Can a Small, Remote Ski Town Help Launch a Big Business?
by Seth Cagin
Dec 28, 2012 | 2921 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
VENTURE ACCELERATORS - Jesse Johnson, right, and Paul Major, in front of the offices of the Telluride Foundation, where they're embarking on a new form of entrepreneurial philanthropy with the Telluride Venture Accelerator. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
VENTURE ACCELERATORS - Jesse Johnson, right, and Paul Major, in front of the offices of the Telluride Foundation, where they're embarking on a new form of entrepreneurial philanthropy with the Telluride Venture Accelerator. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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Telluride Venture Accelerator Will Announce Three Winning Applicants in January

Many Telluride residents have long dreamed of a more diverse economy, one not entirely dependent on tourism and construction, so that families might live here more comfortably and sustainably.

Jesse Johnson, who grew up part-time in Telluride and who returned to live here full-time with his wife and two small children two years ago, is one of them. Why can’t there be meaningful work in Telluride outside of tourism or construction or local government? What other business might thrive in Telluride?

Johnson’s idea for meaningful economic activity, the Telluride Venture Accelerator, is now being realized under the aegis of the Telluride Foundation.  

“There is a surprisingly large community of highly successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople who live in Telluride full-time or part-time,” Johnson said in an interview, explaining how the idea evolved. “They really like starting businesses, so the idea is to tap into their talents and interests by providing opportunities for them to mentor startup businesses in Telluride.” 

Telluride, in this scenario, would serve as home to a think tank and a retreat for aspiring entrepreneurs.  The mentorships would attract people with a winning idea who would benefit from a six-month sabbatical in the mountains where they could flesh out a business plan.  In addition to time to think, the winning applications will receive a $30,000 cash grant, up to $8,000 to cover travel and living expenses, shared workspace where they might bounce ideas off each other, and focused advice from mentors whose expertise is relevant to their idea.  

In exchange, the Venture Accelerator will take a four percent equity stake in the participating companies, potentially creating a fund with which to expand the program in the future.  And, to involve the larger Telluride community, the Venture Accelerator’s mentors may deliver lectures open to the public and is creating an exchange of local entrepreneurs to enable their sharing of resources.  

The overall idea struck a chord with Paul Major, CEO of the Telluride Foundation, because, Major said, the world of philanthropy is changing. 

“A lot of the people with financial resources who might have given money to a community foundation in the past are much more interested now in business,” Major said. “Donors are migrating away from traditional philanthropy, and that’s especially true of a lot of the people in Telluride who Jesse interested in his idea. They are at a point in their lives where they want to give, and the Telluride Venture Accelerator fits their interests.

“Telluride just might have the highest per capita number of venture capital/private equity people in the country,” he added.  “These are people not necessarily already active with the Telluride Foundation, but who are interested in helping build new businesses.   Because that is what they like to do.”

In other words, Telluride’s assets in being home to a venture accelerator include not only its capacity to host visitors in an inspirational setting, but also a local and part-time local community of expert mentors.  Add to that, Major said, the fact that Telluride as a community has been searching for ways to diversify its economy, and the stage was set for Johnson’s concept.

The idea is not necessarily to launch businesses that will stay in Telluride and create employment here, Johnson and Major said, although that could happen in some cases.  Instead, the economic benefit to Telluride is that the Venture Accelerator itself may grow into a sustainable enterprise, bringing new groups of young entrepreneurs here for their six-month intervals and cultivating a model for one way, the Telluride way, that promising businesses can be launched.

“If just one business took off from here, Telluride might become identified as a great place to get a business off the ground,” Major said.  “It’s actually part of Telluride’s history, given L.L. Nunn, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla and the development of A.C. electricity, that something big can originate here.”

The Telluride Venture Accelerator began marketing the opportunity for startup businesses to apply for a mentorship in early October.  By the deadline of Nov. 15, a hundred applications from ten different countries had been submitted.  Those applications were reviewed by the fifty volunteer mentors Johnson and Major had recruited, with different mentors working on the applications most closely aligned with their backgrounds.  Readers included the former head of marketing from Burton, the CEO of Patagonia and a Whole Foods Board member. 

By the end of November, nine finalists had been selected.  The three winning bids will be announced on Jan. 10 and their mentorships will start on Feb. 1.

“The applications were really impressive,” Johnson said. “They were in the outdoors and recreation field, natural products, including food, tourism, health and wellness, education and energy. One of the nine finalists is a pair of local residents with a patented idea. 

One of the mentors, Telluride resident Richard Cornelius, said in a separate interview that he is excited to participate in the Venture Accelerator in part because he is “vested in Telluride,” making his donation of time to help diversity the local economy personally rewarding.  

“I like working with startup companies,” he said. “Its fun working with people with an idea and helping them realize it.”

Cornelius was a partner with the giant consulting firm Accenture, where his area of expertise was managing electronic payment processes.  His deeper involvement with the first group of businesses expected to come to Telluride next year depends on who is selected.  

“One of the challenges for a startup is that the people involved may lack expertise in some areas,” Cornelius said. “They may have a great product but no knowledge about marketing, for example.  Or they may not have an understanding of finance.  Or manufacturing.  The mentors can help them understand where they need to fill in so their business has a better chance of success.

The group of forty mentors Johnson pulled together is “very impressive,” Cornelius said.  These were people who live here or spend time here but didn’t know each other. Now, through the Venture Accelerator they are networking and getting to know each other.  There is a lot of power in that.”

When you put talented people together in a room, Cornelius concluded, “exciting things can happen.”

One of those things could be to make Telluride renowned as more than a great place to live, and a great place to ski in the summer and attend festivals in the summer.  It could make Telluride renowned as a great place to launch a business.

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