Metro March 10, 2017

Getting to the Trailhead

Boise's startup base camp gets on point

Trailhead, Boise’s downtown co-working space is a startup hub stretching its legs. With eight-week courses that accommodate working people and an evolving code school, quickly it’s expanding the city’s entrepreneur network. Since the nonprofit’s doors opened in 2015, Trailhead has racked up nearly 400 members who have found their way to the startup guide service. Members are learning how to bring a dream to market for the price of a cup of coffee.

“Before Trailhead existed the choices were working out of your house or out of a coffee shop,” said Raino Zoller, Trailhead’s founding executive director, a Boise entrepreneur and investor in his own right. “Especially at home, you’re isolated. Your idea or your product is not getting exposed to a lot of outside eyes. You’re not having to describe what you’re doing to a bunch of people and getting feedback and suggestions. That’s all really important in this process.”

Joining Trailhead has helped Louis Armstrong, a University of Idaho grad with a degree in food science and the man behind Killer Whey, a new Boise ice cream that is high in protein and low in sugar. At the close of his Startup Now class at Trailhead last fall, Armstrong presented his pitch to mentors, customers and angel investors and was able to share his message and strategy for achieving his “MVP,” or minimum viable product.

“There were eight businesses in my class,” said Armstrong who, as a food service expert with little business experience and an active person looking for a guilt-free treat, was looking for help to market his novel dessert idea just as Trailhead was getting underway. “I found Trailhead and it has been invaluable to me. I still go there every day that I’m in town. I take my laptop and find a quiet place to work. It’s better than working out of my home office. There are whiteboards and group meeting spaces and at Trailhead North across the street there are dedicated office spaces for people who are further along with their startups.”

Armstrong runs his startup company with the help of his wife Elizabeth, a full time physical therapist. Their ice creams are available at dozens of locations, including coffee shops and CrossFit gyms, where Armstrong first tested his product. He’s shooting for Boise-wide distribution that will include more mainstream grocery stores this summer with three flavors, vanilla, chocolate and mint chip, and hopes, with success, to expand into the greater Pacific Northwest in the next year.

Together business-wise veterans and first time brainstormers are finding inspiration through a formalized process that helps normalize entrepreneurship, Zoller said. The goal is to vet ideas and speed success with a series of courses that will soon include a new location for regular computer programing instruction called code school since the most common need for entrepreneurs today is to find a developer to build websites, products and Internet technology.

“There’s just such high demand for that skill and I think we’re helping to fulfill that need in our community by delivering that talent,” Zoller said. “Most of our members don’t use us every day, but there are definitely days when it’s hard to find a seat. My guess is probably when we get to 500 members the space is going to start to get pretty tight.”

Trailhead is a link to a business ecosystem with potentially global reach for anyone on an entrepreneurial quest explained Gordon Jones, Dean of the College of Innovation and Design at BSU.

“I oversee a thing called Venture College at Boise State,” Jones said in a recent interview. “If you think of Trailhead, it’s all part of a continuum of resources. So Trailhead, while it’s more of a public-private partnership model, it’s really about aggregating resources and lowering friction that innovators may have whether they are technologists or humanities-centered innovators. They can find a multidisciplinary environment where all different skill sets are present.”

As a Trailhead board member, Jones brings his experience helping to launch Harvard’s Innovation Lab, now a campus complex with more than 4,000 students out of 23,000. Jones and others often quote another Harvard business sage, Howard Stevenson, who is famous for saying, “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”

Jones said part of the reason he came to Boise is he sees the potential for Idaho to be a leader in sustainable business. The attention and prospects are a good sign, according to supporters of Trailhead, which is a project developed by the city, the Capital City Development Corporation and other private partners found in corporations like Micron and Albertsons and individual donors.

“Boise, Idaho, is, by many measures, the most geographically isolated city of its size in the country,” wrote Boise Mayor Dave Bieter on the website of 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based startup incubator, part of a federation of incubators that includes Trailhead on its global list. “The pioneers who first settled here in the 19th Century were tough, creative and self-reliant but also willing to rely on one another to find a productive path and avoid repeating others’ mistakes. All of those qualities continue to define “the Boise way” of doing things in the 21st Century, especially among our entrepreneurs.”

The city is taking care of rent as Trailhead picks up speed and members, which is fitting since Boise has been recognized for its livability and employment prospects. However, new business entry has been slack until recently.

“The entry rate for new businesses—firms less than one year old as a share of all companies—dropped by almost half in the Boise metro region over an eight-year period, from 15.2 percent in 2006 to 7.7 percent in 2012, according to the Kauffman Foundation,” Mayor Bieter also wrote. “And nationally, the number of people under age 30 who own a business is at a 24-year low.”

Reversing that trend is where Trailhead shines says Jones.

Certainly clicking through the Internet in the home office to listen to entry stories of any number of entrepreneurs in the virtual ecosystem one can become a self-taught savant, but getting out of the box is essential. Just ask Nolan Bushnell a startup giant and founder of Atari, which vertically integrated with his invention of Chuck E Cheese, and had Steve Jobs as an early employee.

“Being Steve Jobs isn’t as important as having an ecosystem that allows Steve Jobs to flourish,” Bushnell said during a Startup Grind Silicon Valley interview. Startup Grind, which includes Boise, is “the largest independent startup community, actively educating, inspiring, and connecting 1,000,000 entrepreneurs in over 200 cities.” Bushnell said that he knew Jobs liked to work late and had a close friend named Steve Wozniak who hung around in Bushnell’s progressive workplace. “Basically, I got two Steves for the price of one.”

Members at Trailhead include entrepreneurs who’ve failed, some who’ve succeeded in business ventures, and the rare bird who nailed it out of the box.

“I’m a believer that innovation itself just doesn’t happen in your garage or your dorm room, and, if you’re going to improve the probability and the viability of the innovators in your community, Trailhead is an invaluable asset,” Jones said, adding that the more support there is for Trailhead’s vision, the more people recognize Boise as a place that can have a special long term impact, the faster the city will come on line. “The momentum is great. What I can’t tell you is that this exact person is going to be the biggest, but I believe out of these 400 we can have real impact for the community on economic activity, and I believe we’re going to grow the ecosystem to allow this city and this region to be able to stay adaptable as the world continues to change. There are new problems, and therefore new solutions are developed. I want Boise to be a recognized leader globally of contribution to that kind of a better world.”

This article appears in the Spring 2017 Issue of Territory Magazine.