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Boulder — and bolder — advice 

City Sage

It's 7 o'clock on a crystalline September morning. I'm not riding my bike, walking the dog or enjoying a first cup of coffee and the morning paper.

I'm at a breakfast meeting at Colorado College's Bemis Hall with 170 perfectly groomed, preternaturally alert, and visibly successful folks. I feel old, sloppy, unkempt and out of it. I wish I were anywhere else.

I'm here to listen to Brad Feld, a Boulder-based venture-capital superstar. He's made millions — make that tens, maybe hundreds, of millions — investing in start-up companies. The Peak Venture Group, a loose association of local entrepreneurs and investors, somehow has snagged him to speak at this "entrepreneurs breakfast."

I've never met Feld, but I know what to expect. He'll come bounding to the podium flashing a perfect smile. He'll be fit, 40ish and charismatic — a younger Mitt Romney, a smarter Rick Perry. Everything about him will say, "I'm amazingly successful, and you're not — but if you listen carefully, you can warm yourself before the fire of my brilliance, and figure out how to realize your own modest goals."

I already hate him. It's 7:30, and Feld is about to speak. Gushing introduction and ... wait a minute! Here comes a big shambling bear of man, unshaven and hirsute, hair down to his shoulders. He's wearing unfashionably loose blue jeans and a shapeless plaid shirt. If you ran into him on Tejon, you'd peg him for:

• a self-employed computer geek who stays up all night gaming;

• a guy who just got fired from his low-level techie job for showing up stoned;

• or a reporter for the Indy, circa 1996.

The room goes quiet. It's clear that few of them are prepared to listen to a guy who looks like an employer's worst nightmare.

But Feld is prepared for them. In 30 seconds, they're listening intently. In 90 seconds, it's clear that he's not only the richest guy in the room, but the smartest. He may be weird, but he's Bill Gates/Paul Allen/Steve Jobs weird.

He's here to talk about entrepreneurship, angel investing, and how to create a sustainable entrepreneurial culture in Colorado Springs.

Since the 1970s, we've struggled to create such a community. We knew what we needed — people who would nurture start-up businesses with capital and entrepreneurial know-how. We thought we had it right 20 years ago when multinational companies (Intel, Apple, MCI) had moved here, attracted by our city's low costs, docile workforce and spectacular environment.

Somehow, it all fell apart ... but now that we have a strong, business-friendly mayor, won't we be able to turn it around? Yes and no.

"Leadership has to be entrepreneurial," Feld says. "It can't come from government, it can't come from investors, it can't come from nonprofits. It has to come from the entrepreneurs themselves."

And it takes a long time.

"You have to commit to a 20-year cycle," he continues. "We all look at the Bay Area, but they've been going for 60 years. In Boulder, we've been at it for 15 years, so we've got another five until we have a sustainable model."

In Feld's model, entrepreneurs and investors form an open, growing system. You need fresh meat: smart kids and angel investors who are comfortable with risk. During a few years as an angel investor in Boulder, Feld funded 70 startups, investing $25,000 to $100,000 in each one. Of them, 68 were nothing special, but two returned more than 200 times his original investment.

He works quickly. "When you see what you like, write the check!" he says. Don't waste time with endless requests for information, fault-finding or attempts to restructure the business.

How does Feld find deals? He comes to places like Colorado Springs, and he answers all of his e-mail.

"It would be disrespectful not to," he says. "I get 12 to 15 pitches every day, and I look at all of them. If you e-mail me [brad@feld.com], don't go on and on — make your point in the first couple of paragraphs."

In a post-breakfast interview, I ask Feld whether our right-wing politics, so different from Boulder's, would kill any nascent entrepreneurial culture.

"No. That's just background noise," he says. "I think that the worst thing that entrepreneurs can do is watch TV, watch CNBC, read the newspapers. They should just pay attention to their companies.

"Diversity is fine — and this is a really beautiful place."

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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