Startups are big in Boulder, but where are the tech billionaires?

June 20, 2012

“I’m not interested in working on this unless it’s going to be a multi-billion dollar idea. If I thought this would be a hundred million dollar company — what’s the point?” – Anonymous entreprerneur discussing his startup. Overheard in front of Ozo Coffee, Boulder, CO.

I’m in Boulder, Colorado for a few days this week to attend Big Boulder, a conference devoted to the social side of “big data.” Gnip, the company hosting the conference, is one I’ve written about before. They’re doing the plumber’s work of connecting all the firehoses of raw, public user data from social media companies like Twitter and Tumblr up to clients that want to derive insights from the wisdom of these online crowds.

A quick note on the definition of “big data.” Generally speaking, it’s the sort of data set that’s so huge, even running a simple report on it won’t tell you anything interesting. For example, if you could ask the IRS for a list of all the 25-30 year olds in the U.S. that paid taxes last year, you’d get back a list, alright. But what would be useful about it? On the other hand, if you could filter that list by several other factors: did they pay capital gains, did they owe over six figures in taxes, what is their self-reported job title, and so on, you might end up with a list highly correlated to young, dot-com millionaires and billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg. And you might cross reference that list against all the other data sets you can find on them: where they live, where they shop, where they travel, what they watch, eat and listen to. It’s all out there.

Social media companies have woken up to the idea that their user bases are throwing billions of data points that have huge potential value, in aggregate. But to get to the point where big data is useful, the tooling around asking and getting the answers to those sorts of questions has to be very, very good.

That — getting to the point where insights are derived from huge firehoses of content — is where data science comes in, and where Big Boulder attendees get wildly excited about the potential for big data to change the way the world works. (There are plenty of skeptics on the other side of the coin too, that wonder if the phrase “big data” has simply become the latest marketing jargon in the tech industry, even as it has yielded insights in unsexy fields, like milk production, for decades now.)

More on those topics in later dispatches this week, but back to the quote at the top of this post. Right now, Boulder feels like a town on the verge. At dinner at The Kitchen last night, a very good restaurant that seems to blend Boulder’s crunchy past and its silicon future into a classy, urbane present, a similar conversation took place at the table next to me, where a jeans-and-polo-shirted biotech founder was intently pitching a venture capitalist. The venture capitalist, wearing a blue blazer, khakis and penny loafers, was pleasantly surprised to learn from the waiter that his favorite aperitif was in stock behind the bar. “I guess I’m not in the hinterlands after all!” he said, to my amusement and his host’s chagrin.

Indeed, there’s a lot at stake for Boulder right now. Despite actually being the site of the inaugural Techstars incubator program, which has since spread all over the country, there’s not yet a “Boulder”-identifiable billion dollar startup just yet. To those outside of its sphere of influence, it can still seem hinterland-ish, even if that’s not accurate once you get here and experience it. Other startup Meccas seem farther ahead: The towns that make up Silicon Valley all have their Twitters, their LinkedIns, their Googles, their Facebooks; New York has its Tumblr and Foursquare. The lack of a heavyweight presence in Boulder, thanks to the Techcrunch style of hype-machine journalism, could eventually drain off some of the buzz — and the money — the town has been attracting as of late.

From walking around Boulder today, it feels and sounds like it’s only a matter of time until some company here joins the ranks of startup legends, not just in valuation, but in profile and prestige. In some ways, though, this little mountain town feels content to stay under the radar, and enjoy the riches that its many startup companies worth hundreds of millions dollars, perhaps billions collectively, have brought with them: casual fine dining, easy, high-quality living, a feeling of having “opted out” of the hustle and bustle on the coasts — a thought expressed to me more than one time during my very brief stay here. When a Boulder startup finally cracks the public consciousness, that will all change. Despite that, it does feel like everyone here is waiting for something truly Big to happen. What that will be remains to be seen.


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Paul – many thanks for this well written piece! As a nine year Boulderite who chose to head west after growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, I can attest that your closing paragraph is on point. Boulder shines because we people who are very talented professionally who also enjoy the less techy side of life (like running up the nearest mountain). And it’s good to know that we also have restaurants fit for venture capitalists:-) Maybe we’ll see a billion dollar idea, or maybe not. But that person you heard in front of Ozo coffee was definitely not me, because if I can work on something that I’m passionate about (hey, weather) and lead the business for decades into the future, I’d be perfectly pleased with a hundred million dollar company…!

Posted by JoelGratz | Report as abusive

Maybe will be Boulder’s Wikipedia.
Not a Billiom dollar endeavour, but a humanitarian effort.

Posted by daninofal | Report as abusive