Natasha Main has been in Colorado Springs for less than a year and has already embedded herself in the business community thanks to her position as the new executive director of Peak Startup. Main moved from Tennessee to Colorado in December 2017 and began working with the local nonprofit in June. The Missouri native spoke with the Colorado Springs Business Journal this week about the strengths and challenges of the local startup community, as well as her impressions of the city she now calls home.
What was life like before moving to Colorado?
I grew up in St. Louis and went to college at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. Rhodes is very similar … to [Colorado College], and I was in their Bonner Scholar network. It’s a four-year-long cohort program that’s very involved in community engagement. That really shaped the way I approach communities. I was working for a community development organization that was rebuilding a Sears building. It was a million square feet, vacant for 30 years. This art professor and a head of a foundation got together and were like, ‘Let’s make a cool urban village.’ It’s called Crosstown Concourse and it combined health care, the arts, livable space — all of that. Bringing in that community side — I was studying economics — and being able to merge the two was great. I fell in love with that intersection of community and economic development, which is how I see Peak Startup.
After I graduated, I stayed and worked at an innovation firm and we only took on projects that had social impact, economic development or civic innovation. We used human subject design to build strategic plans to increase capacity for nonprofits or help the city better support entrepreneurs.
Why did you move here?
My husband got a job at Colorado College and that’s what moved us out here.
In the couple months I was here looking, I really wanted to be intentional about what I wanted to do next. I wanted to find that intersection between community and economic development and something that’s people-facing but with a higher level strategy to it as well.
Did you know anything about Colorado Springs before you got here?
I knew a little about the Springs. It was really exciting to me to be on the Front Range. I have kind of a love affair with midsized cities. Memphis is pretty much the same size and has very unique and different challenges but some of the issues overlap here, given the fact that we are close to Denver but have our own unique identity that’s starting to form and take shape. Memphis was similar to that with Nashville. [Memphis] was just a little bit behind, but learning. I want to be involved in change and I’ve really felt like you can do that here.
Talk about what Peak Startup does.
We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to driving economic development through bolstering and fostering the startup community.
We’ve really defined a startup by how the business approaches growth. A startup is looking to grow relatively quickly — really big really fast. So it’s not looking for 200 customers … but getting to 200,000 [customers] and finding a way to exit that company. It’s not [a business] you plan to pass on to your kids, so the advice we give is going to look different because of that growth trajectory.
We bring people in to get to know each other though our networking events — all of our programs have either a networking component or educational component. We have programs every month and we’re getting ready for Startup Week, which is Aug. 20 through the 24th.
What should we know about Startup Week?
It’s really designed to help startup entrepreneurs at every stage of their lifecycle, whether they’re thinking about and exploring what a startup is, to ‘I’m committed, there are a lot of things I’m trying to learn quickly,’ to ‘OK, I’m starting to prepare to exit and scale up.’
We have a whole week of workshops and then every night we have a keynote. Wednesday night [Aug. 22] we’re doing a founders roundtable, which will be great to put an entrepreneurial face on the community. Founders can tell their stories about building in Colorado Springs and what their startups look like.
What are the city’s deficiencies when it comes to its startup community?
I think we have everything you need to be successful here. If you don’t have it, we’ll work to bring that resource to town or connect you. From my understanding, Colorado Springs has been a little more risk-averse, and then the startups we have here are the extreme sports of businesses — they are very risky to invest in. I think there’s a lot of room to grow in terms of investor education and what it looks like to invest in a startup and how to be successful there. We want to educate the investor community in this town on what it is to invest in a startup. I think we have those resources available, it’s just how to start activating the [resources] that aren’t.
Also, I think our startup community is a little bit on the younger side so a lot of companies aren’t at the caliber to receive [venture capital] funding. But we’re seeing people start to break through and be able to give back here in Colorado Springs, which is really exciting.
We have many of the critical components of an entrepreneurial ecosystem — entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, access to talent coming from our school systems, community advocates and accelerators helping connect entrepreneurs and provide support to build their ideas, some opportunities to access funding, and innovation spaces where people can co-work, build and make. While it’s a work in progress as we connect the dots and grow the number of entrepreneurs and new businesses in Colorado Springs, we’re seeing more organizations in the ecosystem begin to connect to each other and find creative ways for enhanced collaboration.
Anything else we need?
I had one founder tell me a successful startup community includes investors ready to put their money in, high-caliber entrepreneurs and adult supervision. They all have to be fully developed at the same time for things to work. I think all those are at differing levels of development here. … And I think it can be very difficult to know where to start. You’re not going to bump into a lot of people who were startup founders here. … But that community is so essential. Creating that connectivity is a piece that’s missing and I think we could be doing it at a higher level.
We connect with business in the community through cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit as a mindset. It’s an approach to identifying problems, seeing opportunities, and coming up with creative solutions. Whether that’s through building one’s own business or being an employee that works for a company of 2,000, an entrepreneurial spirit is critical for our businesses and community to grow, attract talent and continue to compete on the local, national and global stages. It also takes a village to raise a business. With high failure rates and limited resources for startups, a supportive community is essential to keeping the energy going in the entire ecosystem. Startups are about investing in people and in their abilities, and it is a personal approach to economic development that requires engagement and relationships. With opportunities to connect and avenues for new businesses to grow, it has a positive, regional impact on our city and economy.
How does our startup community compete with Denver’s and Boulder’s?
I think this is the perfect place. You have all the resources and can be part of the Front Range entrepreneurial community but the cost of living is lower. … I think we’re still figuring out our identity when it comes to what our startup sector will look like. The cybersecurity and [Department of Defense sectors] are primed for those tech-based industries.
I don’t think we compete; we collaborate. I went to Boulder’s startup weekend this week and got to learn what makes them great and how we can be different and complementary and learn from each other. I want to make sure Colorado Springs is included in that startup community but also distinct and can stand on its own.
What skills transferred from your position in Memphis to here?
The human-centered design approach — the way I describe it is reverse marketing. Instead of developing a strategy and going to a group of people and selling it to them, you go to the end user and ask what they need. That’s how I’ve approached this community — meet as many people as I can, founders especially, and ask them what they need. What’s the most painful part of the process and how can we be helping?
Also, I’m looking at what it takes to pull all the pieces together to create a more cohesive approach. I think that all starts and ends with collaboration.
Are startups a young person’s game?
Definitely not. I think Peak Startup attracts a younger crowd and I think there’s a lot of emphasis in universities on entrepreneurialism being a great pathway and how startups are really sexy. But we’re seeing a lot of people who have retired, have some money and can bootstrap. We’ve seen a lot of people in their second career because they [have more resources].
I’ve also noticed that it’s hard to get different age groups to collaborate in this town. I think there’s room to grow there.
Any advice for other young professionals?
Whether you’re starting a startup or if you’re looking to go to the next level in your career, find the community who can support you and knows what you’re going through and is interested in those angles. I’ve found many younger professionals who are very committed to making this city better and celebrating what it already has, and figuring out how to be a part of that.