Banner image: Railroad Avenue in Dolores, Colorado. (Credit: CC photo by Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons)
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Elizabeth Philbrick and her husband Jared Scott were unsure of the future of their new business in Dolores, Colorado.
The couple had just opened EsoTerra Cider in what was once the Mountain Sun Juice factory in Dolores, a town of less than 1,000 people in southwest Colorado.
EsoTerra Cider serves libations with fancy names like Quercus Schmercus, Bear Bait, and Apre All Day. But as infections raged across the state, the couple’s business struggled to cover expenses. And for bureaucratic reasons, the cider house was not eligible for government COVID-19 relief loans.
So Philbrick and Scott appealed for help or advice on a new resource: an online tool for small business owners called the Startup Colorado Network. The network was launched in 2020 by Startup Colorado, an outreach program within Silicon Flatirons at CU Law School. It connects rural entrepreneurs with business resources, as well as with other business owners, mentors and funders.
For EsoTerra, which at the height of apple season employs around seven people, it has paid off.
Within days, they had received a flood of comments and were finally able to apply for and receive a loan from a local economic development fund.
âAs an entrepreneur it is extremely important to have someone to help you get through those early years,â Philbrick said. âIf you think it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a lot more than a single village to start a business. “
Delaney Keating, CEO of Startup Colorado, added that her team is also made up of people who live and work in rural Colorado and have a passion for these small towns. While some of these communities have experienced growth spurts in recent years, others are losing residents, posing challenges for people who want to start new businesses there.
âRural Colorado is not always under-served or under-funded as a lot of people seem to believe,â Keating said. âThere are a lot of resources, but they are often variable, so we need to connect them more effectively. “
John Wittler listens to these challenges. He grew up in Pritchett, Colorado, in the southeastern corner of the state. Today, he is the regional coordinator of Ogallala Commons, a non-profit organization that works to “reinvigorate communities and commonwealths in the Great Plains region”.
The story, he said, is familiar to anyone who watches local news in Colorado: Young people in some small towns across the state go looking for employment opportunities elsewhere. Baca County, home to Pritchett, had nearly 8,000 people in 1950. Today, that number is closer to 3,800, and the state of Colorado predicts it will drop to 2,800 by 2050.
âYou have an aging population in these communities, and that almost indicates a missing generation of leaders,â Wittler said.
There are a lot of reasons why starting a business in rural Colorado can be difficult. Many small towns do not have the infrastructure that big cities boast for launching new projects, and the workforce may be reduced. But there are also advantages. These communities are often tight-knit and want to see their residents succeed, Wittler said. There are also a lot of young people who want to live and work where they grow up – they just need their chance.
âAs we move to a digital society instead of a fully physical society, there are opportunities for entrepreneurship in rural communities that did not exist before,â said Wittler.
The Startup Colorado organization has been working to foster this type of entrepreneurial environment since 2011. The group works with what it calls “ecosystem builders,” such as state government agencies, small development boards. companies and organizations like Ogallala Commons, to provide advice to Colorado entrepreneurs. . Its programs have focused on everything from coordinating statewide regional resource calls during the pandemic to sponsoring educational events.
The group’s new online network, which was designed in collaboration with rural residents like Wittler, is a central hub where people can meet and share ideas. If a user wants to find marketing tips or get a good recommendation for a CFO in Yuma County, they can post a message on the site. The tool also allows members to form their own mini-groups focused on specific regions or industries. There are currently smaller networks dedicated to local food and agriculture and the outdoor industry, among others.
And while the resource is still in its infancy, it continues to grow with around 467 registered users as of March 2021. Keating, who herself lives in the small town of Gunnison, said the project was like a “startup. for startups â.
âThe work can be intense, but we work hard,â Keating said. âWe understand the weaknesses of these rural entrepreneurs, and we also understand how these ecosystem builders are working hard with limited resources to reach people in their areas. “
Wittler believes hard work pays off.
âThe Startup team has been great working with her,â he said. âTheir vision fits perfectly with what I think needs to happen in rural Colorado. “
Lots of love
For Philbrick, starting a small business in rural Colorado was kind of a love affair.
She and her current husband met in 2015 when they were both graduate students at Colorado State University. They moved to Dolores so they could start a family, while also tapping into some of Montezuma County’s hidden gems: historic apple orchards, many dating back to the early 1900s, which grow rare fruit varieties with names as “jasper jelly” and “the transcendent”.
And it’s a passion they can now share with someone new: their first child, Avery.
“Our one-year-old was on the porch with Jared all summer,” Philbrick said, “eating a bushel of apples all day.”