Entrepreneurs shaping 'Jacksilicon Hole'
By Mark Wilcox
March 4, 2013 --
JACKSON - Any expert will say no startup marches a straight line to success. There are no established rules that are universally applicable. No formulas.
One Jackson-based business accelerator knows this from experience. Since its inception, the group has gone through a name change/rebranding, expansion, focus shifts and plenty of networking in getting to the point they're at now.
The group's name, Silicon Couloir evokes technology, the West and extreme risks, channeling a little bit of Silicon Valley and a little bit of Corbet's Couloir - a famously gnarly ski run at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort - to frame their brand.
Now, Silicon Couloir is an organized group of volunteers seeking to make Jackson into Silicon Valley East. Its members include past CEOs of brands that have gained national success. Take Brian Cousins, for instance. He was the co-founder of Cloudveil, a then-Jackson-based apparel maker which got bought out in the summer of 2004 by the parent company of Fila and only recently left Jackson to focus on different markets as part of another buyout.
Other members include other former CEOs, communications/marketing professionals, a filmmaker, a former Wall Street professional and technology and Internet professionals. The mix seems to serve the group well. The main entry requirement for board members seems to be a desire to build up the startup and tech community in Jackson.
"Anyone that wants to do something, meet me in the bar afterwards," organizer Chris Hessler said at an economic event in Jackson shortly before the group was born. "I don't know what I want to do, but I want to do something."
That something has taken on various facets. Once a month, the group sponsors an event called Chance Meetings. Some meetings focus on presentations from potential entrepreneurs who are given exactly two minutes to pitch their business to people in the room. Others have a single presenter telling a more-involved story. The hope is that the presentations push people away from "stale networking," where everyone talks to the people they already know
That is the motor of the event. Jackson entrepreneurs can swap ideas with like minds, all while upping the ability for people to have "Chance Meetings" that could lead to partnerships. This was fostered by the notion that in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship is seen as "the cool, respectable thing to do" and people often run into others while on the streets, sometimes setting unique partnerships in motion.
The group formed to combat the sliding job market in Jackson, which at some times of the year has by far the highest unemployment rate.
"[Teton County] lost several thousand good jobs since 2008," Hessler said. "We're not alone and it's not a secret."
The group tends to stay in motion to correct that.
"Our bias was toward action," Hessler said. "We didn't ask for permission. We were entrepreneurs so we just did stuff."
In fact, to keep things simple, the group operates as a sub-group of a well-established Jackson think tank, the Charture Institute. That allows them to keep their goals in mind and keep moving.
"You'll never see statues of committees," Hessler said. "You see statues of people that went out and did things."
Angel-borne roach motel
However successful some of the members of the group have been, they are fighting an uphill battle in such a small town.
"Most towns are like roach motels for startups," Hessler said. "Smart people go into the town but no companies come out because death is the default."
Part of Silicon Couloir is an angel investor and mentor group founded by Liza Millet. A former Wall Street professional and current stay-at-home mother, Millet still lives by the New York minute, even juggling a sleepy 1-year-old to speak with the Business Report.
"People in a resort town get tired of just talking about skiing or biking and they want to talk about other things," Millet said. That makes her group of "18 or so" who get together to talk about potential venture capital ideas work out, especially in the wealthiest county in the nation.
"These are sophisticated investors and they have the ability to invest anywhere in the world," she said.
The angel investor and mentor group has only been around since last fall, but some are starting to see the effects, even if it doesn't come in the form of direct funding.
"It's a great feeding ground," Millet said, though she acknowledges that, "Angel investing is a true needle in a haystack."
One feeder is the founder of VestPac, an "air mesh hydration pack" that fits under a coat without making people sweat - something that fits in with the Jackson Hole psyche filled with spray jackets, fishing vests and ski coats.
"I think the thing that helped is it helped me put the pitch together," said Scott Shepherd, the founder of VestPac. He said it helped him narrow down what he needed to tell people in a short presentation to pique interest. And it has helped his networking out too.
"I've ended up in a lot of good interactions with myself and a lot of other people doing the same thing," he said.
His company hit $150,000 in sales last year and is targeting $250,000 this year after a 2010 start. Perhaps the most valuable thing he has gotten from the program is mentorship.
"There are a lot of talented people in the group that can guide you along, which is great," Shepherd said. "They can really hone your abilities to ask for money, though I've never been shy about that."
Another company that said it owes a lot to the group is Vertical Harvest. The business started with the seed of an idea to provide jobs in a greenhouse in Jackson to people who are partially disabled.
"In order to maximize the amount of jobs we are able to produce on a small site, we are going up, creating one of the country's first vertical greenhouses," the company informs on its website. They presented at a Chance Meetings two-minute drill and have since matured, but now call themselves the group's "poster child."
"When VH first presented ... we didn't have a business plan, investors or really a good roadmap for securing either of those things," wrote project architect and partner Nona Yehia in a letter to the group. Earlier this month, the business applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council that, if successful, will finish their fundraising goals.
"What [Silicon Couloir] did was match our passion with critical expertise at a time when the whole community was asking that simple question: 'Can they get it done?'" she said.
Hessler summed up the work of the group simply.
"Silicon Couloir aspires to nurture and hold the space for an emerging class of business powers in the Tetons," he said.
And that just might be the breeding ground to create Jacksilicon Hole.
Wyoming Business Report Staff Writer Mark Wilcox is wondering if he should trademark the term "Jacksilicon Hole" before someone else tries to take credit for it.