Trip Report: What can we learn from North Dakota?

Report by Marc Nager, Managing Director, Telluride Venture Accelerator

Initially intended for an internal audience, we are repurposing Marc's report for public benefit here on the TVA blog. 

Continuing our trip reports, I'd like to share my recent trip to Fargo, ND. You may think that you and your community don't have much to learn from what they are doing, but you're wrong! :) 

My key questions + conclusions from my trip to Fargo

  • What can we learn from other small markets serving rural regions?
    • They have a very similar narrative of diversifying the economy. Their regional governments and leaders seem far more functional, aligned, and respected by founders than southwest Colorado. Banks are willing to take bigger risks, and there is a greater level of community support and understanding. We have more to learn from places like ND than CA. We also have a great amount to offer - specifically our access to mentors and access to capital. 
  • Are there startups we could be recruiting or working with from these markets to Telluride? 
    • Absolutely. Drones, Agriculture, and Health were strong. Great potential for finding great founders and ideas that don't want to do the Valley thing. Access to capital is a huge challenge for even the best performing and most experienced founders. Small town pride and connection to a place like Telluride was a great starter to every conversation. 

Activities I was a part of

  • 1 Million Cups: met the "top 3 startup founders in ND." All 3 voiced some interest in coming to Telluride for the Angel group or possibly TVF. Real companies, real talent, real IP. Solid contenders for any of our meetings so far. Techstars would even be wanting to go out of their way to find more companies like this. There were nearly ~180 attendees. Pretty impressive for a city the size of Fargo! 
  • ND State Bank & Founders meeting: almost the entire leadership of the $7B State Bank heard from 5 founders on what they need. Wonderful progress in understanding and verbal commitments to do a lot of what we're talking about needing for companies in CO. Incentivizing angels and VCs, revenue loans, zero collateral, etc. Good example for our EDA, banks, and region.
  • ND Mayor's Summit on Entrepreneurship: both major university leaders, mayors from at least 13 cities, 4 bank heads and 7 founders. Great model for building alignment and understanding around startups as a way of the future. I was the only keynote and gave a similar talk to the one in Telluride. Was wonderfully received and asked to come speak at several more events next year. ~40 attendees.
  • Mayor's only dinner: 13 Mayors engaged and digging deep on real issues like asking for angel tax credits from the state in their November annual meeting. Some fun heated conversation from one Mayor's statement that "we need to quit buying things on the internet!" which drove some really great conversation about how commodities and amazon, and how we need to focus on helping people save money on everyday commodities so disposable income can go towards craft/artesian/locally made things. In other words, each community needs to build out specialty items that they can sell locally AND on e-commerce. A big push in ND seems to be to help businesses sell on both main street & e-commerce. Great parallel to SW Colorado communities.

People worth noting: 

  • Greg Tehven: startup weekend organizer who brought me out. He's a local legend and leads Emerging Prairie. He also started Drone Focus which was an 1,800 person drone conference last year. One of the largest national conferences on Drones. Similar to other amazing community leaders I've seen around the world, he's sacrificed a lot and created a huge amount of value, but having a truly difficult time getting the support they need financially. Building the infrastructure to outlive him is a real challenge and something I hope the community there rallies behind. 
  • Jim Sweeny: founder of Weather Modification Inc 23 yrs ago. He is also very active in the drone space. I connected him with April at the Telluride Foundation (who sits on the state water board), and also to Mountain Drones, a former TVA company. 
  • Allison Barmann: VP at Bush Foundation. They are a 1B foundation getting into entrepreneurship right now. Great to see them out participating at events like this and understanding the more rural markets in their region and how they might be helpful. 
  • Tim Mahooney: Mayor of Fargo. Extremely supportive of startups and great at leading and bringing along all other mayors in the state to support startups. His motto was helping find "ways to yes" to help startups.
  • Eric Hardemeyer: Bank of North Dakota. Only private state bank in the country with ~$7B and full flexibility to do private investment. He considers the bank as "one of the key competitive advantages for companies in ND" and is looking at all sorts of high risk, zero collateral lending, investing directly and matching Angel/VC funds. One of the most progressive bank leaders I've met. They have a long way to go to implement, but they are heading quickly down the right paths. 
  • Al Anderson: head of ND economic development group. Great example of someone leaning in to understand what startups actually need. Not afraid to admit traditional models for economic development are broken. 

Insights: 

  • Talent: I believe we could possibly recruit better talent and ideas for programs like TVA from the Midwest than from the coasts. This trip is validation for getting out to more startup events already planned in Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, etc. Worth me digging hard in my network in slightly larger markets like Minneapolis, Omaha, Nashville, Phoenix, etc. 
  • Capital: it's clear that access to capital is still a challenge in places like Fargo, making it an even greater asset for us. Finding ways to support companies from markets like this via Telluride Angels and TVF continues to be a win/win strategy. 
  • Government collaboration: the Mayors were all singing the startup song as the future of economic development in towns ranging in size from Ridgeway to Fargo (roughly the same size as Grand Junction). It's worth considering the Telluride Foundation hosting a similar Mayor's Summit on Entrepreneurship next year to move the needle and drive alignment among our regional leaders. 
  • Broadband: consistently trumpeted as key infrastructure by all leaders present across the state. It's borderline depressing this is still an issue for us in Telluride! 
  • Alternative Industries: all of this inspires me to want to explore trying to intentionally build a base around pivotal future tech such as Autonomous Vehicles or AI. Telluride is an amazing microcosm for big companies to test dynamics that could exist in big cities. Our density, gap between rich and working class, thriving arts district, high quality schools, global brand and influence are all things that position us well for big ideas. In concrete terms, what if we were the first mountain town to legalize Autonomous Vehicles? (Think as a solution to parking and traffic frustrations) What if we were the first place to have robots manning our ski lifts? (Addresses work force recruitment, retention and housing issues). Autonomous rural ride sharing/transport? Drone weather modification?

It's almost fact that all these things will happen eventually in some form. Why couldn't Telluride be a global thought leader while addressing some of our more immediate social challenges? Doing so, we would attract some of the world's most advanced technologies and the resources and talent they'd bring. It feels like a great way to diversify our economy quickly. However, we'd need great support and alignment from government. Unintended consequences? As I said, these are all likely to happen regardless, so not sure yet. Fun to think about though, and thank you Greg and North Dakota for inspiring a good conversation in our small mountain town in Colorado! 

Marc Nager

Telluride, Colorado