the costs of these activities and events. We’ll be funding activities and events across Colorado, with a focus on Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins.
I’ve personally contributed $25,000 to the Colorado Startup Community Fund. Other founding contributors include Jim Franklin, SendGrid; Ryan Martens, Rally Software; Nancy Phillips, Viawest; Steve Halstedt, Centennial Ventures; Libby Cook, Founder, Sunflower Markets; Jim Deters, Galvanize; Bob Ogdon, SwiftPage; and Dan Caruso, Zayo Group.
If you are interested in participating in the Colorado Startup Community Fund, either as a financial contributor, or as a grant recipient, feel free to email me.
As Amy and I get to the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, I’m noticing more and more management and leadership lessons. Oh – and it’s awesome SciFi.
In my experience, it’s a challenge for CEOs and management teams to get focused on a small set of numbers that drive behavior. I talked about this in my post Three Magic Numbers. I regularly suggest that you should only have three numbers that you focus on daily – that reflect “what is going on right now in the business.”
You should be able to discern what is going on from the daily trend of these numbers. Sure – you’ll look at plenty of other numbers, but these are the three you focus on every day. You don’t need fancy tech for this – just a white board.
If you are a BSG fan, you’ll recall the white board behind President Roslin’s desk. It has one number on it. The number of survivors alive at that moment. This number started showing up in the opening credits some time in Season 2, and after a few episodes I noticed it changing each time in the credits, often based on what had happened in the previous episode.
This is BSG’s KPI. The number of humans alive. Right now.
When I reflect on this KPI, I realize it drives all the behavior on BSG. The easy behavior to focus on is keeping the number from decreasing. But as Gauis eloquently states late in Season 2, if the trend line continues, based on a complex regression analysis he’s done, the human species will be extinct in 18 years. Soon after, Admiral Adama reminds Roslin that the number generally just goes down, and that Roslin had said early on that if the human species is to survive, the colony needs to start “making babies.”
This is an obvious set up for a much more complex social issue – that of pro-life vs. pro-choice. But obvious set up aside, Adama is focusing on the KPI and reminding Roslin that the goal is for it go up, as well as not go down. It turns out there is a lot of richness in the number.
In my world, as companies grow, I notice a proliferation of KPIs being tracked. On a periodic basis, I encourage CEOs to keep paying attention to all the numbers, but surface – on a daily basis – the three magic numbers that drive their business.
Do you know your three magic numbers?
My partner Jason Mendelson sent me a five minute video from Wired that shows how a Telsa Model S is built. I watched from my condo in downtown Boulder as the sun was coming up and thought some of the images were as beautiful a dance as I’ve ever seen. The factory has 160 robots and 3000 humans and it’s just remarkable to watch the machines do their thing.
As I watched a few of the robots near the end, I thought about the level of software that is required for them to do what they do. And it blew my mind. And then I thought about the interplay between the humans and machines. The humans built and programmed the machines which work side by side with the humans building machines that transport humans.
Things are accelerating fast. The way we think about machines, humans, and the way the interact with each other is going to be radically different in 20 years.
As I continue to talk about Startup Communities, I say over and over and over again that the leaders have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else – who I call the “feeders” (government, university, non-profits, big companies, VCs, angel investors) – have an important role, but the leaders must be entrepreneurs. Now – members of feeder organizations can play a leadership role, but in the absence of a critical mass of entrepreneurs, the startup community won’t ever develop into anything meaningful.
I was interviewed recently in MIT Technology Review in an article titled It’s Up to You, Entrepreneurs. It’s part of a series they are doing titled The Next Silicon Valley. It was a long interview by Antonio Regalado who boiled my rambling down into a bunch of coherent answers to specific questions.
For example, when he asked, “What’s the most important step an entrepreneur can take to create a startup community?” I answered:
“Just do stuff. It’s kind of that simple. It’s literally entrepreneurs just starting to do things. If you’re in a city where there’s no clear startup community, the goal is not raise a bunch of money to fund a nonprofit, the goal is not get your government involved. The goal is start finding the other entrepreneurial leaders who are committed to being in your city over the next 20 years. Then, as a group, get very focused on knowing each other, working together, being inclusive of anyone else who wants to engage, doing things that help recruit people to that geography, and doing selfish stuff for your company that also drives your startup community.”
He got underneath some great key points about startup communities with his questions, which follow.
If you want the answers, go read It’s Up to You, Entrepreneurs.
The JOBS Act, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Obama with much fanfare over a year ago, was intended to help small business. It is, after all, called the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act. A number of the provisions have been slow to get written into law and the SEC has missed their deadlines on a bunch of stuff, including the often talked about equity crowdfunding activity.
Recently, the SEC weighed in on a number of the things they were required to with much fanfare. Fred Wilson wrote Let The Games Begin in response to the SEC lifting the General Solicitation Ban. However, Fred, and many others, missed the new proposed Amendments to Regulation D, Form D and Rule 156 under the Securities Act. And they look like one scary mess that could undermine the whole thing if approved.
Some posts with analysis of this have finally started to appear. A good summary is by Joe Wallin at his Startup Law Blog titled Proposed Rules Hard on Startups. And I’ve gotten a number of emails with similar analysis. My favorite summary was from a very experienced law firm.
“The SEC giveth (as mandated by Congress) and taketh away (by its own mandate).
It is incredible that the SEC finally got around to implementing rules to remove the ban on solicitation (as it was required by statute to do so in 2012), but concurrently proposes new rules intended to retard the benefits of easing the capital formation process (the goal of the JOBS Act).
The new proposed rules will require a Form D to be filed 15 days in ADVANCE of a Reg 506 offering and after, substantially expand the scope of information required to be disclosed in Form D and disqualify an issuer from relying on Rule 506 for one year if the issuer does not comply with the new filing requirements (including a requirement that the Form D be timely filed). The new rule also would require filing with the SEC of all written general solicitation materials. So much for deregulation!”
Seriously? More commentary from one of the emails I received follows:
“The new rules and rule proposals were a kind of packaged effort to address the Congressional mandate in the JOBS Act, while attempting to maintain investor protection. Apparently, the package was enough to mollify Commissioner Walter, but Commissioner Aguilar was unwilling to go along. In his view, the rules adopted come at the expense of investor protection. He reiterated that the record supports the argument that elimination of the ban on general solicitation will facilitate fraud and viewed the adoption of the rules without appropriate safeguards as “reckless.” He also contended that the proposal to study the practical effects and then adopt rules if necessary would come too late – closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped. Although he voted for adoption of the disqualification rule, he also objected to the narrowing of the categories of individuals covered, as well as the application to only prospective events, especially given the two-year delay in adoption of the final rule. On the other side of the aisle, Commissioners Paredes and Gallagher both objected to the proposal to facilitate monitoring of market changes resulting from elimination of the prohibition. They both viewed the proposal as placing an undue burden on capital formation and undermining the objectives of the JOBS Act.”
While the “proposed rules” are still “proposed”, hopefully the SEC will reject these new proposals, especially in the context of Congress’s mandate to Jumpstart Our Business Startups.