When Todd Baldwin started Red Leg Brewing Company in 2013, he had little guidance or resources from the Colorado Springs business community, outside of a pamphlet on how to launch a restaurant.
Baldwin applied to about 50 banks in southern Colorado for a business loan, with no success. Even the applications he made with the backing of the Small Business Administration Patriot Express Loan Program — designed to help veterans start or grow their businesses — were turned down everywhere.
Baldwin was undeterred. “I was going to do it anyway,” he said.
He and his wife maxed out 18 credit cards, taking on $50,000 in debt in less than 20 minutes.
“That’s literally how my business started — so maybe not the smartest or safest way to start a business,” he said, “but it was a way.”
Local organizations are working to ensure other entrepreneurs don’t encounter the same hurdles Baldwin did.
For example, The Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC enlisted the Quad Alliance to conduct an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Research Project that included interviewing 43 major players in the Colorado Springs business community. The Quad Alliance is a joint initiative in which Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College, UCCS and the U.S. Air Force Academy each choose a graduate to become a research fellow on a team that tackles a major issue. Previous Quad collaboratives have researched teen suicide prevention, the opioid crisis and affordable housing.
Last year, the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC wanted to create a better entrepreneurial ecosystem within the city. Chief Economic Development Officer Cecilia Harry said the chamber sought feedback from the business community.
“I reached out to some peers and learned that many of us had a similar interest in terms of better understanding how we fit together and where there were opportunities to fit together better,” Harry said.
Cory Arcarese, a business consultant and longtime champion of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, was one of those interviewed. She took part in a June 14 video conference call highlighting collaboration opportunities. Arcarese said she is shocked when she meets entrepreneurs who don’t know about the support that’s available to them in the Springs.
“How did you get in business and not ever get connected with the Small Business Development Center and all the free resources that are available to you?” she asks them.
Pikes Peak SBDC Executive Director Aikta Marcoulier said new people are entering the community all the time and entrepreneurs don’t always know where to start, adding Colorado Springs’ success stories need to be told.
She added that the entrepreneur community then needs to determine, “How do we rally around those stories?”
The Quad’s research found that when Colorado Springs business leaders were asked about the city’s identity, there was little consensus. Marcoulier said the city’s messaging can become muddled when success stories aren’t told well or often enough.
“Normally when you go to a place, that place has a thing about them — whether it’s arts and culture or technology or if we’re the outdoor place,” she said. “No one really said the same thing, so they didn’t find any consistency there, which is a problem.”
STRANGERS and NEIGHBORS
Leif Ullman, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Springs startup accelerator Exponential Impact, helps put on startup community events such as Pitch Night and Springs Startup, a support entity within Exponential Impact. The Quad Alliance research project excites him because he sees it as a way to promote connections within the business community while amplifying each other’s messages.
“There’s a whole ecosystem out there and we’re a piece of that — and we want to be able to refer people to the right place if they’re not looking to do a startup,” Ullman said. “Maybe they’re looking to do the more traditional brick-and-mortar business. [There] might be a different resource for them.”
Colorado Springs business leaders who attended the June 14 meeting are invited to quarterly follow-up meetings, which will continue to address concerns regarding shortcomings in the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Arcarese said she will “come to these meetings to hear what else is happening so that I can connect [people I’m working with] to other resources I may not know about, or other people that I have not had the opportunity to work with one-on-one already.”
Harry said connecting different parts of the business community can help homegrown businesses stay in the local ecosystem, rather than seek help outside the Springs or out of state.
“If I make widgets, is there somebody in the community that provides the screws that I need?” Harry said.
Hannah Mitchell-Parsons, chief operating officer of Barn Owl Tech, said connecting with other members of the business community can result in much-needed learning opportunities for newer business owners.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell-Parsons mentored business owners through Survive and Thrive, an Exponential Impact program that, among other kinds of help, gave companies grants. She discovered a lot of business owners didn’t even have financial statements because they never learned to create them.
“For a lot of entrepreneurs who haven’t been around other entrepreneurs or haven’t started a business or haven’t even worked in businesses at a [certain] level, [they don’t] know the nuts and bolts,” she said.
Arcarese said she relishes the opportunity to meet with entrepreneurs she hasn’t often connected with, like Mitchell-Parsons. Arcarese knows of her, she said, but wants to further explore shared opportunities.
“I see her name on a building as I drive north so I want to know more about what goes on inside that building and are there any opportunities for the minority businesses that I work with?” Arcarese said.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
Harry was impressed when the Quad’s research led them to identify diversity and inclusion as a major concern in the Pikes Peak business community.
“That wasn’t something that we explicitly asked the students to talk [about], but through the interviews, the students called out the theme that this was really important to a lot of entrepreneurs and stakeholders in the community,” Harry said. “So that was really neat to see the students’ efforts to draw that out.”
Ullman acknowledges the startup community is looking at how to be more inclusive. He said he agreed with at least one of the report’s findings: that “the city tends to organize itself into geographically distinct bubbles of southeast or northwest or wherever, and there’s not a whole lot of cross-pollination.”
Harry wants to see if groups like Thrive Network, a nonprofit that helps develop entrepreneurial talent in the Southeast — a community whose citizens historically earn less than in other parts of the city — can connect with other parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to produce innovative business solutions.
“The graduates of the Thrive Network ... are they engaging with the entrepreneurial community that’s located in Downtown Colorado Springs and can we, as partners, facilitate better interaction between those two geographic groups of entrepreneurs to spark more collaboration?” Harry said.
Arcarese has worked in the Southeast for years. She said there’s a large Latino population there, but Pikes Peak SBDC just began business training in Spanish this year.
Arcarese said Colorado Springs has “to have a place where an entrepreneur can feel welcome.”
Ullman said programs like Springs Startup will begin to expand to other parts of the city.
“We’ve talked about trying to put [a Pitch Night] on in the Southeast and working with folks who run different organizations down there,” Ullman said.
Marcoulier said the Quad fellows have not finalized the report but that it will be just the start of a process. For business leaders, the real work begins with discussing how to implement the report’s recommendations during upcoming quarterly meetings. Discussing ways to improve the business community is “going to be a really long process and hopefully it’ll never end,” Marcoulier said. “Building an ecosystem should never end.”
Baldwin’s Red Leg Brewing Company didn’t get many resources currently available in the Springs. He is set to open a new 2.5-acre facility in a new Springs location this year. The expected price tag: $11 million. But while Baldwin said he has moved beyond his initial small-business needs, he enjoys seeing what he calls a small-business “renaissance” in Colorado Springs.
“Community cultures are defined and maintained by small businesses and, if there isn’t a culture of growth and there isn’t a culture of sustainment,” Baldwin said, “then those small businesses are going to have a tough time over time continuing to grow.”