Micah December 7th

I am Boulder, Hear Me Roar

Confession time.

I didnt grow up in Boulder. I didnt even grow up in Colorado.

Me? I was born in Fort Collins and moved to California when I was less than 2 years old. I grew up in California in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose. (My family also spent a lot of time in Mountain View and Palo Alto – my dad worked at Stanford University for 25 years).

Needless to say, I am a firm believer in the fact that California rocks. And, in terms of technology and technological advancement, the Silicon Valley rocks harder.

Not Colorado. Especially not Boulder.

But over the past year of working at Lijit, mentoring TechStars companies and countless time spent with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, developers, and the like, my thinking changed. Boulder became “ok” in my California-centric view. (I still think everything is better in California, dont get me wrong).

Then, last week, Sarah Lacy came to visit. On camera, during an interview with my friend (yes, my friend) Matt Galligan, in writing on her blog, and to my face at dinner, she said two things that for some reason have really struck a chord with me:

  1. Boulder initially gave her a cool reception; and
  2. She held the belief that for an entrepreneur to be successful, they had to be an “off the charts” self-promoter (I am paraphrasing both points).

Her point was: How could any company in Boulder ever hope to compete nationally or internationally if they dont constantly sing their own praises?

The general feeling I got was that she, who had interviewed hundreds of startups and receives hundreds of pitches daily and traveled to many cities both domestically and internationally, had seen what it took for a startup to become successful.

As a reporter, you certainly have the ability to see and record what has generally been successful.  Yet, lack the actual experience of being inside the cauldron where true success stories are grown.

Success is independent of location and comes with hard work, which engenders recognition, and while recognition can precede success; success is only a by-product of respect and trust (especially in a web 2.0 world, where usage always equates to success).

Whats the outcome? How has the “humbleness?” / “silence?” of Boulder affected the success of the companies here?

There is one Boulder startup that I have true insight in, Lijit Networks. When we use Compete.com (yes, everyone can say its a bad measure, but even a bad measure used equally is apples to apples) to compare the unique visitors and page views of Lijit versus two “hot” Valley startups, Twitter and FriendFeed (both with much more buzz), we end up with:

Unique Visitor Comparision between Lijit, FriendFeed and Twitter

Unique Visitor Comparision between Lijit, FriendFeed and Twitter

If you cant see the numbers, year to date:

  • Lijit‘s monthly Unique Visitors are 3,927,455
  • FriendFeed‘s monthly Unique Visitors are 566,641
  • Twitter‘s monthly Unique Visitors are 3,478,239

Again, I just used compete. If we use QuantCast, the numbers break out this way:

  • Lijit‘s monthly Unique Visitors are 673,000
  • FriendFeed‘s monthly Unique Visitors are 140,000
  • Twitter‘s monthly Unique Visitors are 1,900,000

I, of course, like Compete much better… :)

But, if you look at the growth curve on the Compete.com graph, Lijit and Twitter follow a very similar trajectory.

What about pageviews? Not surprisingly, Twitter is the king:

Page View Comparision of Lijit, Twitter and Friendfeed

Page View Comparision of Lijit, Twitter and Friendfeed

Yet Lijit’s pageviews are more than double FriendFeed.

Doesnt make a ton of sense given the use cases (Lijit is a search service and FriendFeed is a lifestream aggregator). I assume that Compete is counting actual daily searches as pageviews (since the search engine results pages are on lijit.com), especially since I doubt people enjoy (no matter how well designed) our homepage that much.

It, of course, could be that we over estimate how many of our publishers use our stats pages or check their earnings, but I digress.

The point is, that with minimal fanfare, Lijit competes nicely with two of the hot Web 2.0 Valley companies. Shoot, with minimal fanfare, we are the second most used search widget behind Google’s Custom Search.

Is Lijit different than other Boulder companies? Not really (except that their Business Development guy looks fabulous in a pink hat). We know some of the successes, Left Hand Networks going to Hewlett Packard for $300mm plus, SocialThing going to AOL, and Intense Debate going to Automattic. People forget often that Blue Mountain Arts ($780mm to Excite), ProFlowers, Celestial Seasonings, WhiteWave, Gaiam and Crocs are also Boulder companies or have Boulder roots. Even my favorite t-shirt company (other than PleaseDress.me) Threadless has set up shop here in town.

TechStars has seen 20 companies come through its program, with 3/4 of them getting funded and all of them learning more than they ever would on their own.

StartupWeekend, started in Boulder, as the brain child of one mop-haired designer, and now has gone to take a microcosm of the Boulder entrepreneurial experience to dozens of cities domestically and internationally and hundreds and hundreds of people.

Gnip, when deciding where to locate, chose Boulder over San Francisco, even though their founder and CEO, Eric Marcouiller has developed deep roots and relationships in The City. (Eric helped found MyBlogLog which was sold to Yahoo!) because of the resources provided within the community, as well as the community itself. Jud Valeski, Eric’s co-founder and Gnip’s CTO, is also a transplant to Boulder.

Boulder entrepreneurs dont have to be wild self promoters, because unlike Silicon Valley, there isnt a deafening amount of noise to battle through.

As the end of the day, Boulder companies just dont spend a lot of time (and money!) on banging their own drum.

And for all the analysis, it could be as simple as knowing that putting our heads down, working our asses off and supporting each other, coupled with a real desire to see Boulder (not a company, not our reputation, not our place in history, but the entire community) succeed, will always lead to an outcome that bears more a valuable, satisfying fruit.

Whew. Now its time for me to contradict myself–I wouldnt be a good bipolar if I didnt.

So why does the concept that Boulder entrepreneurs are doing themselves a disservice by not being self-promoting bother me so much? I really dont know.

I do know that I consider myself the “Chief Evangelist” of Lijit, and as 2009 nears, I know that my function at Lijit has to morph slightly.

I look to others that have blazed that trail, people like Anil Dash and Matt Mullenweg (for bloggers); Guy Kawasaki and Robert Scoble (for technology), and I wonder what are the things I can do to emulate and learn from them.

I wonder what additional difficulties I will face being at a “non-Valley” company (to the point where I have comtemplated moving to San Francisco).

(On a personal note, I also wonder where the line between self- and company-promotion lies, and how hard I can push myself to do things that make me feel uncomfortable but are right.)

My job will, in some ways, become what I have outlined Boulder companies dont need much of and I am interested in seeing what that means for Lijit and me, and plan to blog about it (of course!).

Which means that you can plan to see my pink hat everywhere in 2009…

How hard will my job be in 2009?

Here is what I do know about Lijit:

  • Lijit is a startup with a positive trajectory towards success;
  • Lijit has a team that has the ability to make that happen;
  • We are building some cool stuff (centered around providing publishers more control);
  • Everyone has not heard of Lijit (yet); therefore
  • We have a lot of work ahead for us in 2009.

And what will Boulder’s startup scene be like in 2009?

Heres what I know about Boulder:

  • Boulder entreprenuers are doing just fine in the success department,
  • And for those folks that dont believe me, I have a guest room you are welcome to come stay in to check it out.
  • My bad. There are a lot of sectors that I am unaware of (and should
    probably know more about). Thanks for setting me straight!!

  • Micah, some great points throughout… I've had a number of opportunities to move from DC to SF and each time, I've declined it. One of the major things has been the big fish/small pond thing. In DC, the intensity and amount of chatter is a fraction of SF and that much easier to participate in.

  • arubenstein

    Great post Micah…

    If you want to talk Boulder-related success stories how about considering the local biotech sector, I mean really…come on, where is the love? e.g. Myogen to Gilead (NASDAQ: GILD) for $2.5B & Pharmion to Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) for $2.9B; on the fund-raising side this year Taligen Therapeutics did a $65M Series B & Sierra Neuropharmaceuticals closed a $22M Series A; on the IPO side Allos Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ALTH) & Array Biopharma (NASDAQ: ARRY) both achieved liquidity via the public markets. And that is just a quick scan. Colorado is an unambiguous center of excellence for the development and cultivation of exciting intellectual property across a vast repertoire of sectors as well as calling home to a growing pool of seasoned serial entrepreneurs, sophisticated executive teams capable of “getting the ball across the goal line”, and importantly home to (an increasing) cadre of institutional and angel investors who are integral catalysts to our community's growth trajectory.

  • I love the idea that Boulder is no longer a place entrepreneurs and VCs just fly over for meetings on the coasts. There is real, very real stuff happening here and in time everyone will know. Colorado based entrepreneurs just need to keep on doing. The rest will come.

  • Micah, per our conversation at the Thin Air Summit cocktail party, this is a topic that is fascinating to me. I am a Colorado Native but found the passion in San Francisco during the tech craze was intoxicating. When I moved back to Denver to be closer to family, I missed that energy and then discovered some of the folks like yourself that have that same passion and energy, they just don't have the same “LOOK at ME” mentality. Okay, maybe you have it a little bit with that pink hat but it is very different. I love that the community here is a small one but one that exudes the same level of passion if not more for their business and the businesses of others. There seems to be a true community-vibe here that isn't superficial. But I still believe that Boulder and Colorado overall deserve a little bit of recognition for the brilliant people, ideas and companies born in our state. I must say that I love seeing the Current TV piece playing frequently and love the way the story was told. Thanks for the interesting look at how Ligit is doing without the chest beating that others have to do.

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  • If your focus is on fundraising, then “look at me” is pretty useful because it reinforces the perception that you're a player and so investors are a little more comfortable taking a risk on you. However, if you're bootstrapped and profitable, or at least past the fundraising stage, it's not nearly as useful. Especially if you're a business services provider that makes money directly from customers, not advertising. Fortunately we're in the latter case. In fact, we've had record revenue each of the last three months even as the economic news gets worse.

    As it happens, a lot of our customers are in Silicon Valley, but the vast majority (as in over 90%) are in the rest of the world and most don't know or care about Web 2.0

  • Just a quick 'apples to apples' point, not to entirely interrupt your valid points: Twitter doesn't rely soley on web page traffic. I still use instant messaging all the time. And I don't think that includes m.twitter.com.

  • Totally agree. I'm not sure how compete counts api calls. Clearly it
    would also indicate that the average Lijit user gets only 10 searches
    per month (which we know not to be true) and that the average Twitter
    user visits twitter.com 100/month. I was indicating that there was a
    liklihood that the tool is broken equally for all (and also why I
    included quantcast, which has twitter out ahead)

  • Per Biz Stone:

    “So, the API which has easily 10 times more traffic than the website, has been really very important to us.”


  • Two things.

    1) Sarah Lacey, as wonderful and beautiful as she is, is full of shit. Still. I did not heckle her at SXSW just to be an ass. I heckled her because she's tone deaf. And even though we've said our piece and cleared the air, it does not make her any less tone deaf. What Sarah has to do is get out of the bubble and get into the real world where companies are rocking it without making a big deal of themselves. She needs to step outside of the Robert Scobles and Mike Arringtons, not to mention Techmemes of the world and realize thetes an entire ecosystem of tech hat exists outside of her shallow Valley experience.

    2) You're right, Micah. Boulder is rocking it and it's rocking it in a variety of multidimensional ways – from actual startups, to actual movements. Actual entrepreneurs (that then go to the Valley and rock it) and actual ideas.

  • Which has been a known fact for a long time, but not really relevant to this post. Lijit's and FriendFeed's API calls are also not counted. On top of that, most people dont visit the Lijit home page directly either…

  • great post. I've always wanted to write it myself. the timing's funny as some friends and I just wrapped up this very conversation a few hours ago. in a nutshell, actions speaks louder than words. Boulder's action-to-words ratio is _much_ greater than other markets. it's not a big self-promoting town (at least in the software sector) so if that's your gig, you're better off elsewhere.

    the reality, however, is that Boulder is small, and the mother of software markets, the valley, is an order of magnitude larger; it's a large city (SF + peninsula). large cities offer radically different environments on all tiers (some good, some bad). when big city folk come to visit the relative country mouse, some of them have adverse reactions because there isn't, relatively, enough going on to keep them busy/happy. I personally equate that “enough going on” to background noise that some find comforting/necessary.

    I grew up in Boulder, and went to the Valley in '95 to do fun/amazing things, with fun/amazing people. it was a blast. I came back to Boulder (before the bubble burst mind you) to increase the signal to noise ratio around me as the valley had become deafening with mindless chatter. I knew it was the right decision going in, and each of the ten years since moving back have reaffirmed that.

    when folks come into town, some love it, and some hate it; same with any town/city. noisy visitors wind up going back to their noisy comfort zones, and “doers” tend to stick around.

    so, actions speak louder than words. back to work.

  • Jud – First, let me apologize for thinking you were a transplant (its
    an easy thing to do around here). Which is kinda the other point.
    People choose to live in Boulder for a myriad of reasons. Most people
    that move to the Valley, much like Hollywood, do it to “make their way/
    name.” How can one not self-promote if thats your goal?

  • Ok. Maybe make things more interesting, take Biz at his word, do a 10x on the Twitter traffic, then compare the actual Lijit API calls + web traffic against that? The fruit would be more similar that way?

    Either way, I don't mean for it to detract from the bigger point that Boulder is making things happen. It does concern me that certain aspects of the Boulder scene find 'Startup Culture' superior to 'Small Business Culture' when it would likely benefit more from the latter.

  • Ok. Maybe make things more interesting, take Biz at his word, do a 10x on the Twitter traffic, then compare the actual Lijit API calls + web traffic against that? The fruit would be more similar that way?

    Either way, I don't mean for it to detract from the bigger point that Boulder is making things happen. It does concern me that certain aspects of the Boulder scene find 'Startup Culture' superior to 'Small Business Culture' when it would likely benefit more from the latter.

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