A Storytellers event organized in 2019 by the Startup Colorado in Yuma, Colorado, with the owners of Red Willow on Main. Emcee, Anthony Poponi, conducted a live interview with Danine Bahnsen and Delana Gorman about their experience opening their new event space and catering business. It was around 2019 that Startup Colorado started designing a social network for Colorado's rural entrepreneurs. (photo submitted)

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What ties quirky mountain towns in Colorado to the state’s larger cities is more than just the Front Range, an approximately 300-mile stretch of mountain peaks with some rising over 10,000 feet above the Great Plains. In fact, what connects Durango in the southwest part of the state to Sterling in the northeast is a spirit of entrepreneurship — an ethos Startup Colorado built upon.

Founded in 2011, Startup Colorado initially focused on supporting young companies on the Front Range. But in 2017, the organization redirected its mission to more specifically support the state’s rural-based entrepreneurs. 

Since then, the organization has been committed to providing timely resources for entrepreneurs, including programs, conferences, funding, and more. Startup Colorado staff were constantly on the road, visiting communities and cultivating direct relationships. 

But the pandemic prompted the organization to alter its course in response to the urgent needs of its community. Top of the list: immediate and accurate information.

A Weekly Source

Startup Colorado started hosting what it called Regional Calls in partnership with the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade and the Small Business Development Center Network, among others, in March. 

The weekly calls were aimed at assisting rural entrepreneurs and small business owners, giving them the latest updates from local, state, and federal agencies. These were organized by region to ensure participants received information relevant to their areas. In the beginning, the calls divided the state into four: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. Now, it’s a bi-monthly event split between the East and the West.

“I think the Regional Calls are probably one of the biggest things we have done in terms of reach,” said Margaret Hedderman, Startup Colorado Events and Communications Manager. 

“It evolved quite a bit since they started. Initially, it was in response to the unfolding crisis: answering questions on the federal stimulus packages and keeping people up to speed. As things started normalizing, we started hosting calls more on topical topics, providing insights on experts around the country.” 

According to Startup Colorado, they have had more than 5,500 participants since they launched the project – a number that includes those who joined multiple times. The calls, held on Zoom, are also available for replay on YouTube.

“We didn’t require registration for a long time,” said Delaney Keating, Startup Colorado Managing Director. She said the organization wanted the calls to be as accessible and as convenient as possible, especially for those in areas with low broadband connectivity. “Half of Colorado is agricultural and the other half is tourism, so we catered to that.” 

Yet, with hot weather fanning fires on thousands of acres across Colorado, affecting its agricultural crops, and travel restrictions limiting the number of tourists, both main drivers of Colorado’s economy had one thing in common: financial need.

“Funding is always the business owners’ concern,” said Keating, adding that this was the most commonly requested topic. “A lot of support needed when it comes to giving financial advice – strategy, financial management, and planning.”

A Virtual Community

To strengthen its newly-formed community, Startup Colorado planned to build a web platform to bolster its virtual presence; under development since summer 2018, work on the platform was accelerated amid the pandemic, to create the digital home the organization envisioned. “It was just an idea that came up more and more frequently,” said Hedderman. 

The website, meant to serve as a closed forum, requires registration and approval from the moderators. Keating describes it as a cross between LinkedIn and Facebook. It has currently launched in a beta version, with 100 entrepreneurs testing the site, until its formal and public launch in October. 

Once approved, users will first see a landing page called the “Live Feed” where they can read posts by other users in the system. Like Facebook, users can publish posts and photos, and engage with fellow users through a comments section.

One interesting feature of the website is the “People” tab, which functions as a sophisticated directory. Users can find fellow users who live in their area, as well as based on their areas of expertise, and connect with them.

“We saw the need for rural entrepreneurs to be able to connect with one another,” Hedderman said. “It is not easy to find other entrepreneurs in these communities separated by geographic features.” 

The website is a free service for now and is not limited to Colorado residents. Startup Colorado is hoping to reach 500 engaged users who will grow the community.

In order to accomplish that, the organization needed a more robust online network, said Keating. “It’s for rural by rural.”