The Colorado towns of Boulder and Fort Collins provide the perfect breeding ground for entrepreneurs who want to tap into the great outdoors and up-and-coming trends. With the Rocky Mountains outside their offices, it’s little wonder web developers and organic enthusiasts constantly feel like scaling new peaks.
Alex Bogusky’s “aha” moment came while riding his vintage Italian racing bike through Boulder, Colorado – his new hometown and workplace. People were stopping in their tracks to check out the red rarity that the chief creative officer of renegade advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky had shipped to this town a mile high in the Rocky Mountain Front Range. “It’s not an expensive bike, just unique, but the sight seemed to turn people’s heads,” recounts Bogusky.
That’s quite a change from CP+B’s previous headquarters in tropical and transient Miami (although the creative powerhouse still maintains an office of over 400 people there). In Florida, says Bogusky, you only get that kind of attention if you drive a Ferrari. “Miami runs on money. Boulder runs on creativity.”
So Boulder is a perfect fit for the second CP+B office – housed in an old warehouse that was previously an indoor soccer field. The agency initially moved only a handful of people to Boulder when Bogusky had to evacuate his Miami offices due to Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. He and his wife Ana always wanted to live in Boulder, so a small band of refugees set up shop in the Rockies, later realising they could move half of their business there. The team in Boulder now numbers 240, the majority of whom are voluntary transplants from Miami, and by next year the shop plans to have grown to 300 employees.
They are an unruly bunch at CP+B. They devised iconoclastic campaigns for the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Rabbit relaunches, Virgin Atlantic and Burger King’s guerrilla marketing website “The Subservient Chicken”.
Since the self-labelled “Factory” opened in July 2006, CP+B has begun to exert a gravitational pull on the region, enticing smaller service providers to move there. It has also bought local buzz marketing company Radar Communications. “We’re building a community here,” muses Bogusky, lounging behind an oversized desk made from a rough-hewn log in his cavernous new 6,500 sq m digs.
Boulder, with its roughly 100,000 inhabitants, is an anomaly in several respects. Nestled into a geological niche with the Front Range of the Rockies to the west as a natural barrier to growth, the city has so far designated 219 sq km of its surroundings as open space preserves and capped population growth at 2 per cent a year, thus putting a lid on urban sprawl.
Its quaint streets, with an extensive network of bike paths and bus routes, stand in stark contrast to neighbouring Denver, which has a metropolitan population of more than 2.5 million and where identikit developments of so-called McMansions are eating their way ever closer to Boulder’s greenbelt.
In addition, Boulder has the highest concentration of people with college degrees in the United States. More than half of the town’s population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, which puts it above egghead bastions such as San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The University of Colorado in Boulder and its rival, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, both have well over 25,000 students and several thousand faculty members who provide for a thriving academic scene that has produced numerous Nobel laureates and entrepreneurs and is the ideal breeding ground for entrants into high-growth industries – such as web technology, life sciences and organic products – that reflect the values of a fully-wired mountain enclave.
Bogusky agrees that there is a different vibe to the place, albeit with a little caveat for the uninitiated.
“I got up at 06.00 this morning, had a coffee and went for a bike ride before coming to work at 08.30. In my past life, it would have been the best ride ever, but I know better now,” he says. “Outdoor stuff is not a contest here but a celebration. I keep running into people with national championship shirts. They didn’t buy them – they won them! It’s humbling and I’ve learnt that when somebody tells me a climb or ride is super-fun, it probably means you can die.”
His agency nevertheless encourages its staff to try their hand at everything outdoors. It even employs Kevin Mullen as an “extreme concierge” who will repair and tune up snowboards, mountain bikes and all kinds of other gear. Perhaps it’s this opportunity to get one’s adrenaline rush in the mountains before heading to work that contributes to the less frantic atmosphere in which people work and do deals in Boulder. And there is plenty of entrepreneurial activity going on.
Kyle Lefkoff, a general partner at Boulder Ventures, moved to the Rockies in 1984 and helped grow a whole ecosystem of firms in bio- and information technology. “We have developed a huge population of experts who don’t want to leave,” says the avid alpinist who has scaled K2 and the Eiger.
“There is a lot of wealth here and you wouldn’t even know it. There might be a guy sitting with his PowerBook in a coffee shop who looks like an ageing hippie,” Lefkoff adds. “But he might drive off in his Land Rover and head to the local UBS branch to pull down his $50,000 cheque from a trust fund. People like being under the radar here.”
Web technology upstarts such as Me.dium make good use of local wealth, says its co-founder David Mandell – who chose Boulder’s open atmosphere over the usual tech hubs of New York and San Francisco. Local venture capitalist Brad Feld, who has been living in Boulder since 1995, last year convinced two of his partners at Mobius Venture Capital to relocate from the West Coast to the Rockies and is now moving his entire firm here. The trio also started a new firm called Foundry Group and has invested in more than 40 IT start-ups, of which about a dozen are local.
Denver International Airport, 45 minutes away, is the fifth busiest airport in the United States in terms of traffic, and the tenth in the world with 48 million passengers passing through in 2006. It offers direct flights to Europe and is working hard to open a key Asia route. “We can do day trips to either coast,” explains Feld, “but we have one key advantage: we know how to disconnect at the end of the day.”
The virtuous cycle is particularly evident in the third cluster – businesses that revolve around this healthy lifestyle. The mix of mountain meadows, imposing peaks and the occasional eagle soaring outside the office window drew the hippie and granola crowd to Boulder decades ago. The town still has one of the largest Tibetan-Buddhist communities in the country. Companies such as herbal tea brand Celestial Seasonings, soy milk and tofu empire White Wave or yoga and Pilates accessory manufacturer Gaiam, which all started in town, have become household names.
Fort Collins, Boulder’s northern neighbour, takes a more hands-on approach to all things green and clean. It was named best place to live in the US in 2006 by Money Magazine and offers many of the same amenities and innovative job opportunities as Boulder but with an even lower cost of living.
Boulderites consider the town – which is just a 45-minute drive away – as “out in the boonies”, and Fort Collins residents refer to Boulder’s crowd as a spoilt bunch living in “five square miles surrounded by reality.”
Jibes aside and despite its rustic-looking storefronts, Fort Collins is a hotbed of technical innovation when it comes to renewable energy. The Danish Vestas Group is building its first US plant for wind-turbine blades just outside Fort Collins, and will be investing approximately $60m (€45m).
Both Intel and AMD operate major chip design centres with hundreds of engineers in town and Colorado State University is busy spinning off green energy start-ups dreamed up by its students and professors in the Energy and Engine Conversion Laboratory.
Solix is one of them, getting ready to field-test a series of 100-metre-long bioreactors filled with algae, which can be processed into biodiesel. Its first customer will be New Belgium Brewery, one of the largest and fastest-growing craft breweries in the country.
New Belgium’s mostly female executive team is quick to point out that the employee-owned brewery is 100 per cent wind-powered and uses waste heat, steam and methane from the brewing process to significantly cut its electricity bill. And yes, they also make extremely sought-after beer, thanks to brewmaster Peter Bouckaert, who left his native Belgium to be able to “try new things that tradition forbids.”
Experimenting with renewable energy on the one hand, and allowing an expat brewmaster to concoct beers with new-age ingredients such as Schisandra and Himalayan goji berries, perfectly encapsulates the unorthodox spirit of the place. “It always felt right to focus on the long-term good over short-term financials. But we are just now beginning to measure our gains in efficiency,” explains New Belgium’s chief financial officer Christine Perich. She grew up in Fort Collins and shakes her head when asked about the perceived rivalry between Boulder and her more rustic hometown.
“Our community has grown faster and we are much more socially aligned now. People move here because of our superior quality of life. It’s hard to beat the beauty of the Front Range.”
Local brands that made a global impact:
Makers of colourful clogs started in 2002 and went public in 2006.
Sparkling fruit juice start-up acquired by Pepsi in 2006.
“Eco-centric” bodycare outfit.
Upmarket outdoor gear maker, acquired by Timberland in 2006.
Yoga and pilates accessories.
Makers of tofu and soy milk, acquired by Dean Foods.
Organic dairy brand, also acquired by Dean Foods.
Herbal tea firm acquired first by Kraft, then Hain Foods.
One of the granddaddies of data storage, started in 1969.
Biopharmaceutical company launched in 1998.
A self-prepared transit movement
Boulder has one of the best cycle-path systems and public transport networks in the US. Many residents commute by bus to Denver, while light rail lines are on the drawing board to connect Boulder to Denver International Airport. But this is a town for serious athletes and the most important transport accessory is a roof rack to haul your gear. Bikers meet at Amante Coffee (4580 Broadway) on Sunday mornings before heading off.
The key place for climbing gear is Neptune Mountaineering on 633 South Broadway (neptunemountaineering.com). For functionally smart clothing that goes from outdoors to a night out, Nau has opened its first US flagship store here and if you’re looking for a place to stay, the St Julien, is the first boutique hotel in town. Alternatively try veteran Hotel Boulderado.
The basics of better living
“Boulder black-tie,” locals say, consists of jeans and a T-shirt. While the laid-back attitude extends as far as the workplace, Boulder’s food is much more dressed-up. Nationally acclaimed Frasca Food and Wine (frascafoodandwine.com) is “one of the few places you can wear cute shoes,” says Ana Bogusky. The Kitchen – an organic wind-powered restaurant – is hip and very Boulder (thekitchencafe.com). Radda – located in a mall – has a happening bar.
Deals are done at Vic’s Coffee at 1800 Broadway and Alpine but Joshua Onysko of Pangea Organics swears by Spruce Confections: “The best place to read the Sunday New York Times with a fresh croissant and a double espresso.” Farmers markets are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 13th St and Canyon Blvd (boulderfarmers.org).
The cost of smart community
One in four residents here are students – undergraduate or post-graduate – one-third are married and half are under 30. The median home price is $355,000 (around €265,000). A downtown loft in One Boulder Plaza or the west end of Pearl Street – starting at around $1m (€740,000) – is a pricey option for dual income, childless, upwardly-mobile yuppies. Young families with kids prefer the Newlands neighbourhood. Old money and businessmen tend to live in the several-storeyed houses of tree-lined Mapleton Hill. “Tear-downs at $650,000-plus are the norm,” says resident Cindy Lefkoff.
Locals recommend several estate agents: Scott Franklund at Legendary Property; Jane Stebbins at Meridian Properties; Bill Goodacre at Goodacre Properties. The Colorado Group helps large clients such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Crocs find new offices.