This weekend I saw a sign from the Goldrush era in Colorado. The language extolling the virtues of buying land for “profitable exploration” instantly resembled the sales copy I’ve come to recognize on websites. I wondered if we [tech startups] were living the modern day version. I set out to research and determine what, if any, were the similarities and differences between 1859 and 2009.
Let’s start with some facts. The Colorado Gold Rush was set-off in 1859 by the discovery of gold in what is today Denver’s Confluence Park. The news, coming out roughly 10 years after the California Gold Rush, set off a stampede of prospective miners from across the plains. The towns of Boulder, Golden and Denver sprung up to serve the booming mining operations across the front range. In total, 21 million ounces of gold were mined from Colorado between 1859 and 1861, more than the combined total of both the California and Alaska rushes earlier in the century. In addition to making individual prospectors rich, it provided lucrative jobs for those who didn’t want to risk it on their own and lead to the development of significant infrastructure investments. This included rail links, highways, farming operations and a booming tourism business.
In the common conscience, including mine, a Goldrush is an irrational search for a quick fortune. Not a laudable endeavor. The result, however, is that a single 2 year period in Colorado transformed a largely uninhabited part of the country into a well connected economic hub and set it up for a century of rapid population growth. Us Boulderites love our town, and it wouldn’t exist as it is if it weren’t for the Gold Rush.
The reasons people have moved to Colorado to start technology companies are very different. The most frequent reason people give for moving here is lifestyle. Starting a business is hard work, but is also fun and engages people’s passions. The startup community consists of passionate people living their life to the fullest. The type of startups moving to Boulder during what I want to call the Startup Explosion are not the Gold Rush people blindly seeking wealth. They are smart, confident, adventurous and looking for a community where they belong and that can help them accumulate wealth and a reputation. These are people who can have, and largely already have had, top-notch jobs elsewhere.
Clearly the human factors aren’t the same as the Gold Rush. The outcomes, however, are exactly the same. The influx of new companies has led to a large service and infrastructure expansion. 200 years ago it was the creation of railroads, highways and cities. Today its VC firms, incubators, law resources and potentially Google Fiber *cross my fingers*.
So does the tech explosion resemble the GoldRush? Kinda. It has the same influx of resources and expansion of infrastructure, but it lacks the irrational underpinnings of the Gold Diggers. While people left their homes for fortune during the Gold Rush, more than 150 years later people are moving for the startup infrastructure, mentors and lifestyle.