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Lessons from Denver Startup Week 2017

The sixth year of the largest free entrepreneurial event in the United States is a reminder that Colorado is the place for a excitable class of creatives, founders, and finance runners that drive the economy here in the city, and across the front range. It’s not just for small business, it’s about startups and you.

The length of the offering and the sheer scale of such an event can be staggering to take in. Karl Taylor and Crystal Vales share a few lessons they learned from this year’s offerings in hope that they help to better guide your participation in what is sure to be an even larger startup week next year.

Lesson #1

It’s Legal Here Before Anywhere Else.

2pm Happy hours like the 1960s were back are the norm.

It may be part of the culture of our work-hard-play-harder mountain town or it could be because literally every craft brewer/distiller/winery wanted their product sampled, but for a solid 4 hours before evening programming started you could find great libations nearly anywhere you looked.

Standout alcohol vendors lined the halls of Basecamp Events and a number of parties and mixers.

Influencers looking for vendors? This is your scene.

Attendee looking to relax? Pace yourself — otherwise it’s a long week!

Lesson #2

Cannabis Is On The Ascendant.

No doubt about it, it even had its own track.

I thought The coolest event title branding was Bullets, Sausage, Whiskey, and Pot: Manufacturing for the Vices.

I liked it because the event really brought all the usual suspects into one very raw space (the garage on 21/Arapahoe) to discuss the usual enemies of business efficiency, state bureaucracy and random regulations. Panelists explored permitting processes that are too slow and much ado was made about platform bans on social media.

Guests at this event included Mary’s Medicinals, Laws Whiskey, and CharcutNuvo. A bullet company called Top Brass even brought brass hollow point bullets for people to take home.

Max from Mc Squares was on hand and I found his novel design thinking tool a delight (as well as his efforts to reassure me at a very vulnerable time.) They have a kickstarter and their VP of product is genuine AF.

Lesson #3

One Cannot Continue on Cocktails Alone

Every single night some party was happening. The week made days that were 16 hours long, if you started early enough to keep your own business going. Atop of balancing the demands of being a small business owner with the need to show up and be seen, events were often packed and far flung.

To make matters worse, you couldn’t tell passed on reservations how many people were going to actually show up. Some spaces were overflowing, others were nearly vacant. One panel I went to at the McNichols building happened to also be the scene of a concurrent session of elevator repair. The constant stream of repair guy traffic and almost a bout of vacuuming — made focus difficult.

The paradox of the free ticket is that enslaves everyone’s expectations. We had our own event with almost 70 reservations, with 20 in actual attendance. Someone must devise a solution to this ridiculous pain point!

Lesson #4

Pitch Competitions Are Modern Day Theatre.

Got a chance to see Boogaloo beds walk off with 70k in investment and gifts in kind for custom bed manufacture for sensory disorders. All the other participants made off with 1k.

During, I sat with CEO of BDN sports, and Ken Chez CRO for Mainstreet Exchange, as they shared tidbits about VC vs. Private Equity, media landscaping, and deep interest networks around Sports content.

We also whispered about the abrupt end of each competitor’s time with seemingly spontaneous applause from the front row.

If you haven’t gotten to witness a pitch event, it’s certainly a sight to behold.

Lesson #5

What Was Going On With The Women Who Startup Summit?

It could have been the stresses that come from planning an event that is up against the biggest bro ever talking with the most Boulder guy ever. To be honest, Feld’s touching panel anecdote centered around the 90s era slogan #wesuckless. Mark Cuban and Brad Feld might have had a curtain fall on them but it was undoubtedly less dramatic than all the female storybook climbing going on. There was real talk about those real challenges (after all, less than 3% of venture capital goes to teams lead by female founders) but I couldn’t help but notice that my gender alone would not qualify me for kind or polite treatment, or even humane treatment.

It’s not just me 3–5 others said they felt the 1k person reception was noticeably strained and people were rude. A well known founder literally shot eye darts at me when I motioned hi/thanks/congrats/this is an awesome turn out, blurting out, “pretend I’m not here! I’m going on stage…” an hour prior to it actually happening, all while a speaker whispered into a microphone being relayed into an overly crowded room.

Despite all of that, I did score a pretty cool t-shirt I’ll need to diet to wear and had a chance to eat some watery looking taco ingredients in cups (a problem I rectified with an emergency visit to Torchy’s) made it all better.

Congrats are in order for Samantha Aragon of Infatue and Skullcandy who took advantage of the opportunity to relate a story about how a college rejection letter got her into fashion entrepreneurship.

More people should have the courage to mention that the college turnpike is worth going right past, but it might be a good idea to avoid skipping charm school.

Lesson #6

Beware of Basecamp Stragglers

There was a noticeable faction of people that were seeing what you were going to, so they could go too. They could be looking for friends, jobs, start up advice, anything. Some were innocent enough, others were looking to see who they could meet that you might also meet.

That kind of dumpy intimacy smacking of desperation and yearning for attention from those moving and shaking gets tiring. I’m actually trying to come up with a term for it, something that meshes groupy, laid off 90s IT guy/uber driver, gadfly, and soggy narcissist all in one word.

I say it with all sympathy for the disenfranchised, but this sort of thing feels dangerous. It makes these spaces less inviting and makes it harder for people from a wide variety of backgrounds to get value out of these sorts of functions.

Lesson #7

Panel Events Help Almost No One

They’re pretty much set up to be brand expression events for sales opportunities.

This was so apparent this year.

The audiences seemed to be about 40% new to biz, 30% excited to attend any sort of thing, and 30% looking for a career/job/company idea. That can mean you get only a midpoint with your regular non public speaker who wants to avoid audience confusion as a real thematic influence.

I missed Built in Colorado’s office/bar crawl this year, which would be a hybrid between company culture presentation and social networking. I think it was the right choice, and if you want my advice: go to parties instead.

If you can marathon through craft IPA, tequila and raw oysters, and make enough turns about the room, you could meet a group of Craft beer makers from Normandy and talk about your favorite breweries, or why French beer doesn’t exist meaningfully in Denver. The sort of thing that makes you want to take up Duolingo more seriously. Learn about others with life stories about being homeless in Thailand for a year.

It’s really about the experience, almost never a result, and it’s a great week for writing some beautiful beginnings.

Lesson #8

Bored? Look For The Boring Stuff.

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit to here coming up with names. As such, I should have likely recognized this simple truth sooner, but I didn’t really “get it” until this week:

The more time someone’s spent polishing the name of their presentation, the more likely an event is to be about the basics.

There’s likely some practical lesson to be learned here about what we really mean when we talk about authenticity, about truth in advertising, and about how we present our workshops to the world. Here, however, I think it is sufficient to say that if you’re finding yourself suffocating through panel after panel full of advice intended for people who are just starting out, you recognize that alternatives might be out there.

Just one example from my experiences this week, it was during a non-descript session entitled “Flyover Funding,” I first heard that Matt Pfeil (of DataStaxx fame) was debating increasingly shifting focus towards a new travel play. Another great descript event seemed to hold more than a handful of people who were doing “big” things.

Keep an eye out for where most people won’t be — you’ll be glad that you did.

Lesson #9

Learn The Fundamentals

I can’t deny that an overwhelming number of panels and speakers seemed to address exceedingly basic topics. Marketing events that offered up textbook level discussions. Uninspired questions. Presentations that seemed more appropriate for a business student than a working professional.

There’s some value to this: it forces you to review concepts and best practices you haven’t had occasion to reflect on in years. It provides you an opportunity to reflect on what places you have deviated from “standard” operating procedure and to consider ways in which you might benefit from a rededication to the standard playbook.

There’s something to be said about the value of time, and it might be a good idea to limit your engagement to this sort of thing if you can. Still, these types of events provided a helpful reminder that there’s a path to follow…somewhere.

Lesson #10

You’ll Wish You Had A Time-Turner

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who noticed this, but walking time between events ranges 10–15 minutes for stuff close by and 30+ for anything across town. The trouble with that is that nearly every event ran to an hour. This seemed to lead to a perpetual cycle of slipping in late or needing to slip out early to accommodate any kind of serious engagement with more than a handful of events a day.

There’s probably a straightforward solution for this: attending fewer events. The trouble with this, of course, is that you won’t want that.

Were you there?

Tell us what you think and what we got wrong in the comments!