I visited Denver the week of September 16th, 2019 as a Denver Startup Week Ambassador. Denver Startup Week (DSW) is a five day series of events that showcases the vibrant startup scene in Denver. I felt that DSW had a vibe very similar to South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin. There was a ton of awesome daytime programming as well as several evening activities.
As a DSW Ambassador, I had the privilege of getting an intimate series of meetings with some of the most successful startup companies in Denver. We were given exclusive access to startup founders, their leadership teams, and exclusive events during Denver Startup Week.
Out of hundreds of applicants, I was one of 50 people selected to travel to Denver as a DSW Ambassador. I was extremely honored to be a part of this group which was created to span across geographies, industries, and technical backgrounds. We were also a very diverse bunch representing various genders, races, and ethnicities.
Monday - Southwest Airlines, Sheets and Giggles, Catalyst, Pie Insurance
My journey started early in the morning on Monday, September 16th. I normally fly out of George Bush International Airport (IAH), but, Southwest Airlines sponsors the DSW Ambassador program by providing a free flight for all 50 participants. Since Soutwest only flies out of Houston’s Hobby Airport (HOU), I had to drive from my home in north Houston at about 4:30 AM to make it to Hobby in time for my flight. Fortunately, it was so early that I didn’t run into any traffic and made it to the airport in almost the same amount of time it takes me to get to IAH. I parked my car in the garage and boarded my flight with plenty of time to spare.
I believe that the best flight is an uneventful one, and I made it to Denver without incident. In an effort to keep the cost of travel low, the DSW Amabassor program also provided a free ticket to use for the train from the airport to downtown. So, I walked from the gate to the terminal and boarded the train.
I enjoyed watching the Denver landscape pass by as the train travelled down the track. It had been a couple of years since I was last in Denver, and I enjoyed watching folks get on and off the train. I’m a big fan of public transit because it’s better for the environment and also costs less than most alternative forms of transportation. I soon reached my stop at Union Station.
I prefer to walk as much as possible when I get a chance to travel so I did the ten minute walk from Union Station to the Hilton Garden Inn Union Station which was the host hotel for the DSW Ambassadors. My room wasn’t ready yet so I decided to visit Basecamp which was the headquarters for all DSW activities. It was cool to see DSW signage all over Downtown Denver.
Basecamp was off the 16th Street Mall near the iconic Daniels and Fisher Tower.
I entered Basecamp which was already starting to hum with activity. I showed the folks at the registration table my DSW email confirmation, and I received my wristband. It was official! I was now part of the DSW experience.
I checked out a few of the vendor and sponsor tables at Basecamp. One was from the winner of DWS last week, a company called Sheets and Giggles. They create sustainable bedding from materials like Eucalyptcus leaves. To my surprise, they gave me a free box of king size sheets wrapped in a nice purple bag.
It was getting close to the meeting time for the Ambassadors so I headed back to the Hilton Garden Inn. I entered the lobby and saw a group of people who had to be my fellow Ambassadors! I started meeting a few of them, but it wasn’t long until we had to go to our first event. The program arranged a set of Lyft codes that we would use to caravan over to Catalyst, a co-working company specializing in the healthcare field located at 3513 Brighton Blvd.
My group was one of the first to arrive, and I was pleasently surprised to see a nice spread of food and beverages when I walked into the room. This was much appreciated after a morning spent flying into Denver and walking around downtown!
I also saw the first of what would be a theme of my experience as a DSW Amabassador. Working in Denver means that you get great views!
We settled into our chairs with our food and listened as Connor told us more about Catalyst and introduced the first speaker.
While we ate, Catalyst’s President Mike Biselli told us the amazing story of the space. It’s an industry integrator designed to provide an environment for companies in the healthcare sector to work next to each other as they navigate the rapid innovations happening in the sector. Whether the organization is a startup or has been around for decades, Catalyst provides a foundation for collaboration and shared learning.
We formed ourselves into Lyft groups again to caravan over to our next stop: Pie Insurance. This started was founded in 2017 to make it easier for small business owners to carry commercial insurance at an affordable price. They specialize in worker’s compensation coverage.
After arriving at their building on Blake Street, we went up to their office on the fifth floor. After being seated, we met their leadership team (John Swigart, Co-Founder and CEO; Dax Craig, Co-Founder and President; Mike Gionfriddo, CTO; Jason Friedlander, Chief Product Officer; and Melissa Eaton, VP of Customer Care) who gave us an overview of the company. I was then delighted to learn that we would take part in an activity to help improve Pie Insurance!
Each member of the leadership team described the challenges they’re experiencing, and they asked for help in their specific functional areas (marketing, customer care, technology, etc.) So, we split into teams according to our interests and went into separate rooms. I chose the technology group since my background is in enterprise software development. We addressed the challenge of protecting customer privacy. The bulk of my career has been in consulting, and I really enjoyed acting as an advisor to Pie Insurance.
Pie Insurance was our last company visit of the day, and we had some free time to explore the many events happening during Denver Startup Week. I stopped by the DSW VIP Toast at the Downtown Denver Partnership Office and enjoyed hanging out with my fellow Ambassadors. The DSW Opening Block Party was going on in Basecamp, and I took in the many sights and sounds of the DSW experience.
I walked back to the Hilton Garden Inn and got a chance to open my Ambassador swag bag. It had a really soft DWS t-shirt and a lot of thoughtful items.
I had initially planned to attend the Designer Track After Party later that evening, but I had a lot of Slack messages and emails from work that I knew would take several hours of my attention. So, I worked from the hotel and then called it a night.
Tuesday - Evolve, Guild, VIP Dinner at Polsinelli
I woke up Tuesday morning and went down to the lobby to assemble with the other Ambassadors. We went to Evolve at 717 17th Street to learn about their business. Evolve connects people who own vacation properties with guests who want to rent them. They have a fascinating business model that utilizes technology to make the experience satisfying for everyone.
We learned about Evolve from Brian Egan, Co-Founder and CEO. He told the Evolve story with passion and humility, and I was really impressed after only hearing him speak for just a few minutes.
We heard from other members of Brian’s team, and we then had another opportunity to share our expertise as Ambassadors. Similar to Pie Insurance, we formed into teams to tackle a different aspect of the company’s business. Evolve called it the “DSW Challenge”, and I decided to join the group discussing how to improve customer support. We split off into separate rooms and brainstormed for about 15 minutes (which led to the creation of a lot of sticky notes). I was nominated to share our findings with the wider group along with my fellow Ambassador, Kathryn.
I was really amazed by the ideas that were presented, and I think we left Evolve with a lot of options to implement.
We had some free time for lunch so I grabbed a quick bite and walked back to the hotel to catch up on work. I then met some of the other Ambassadors, and we went to Guild Education at 370 17th street which provides support for companies that offer continuing education programs for their employees. Once again, the view outside their windows was amazing!
Guild’s first presenter was Bijal Shah, Chief Product & Analytics Officer. She gave us a great overview of how Guild supports both employees and employers involved in an education benefits program.
We heard from other leaders at Guild and then learned we would hear from a panel discussion moderated by Sage Soronen, Sr. Manager, Recruiting. All of the panelists had moved from outside of Denver to work at Guild.
The panel introduced themselves and then covered a variety of topics including working at Guild, advice for moving the Denver, and makes Guild a possible unicorn.
We left Guild, and I went back to the Hilton Garden Inn to change for the VIP Dinner at Polsinelli on 1401 Lawrence Street. We had a lovely rooftop dinner where we heard from the sponsors of the program and enjoyed great conversations!
I walked back to the hotel that night thinking about the intriguing ideas I had been exposed to during the day and happy that I got the chance to spend time with this amazing group of people!
Wednesday - Ibotta, Back to Houston
I woke up Wednesday to a few issues going on at work so I had to catch up later with the group at our last company visit, Ibotta on 1801 California Street. Ibotta makes a shopping app that makes it easy for consumers to earn cash back on purchases. Thankfully, I got a chance to hear the panel disussion at the end of the session.
I really enjoyed hearing the panel discuss their culture, growth, and the challenges of maintaining a successful mobile appliction.
I returned to my hotel room to continue working, and, before I knew it, it was time to take the train back to the Denver airport to catch my Southwest Airlines flight to Houston!
The Denver Startup Environment
It became very clear that Denver is a true hub for startups. There’s great talent in the city, and the cost of living is much lower than the San Francisco Bay Area or New York City. While a lot of VC funding still comes from the coasts, the strong business proposition that Denver offers is clear.
A Great Group
I really enjoyed every Ambassador I met. The program team assembled a wonderful group of people and every intersacton was positive. I learned so much in a very short period of time.
Energetic Host Companies
I also really liked the energy that the host companies brought to the experience. It was clear that they loved their companies and were proud to be based in Denver.
Ideas for Next Year
The DSW Ambassador program is mature and very well run. Here are few ideas that I think will make it even better next year.
Cover All Expenses
The program covers the flight, hotel, and ground transportation to and from the Denver airport. However, I had to pay for parking my car at the Houston airport. It would be great if the program reimbursed the Ambassadors for this expense.
I really liked the experience of providing consulting services as an Ambassador. I’d love for more of the host companies to provide that opportunity and continue to make the experience more interactive.
We spent quite a bit of time moving from company to company which was great since it provided a way to see more of Denver. However, transportation time took up quite a bit of our schedule. The three days in the program flew by, and it would be great if we could add a few hours to the schedule by cutting down on travel of time. If a host company could provide a home base for the Ambassadors for the duration of the program and have the other startup company representatives travel to that location, then I think this would improve the experience.