Telluride Reaches Out
Six-month ‘Venture Accelerator’ exposes entrepreneurs to mentors, angel investors
In Telluride, there is more natural beauty than the eye can see. Economic diversity, not so much. The local economy is based on tourism and real estate, and more tourism.
People don’t usually come here to start a company. They are much more likely to move to town after selling one.
But that means there is no shortage of residents and second-home owners with C-level experience at Fortune 500 companies. And those who don’t live here can’t argue with an extended vacation in Telluride.
Under the umbrella of the nonprofit Telluride Foundation, the Telluride Venture Accelerator is looking to pair this deep pool of experience and the remarkable location and other natural resources to see what kind of new businesses might take root in Telluride. The focus is on companies other than the tech startups often associated with other accelerators.
“We felt we had to create a niche for ourselves,” says TVA Director Jesse Johnson. “We chose outdoor products, natural products, and tourism and travel, as well as energy, education and water.”
Johnson first pitched the concept to the Telluride Foundation last year. The foundation’s officials liked the concept, leading to a September launch for the TVA. The application process for the first class of companies began in October. About 100 applications came in from all over the U.S. as well as 10 countries. The winners – Denver-based Globa.li, Telluride-based Hoggle Goggle, Dolores-based High Desert Foods and Maine-based Hyperlite Mountain Gear – arrived in Telluride in early February and are in town through July with office space at The Peaks Resort in Mountain Village and $30,000 in seed funding, as well as in-kind services from local businesses.
The six-month program culminates with Demo Day on July 15. “They’ll stand up in front of a room of angel investors, and maybe some institutional ones, and make their quick pitch for funding,” says Johnson of the grand finale.
Most important is the mentoring, says Johnson. “We have this incredibly rich pool of people,” he says of TVA’s 55 mentors. “They had never plugged into something like this in Telluride.”
Among the TVA mentors are Cheryl Rosner, former president of Hotels.com, and Jerry Colonna, founder of Flatiron Partners, one of the most successful early-stage VC funds of the dot-com boom.
Hoggle Goggle has developed the eponymous strap-mounted, scratch-preventing sheath for ski goggles. “They’ve been doing a spectacular job of connecting us with people,” says Lara Young, CEO and co-founder of the company. “There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the companies and the mentors.”
Young had TVA-arranged phone meetings with Timberland, Burton and Gart Capital Partners’ Ken Gart in the first month after the program kicked off in early February.
Young is jumping from a predominately nonprofit career to the for-profit world with Hoggle Goggle, and she commends the TVA for helping support the process. “The application process forced you to refine your concept,” she says. “It kicked us into gear.” She hopes to have the Hoggle Goggle on display for retailers at the next SIA Snow Show in Denver in January 2014.
Globa.li CEO Sarah Fazendin is one of three Globa.li employees spending time in Telluride. She says the company hopes to launch the platform by May and land about $500,000 seed funding at the end of the program.
Globa.li is developing an online booking platform for African tourism operators. “In Africa, only about 4 percent of hotels are bookable online,” Fazendin says. “There is very little technology.”
Fazendin saw the TVA as “a good fit” for Globa.li, and it hasn’t disappointed. “It’s been great,” she says of the program. “Telluride has an accessible, open, casual way of doing business. I’m definitely very open to the mentorship and direction.”
Craig Howe, founder of L.A.-based social-media consulting firm Rocket XL, will be the TVA’s entrepreneur-in-residence in June and July. Originally from the Golden area, Howe works with numerous incubators and accelerators from North Carolina to California because he loves the culture of a startup. “I love that development phase,” he says. “My favorite time is when you’re between four and eight people. When you’re that small, every victory is a huge deal.”
The TVA entrepreneur-in-residence gig was an easy sell to Howe. “Telluride is such a magical place,” he says. “It’s a setting that really fosters discovery. I was so enamored of the idea that I decided to move family out for the summer.” (Tough detail, sure, but somebody’s got to do it.)
Howe calls himself a “huge advocate” for Colorado. “I’m very drawn to Colorado for the work-life balance,” he adds. “It’s a beautiful place with a great quality of life.”
Howe’s experience with major brands will help the companies in the TVA. “I’m used to pitching and presenting,” he says. “If they don’t have a succinct and powerful pitch, the chance of getting people excited and involved is minimal.”
Howe describes his experience of growing a startup in “Star Wars” terms. “When I started, I was Luke Skywalker,” he says. “By the time I finished the earn-out I felt like Yoda.” With this pace, good advice can easily be the difference between success and failure.
The TVA’s Johnson thinks there’s a good possibility some of the companies that come in from outside of Telluride will make a permanent home in the ski town. After all, he’s familiar with the storyline. After selling his sustainable-furniture company Q Collection in New York, “We were thinking of moving to Boston, but we decided to take one year in Telluride first,” he says. “Now we’re going on three.”
And Johnson knows firsthand that the fabled Telluride lifestyle is conducive to entrepreneurialism. “Of all of the things Telluride is known for,” he says, “it’s also a great place to start a business.”