TRUCKEE, Calif. — Silicon Valley may be the mecca for tech startups and investors, but Truckee-Tahoe has the mountains and offers a lifestyle that’s beginning to outweigh the professional pulls of the Bay Area and beyond.
As freelancers and telecommuters make a home here, entrepreneurs bring their startups with them or build them locally.
“What we have found and learned is that young people seek out where they want to live first, and then see if they can make it work,” said Lynn Saunders, President and CEO of Truckee Chamber of Commerce.
As the Chamber aims to support local businesses, it has seen an increase in startup companies in recent years.
“We are trying to really help foster and support these organically grown businesses,” Saunders said. “I think it helps diversify our economy in a very environmentally conscious way.”
Boulder, Colo., Bend, Ore., and Boise, Idaho, are just a few smaller towns known for a rich outdoor lifestyle that have seen an increase in tech workers and startups — and the revenue that comes with them.
Truckee-Tahoe isn’t different, with growing companies such as Bigtruck brand and Arcade Belts calling the region home.
“There are people working on stuff here — there just isn’t a big company like Twitter with a lot of visibility,” said Robert Bousquet, managing partner at New Leaders, a Truckee-based web development company.
Bousquet started New Leaders when he learned his landlord just happened to be the vice president of Yahoo India.
The concept of being able to work from Truckee struck Bousquet as a strong possibility. The Truckee native said he was pleased to find “there are a ton of tech investors up here” and that “a lot have come from the Bay Area.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Eric Reis, author of “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses,” defines a startup as “a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”
Many businesses started in Truckee-Tahoe or brought to the area begin in garages or co-working spaces like The Lift, located near Truckee Tahoe Airport in a 2,500-square-foot building.
When using the term “startup,” though, local entrepreneurs have concerns about the misconceptions that go along with it.
“I worry that people get this myopic vision that people think ‘startup’ and think ‘tech,’ that you have to be building hardware or software,” said Mike Krueger, founder and CEO of Match Funder, a crowd sourcing platform that helps corporations reach energy efficiency solutions. “There are plenty of entrepreneurs around here who built very successful businesses.”
Krueger listed Truckee’s Fifty Fifty Brewing and the Cedar House and Sport Hotel as businesses that were once startups and have become established companies.
Jonathan Sass, a technology entrepreneur who has been involved with over 20 startups in the last 20 years, defines the term as “an idea that you’re trying to build a company out of.”
Sass started Magnifye, a traffic and road conditions website, 14 years ago and still considers the company a startup.
“A startup to me is something you do a whole lot more work on than anything else,” Sass said with a laugh.
‘COMING OUT OF THE WOODWORK’
As events like Lake Tahoe Startup Weekend and co-working spaces like The Lift and Tahoe Mill Collective grow in members, tech industry workers may no longer feel the need to live in Silicon Valley or commute to the Bay Area in order to network and turn startup dreams into reality.
Johannes Ziegler, CEO and founder of Miaplaza Inc., started Tahoe Silicon Mountain Networking Group, an organization that brings Silicon Valley-types together for monthly events and meetings.
Ziegler started the organization four years ago when he saw an increase in Tahoe-Truckee’s tech worker population — and an isolation among them.
“The tech industry of course is growing and expanding from the Bay Area and also coming up stronger in Reno,” Ziegler said. “Truckee is in the middle and I think it’s benefiting people who want to have a lifestyle in one of the most beautiful places, but not be totally out of reach.”
Krueger agreed that he has seen “people are coming out of the woodwork” with the growth of organizations like Silicon Mountain. Other workers at The Lift agree, saying they were surprised and impressed with the marketplace of ideas and those who presented at Startup Weekend this past March. In all, 120 people in various stages of startup development attended.
“So many of us worked out of our house,” Krueger said. “Events like Start Up Weekend raise awareness that we’re out there.”
Silicon Mountain has over 280 members and an average attendance of 40 members at each meeting.
INTERNET, RISK-TAKERS NEEDED
Bousquet chose the Airport Business Park on Soaring Way in Truckee as the local headquarters for New Leaders mainly for the Internet capabilities. The office runs along a fiberoptic cable, allowing New Leaders access to high speeds.
Although the startup community is growing, Bousquet believes a problem the mountain town does pose toward future growth is a lack of reliable connection. The capabilities for home and small office use are there, he said, but the capacity to run a large office isn’t.
“When you’re working on the Internet and delivering your product that way, your Internet has to be reliable and able to support a lot of employees,” Bousquet said.
An analogy he used was filling a swimming pool with a gardening hose.
Rachel Arst McCullough, owner of Truckee-based McCullough Web Services, agrees that Internet connection is an issue, but said there are other challenges to foster startup community growth.
“Technology companies need fast and reliable Internet, which needs to be much more widespread,” Arst McCullough said. “They also need qualified employees, but we don’t have a big pool of people looking for tech jobs because there aren’t many tech companies.”
Because startups are defined by their lack of certainty, typical companies begin with a “nothing to lose” attitude, she said.
Serial entrepreneur Andy Scott said Truckee-Tahoe could benefit from having more of these types of business people.
“The risk profile does not exist in that level of abundance,” Scott said, comparing Truckee-Tahoe to the Bay Area. “The area needs awesome startup anchor tenants to provide gravity for local talent and local options.”
‘NOTHING TO LOSE’
Scott qualifies himself as a “unicorn” in the sense that although he has the financial responsibilities of being a father and a homeowner, he still takes financial risks with startup companies.
His latest startup, 1bios, is a digital wellness service based in Truckee.
To foster a thriving startup environment, Scott said, the area needs more young 20-somethings who have “nothing to lose and no mortgage.”
“There aren’t as many startup entrepreneurs here,” he said. “The opportunity cost and risk (for 20-somethings) is much lower than for a 30- or 40-year-old who made the move up here and figured out how to do it with a mortgage and kids.”
With the tech industry providing year-round jobs, the hope among many is that more stable, less tourism-dependent income will thrive in Truckee-Tahoe.
“I think it will provide sustainability,” Bousquet said of the new facet of Truckee-Tahoe’s economy. “The boom or bust —those are really variable markets and with tech companies or startups, they aren’t based on that tourist industry.”
Justin Winter, founder of Winter Creative and owner of Soundslides, believes the mindset of local residents alone is what makes them good, reliable workers.
“Give people up here a chance because people are interested in learning and interested in being creative,” he said.
In the end, a love for the outdoors and physical activity lends itself to working hard and “getting after it,” Winter said.
“People up here have a certain zest for life,” Winter said. “It’s a quality about them.”
Jenny Luna is a freelance reporter for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There are people working on stuff here — there just isn’t a big company like Twitter with a lot of visibility.”
managing partner at New Leaders