Owen Hill and Adam Alphin started their business just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to hit hard.
Hill and Alphin created KleerCard, an app that allows small businesses and nonprofits to issue corporate credit cards, control spending and track expenditures on one platform.
The two started building their software in January 2020 and spent most of the rest of the year testing the app with private companies. They launched live in January 2021.
“So we’re a pandemic company,” Hill said. “It sounds weird, but it’s been great for us because we started a company that’s remote, rather than having to adjust to being remote.”
The company, which has eight employees, is processing cards for more than 500 companies now and gaining dozens of new clients every week. Hill said he’s been able to attract and retain the employees he needs in a competitive market because he’s created a culture in which people want to work.
KleerCard clearly is successful, but that’s certainly not the case with all startups.
“Typically what I have seen is that about 90 percent fail,” said Natasha Main, executive director of tech incubator Exponential Impact, also known as XI.
According to Failory, a content site for startups, nine out of 10 new businesses close within the first five years, and two out of 10 fail in the first year of operations (based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data).
Venture capital is flowing into Colorado in record-breaking amounts to fund companies that are ready to scale up, Main said, but early-stage entrepreneurs generally have to rely on savings, loans from friends and family, or day jobs to get to that stage.
Although the pandemic has given some entrepreneurs time to work on the businesses they’ve always wanted to create, new enterprises in various industries may have to contend with supply chain issues and difficulty in finding and retaining employees, she said.
Sometimes people start new businesses because of disruptions in their economic lives such as layoffs, said Dr. Tom Duening, El Pomar Chair for Business & Entrepreneurship and associate professor at the UCCS College of Business.
“We call it latent entrepreneurship,” Duening said. “It’s almost like it’s involuntary.”
Aikta Marcoulier, executive director of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, confirmed that people reach out for help starting businesses during economic downturns.
“Many individuals have lost their jobs or do not wish to return to work in a public setting,” Marcoulier said.
There is a lot of pandemic-generated interest in social impact businesses, but “in terms of people getting out their pocketbooks and implementing — no,” said Jonathan Liebert, CEO/executive director of the Better business Bureau of Southern Colorado and CEO of the National Institute for Social Impact. He expects to see an uptick in the number of social impact startups as the nation works through the pandemic into less uncertain times.
“I think people are just kind of in a holding pattern,” he said.
One common characteristic among entrepreneurs is that “the average age is in their 40s,” Hill said.
“We’ve got this kind of idea that this is some young kids dropping out of college, which is a few of the stories out there,” he said. “But on average, these are people who have spent 20 or 25 years in an industry. And based on their experience in industry, they say, ‘How can we do this better?’”
That was the case for Hill, who has a background in finance. An Air Force Academy graduate, he earned a Ph.D. in economics from the Pardee RAND Graduate School. After serving in the Air Force for four years, he was Compassion International’s finance and economics manager and director of budgeting and forecasting, then took a detour into politics, representing District 10 in the Colorado Senate from 2012 until January 2021.
At that point, he had decided he wanted to merge one of his core beliefs — “that small business and innovation are the engine for a community” — with his experience in finance.
Hill and his childhood friend Alphin were on a fishing trip together when they had “this aha moment,” he said.
Both had 20 years of experience in the financial arena, and they knew that, for small businesses, obtaining and managing corporate credit cards often was a painful process.
“Especially at a time where COVID had all these moves to online spending and digital payments, this pain is really high for a lot of companies,” Hill said. “The idea was, how can we help them? How can we do this better?”
Hill said he thinks tech enterprises have some advantages in starting up during the pandemic.
“The beauty of technology is that I don’t have to buy really expensive equipment to make all of this happen,” he said. “Sure, there’s a lot of time and energy and coding that goes into it. But in some ways, tech is easier to get off the ground with a limited amount of resources.”
Hill, who works out of an office at Exponential Impact, also thinks Colorado Springs has the best startup ecosystem he’s ever seen. Mentoring and collaboration at Exponential Impact played a big role in KleerCard’s success, he said.
“I love the community and the camaraderie of fellow entrepreneurs and the energy we bring to one another and some of the banter and celebrating wins together,” he said.
For some prospective entrepreneurs, buying a franchise is an easier way to go than starting a business from scratch.
“A lot of people will go ahead and use that route because it’s more familiar, and most of the organizational structure is already in place,” Duening said. “What’s difficult for people is how do I create structure that leads to a going concern. … When you’re used to just sending out a resumé and getting another job, it’s a big challenge and quite scary.”
That’s especially so for latent entrepreneurs.
During the pandemic, entrepreneurs had to adapt to business realities, he said.
“Everything was disrupted, so I couldn’t even think about opening up a bakery shop or something like that, because nobody could come and visit the place,” he said.
Duening said he has not seen greater interest among students in starting businesses.
“I’d say that it’s a pretty steady-state phenomenon here in the United States,” he said.
“We are not by any means the most entrepreneurial country in the world. People often get surprised when I articulate that research,” he said. “The reason is that we have so many opportunities for gainful employment in this country that you don’t really need to be an entrepreneur to be able to go through life and accumulate wealth.”
Research is also clear that “most entrepreneurs make less money working for themselves than they would make if they were otherwise employed. … In the startup period, you’ve got to work your butt off, and put in gargantuan amounts of your time and energy to get this thing moving. And it’s only after that, that you get to enjoy some of the fruits of being a successful entrepreneur.”
Students at UCCS are able to experience what it’s like to be an entrepreneur at a campus facility called The Garage.
“It’s not hard to start a business,” Duening said. “But it is really hard to build a company that has scale.
“The best thing that we can do is to teach students to be opportunistic— that this is a lifestyle that may or may not wink in and out of their lives,” he said.
“What I try to do is to create opportunistic entrepreneurs, so that you’re always thinking about how do I create value for other people?” he said “And if I discover some unique way to create value for people, can I build a going concern around that? If you have that mindset, then COVID arises as an opportunity, not a crisis.”
RESOURCES FOR STARTUPS
Exponential Impact launched Springs Startup, which offers events and resources to early-stage entrepreneurs, in February.
Springs Startup has been hosting pitch nights on the third Thursday of each month, offering business innovators the opportunity to explain their ideas and get feedback from other entrepreneurs.
The next pitch night happens from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 21, and participants may attend virtually or in person. Registration information is at meetup.com/springsstartup/events.
Exponential Impact works with entrepreneurs through its Accelerator, Amplify and Ascend programs, offering support, mentoring and tools to startups that have a product on the market and have reached a point where they can grow through revenue or start to access capital, Main said.
Exponential Impact will showcase the innovative products and solutions of 10 emerging startups in fields ranging from hotel management to drone technology and tree recycling at Demo Day, 5-8 p.m. Oct. 14 at COATI, 514 S. Tejon St.
These companies are part of the XI Amplify program, which provides support for participants who have grown their user base and are looking to scale. To register, visit eventbrite.com and enter Amplify Demo Day. Other early-stage support programs are found at the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center and Catalyst Accelerator.
“The Pikes Peak region is working on collaboratives to create an ecosystem for our startups and existing businesses second to none,” Marcoulier said.
While the future remains uncertain, “I would say there’s a lot of growing momentum and continued momentum in the entrepreneurship phase, and a lot of people willing to share their expertise and connections,” Main said. “There are the resources out there for startups to be successful, so I would say we’re at a healthier point. And I would be shocked to see it slow down.”