What happens to an entrepreneur after consecutive startup failures? Fletcher Richman had two concepts fail before taking those lessons and starting Spark Boulder, a co-working space bridging the University of Colorado Boulder and the startup community. He is now managing director at Spark and a growth engineer at PivotDesk. In this interview we talk about those failures, co-working and how to build a great team.

What made you interested in startups?

I suppose it started my sophomore year at Boulder. Until then I really had no idea about startups or the startup scene here.

Around that time I started getting caught up in this idea called the College Life Guide. It was essentially a Yelp for colleges. You could rate dorms, restaurants, sororities and fraternities—that sort of thing.

I was completely hooked on that concept. I reached out to people here at the University, and ended up falling into the startup scene here.

Soon I found myself entering business plan competitions, and other startup events, which were all available for free. I started teaching myself web design, and a few tools like Photoshop. I just became completely obsessed with all of it it.

I decided to study engineering because of entrepreneurship. I just love the idea of creating things.

I guess Boulder is a good city to fall in love with startups?

Absolutely. I got really lucky, because I came out here for skiing. It has tailed off a bit, but I still love it.

Like I said, I got really lucky to end up in one of the top tech startup cities in the world.

“It is crazy, 90 percent of students don't even know that their back door opens to one of the top startup communities in the world.”

Night View of the City of Boulder
A night shot looking over the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo by Yuya Sekiguchi.

You're now the managing director at Spark Boulder. Let's talk a bit about co-working spaces. For those that aren't familiar with them, could you explain?

Think of a co-working space like a gym. You buy a membership to get access to space. Sometimes there are different tiers of membership that give you different hours, and perks.

One of the things that I think is game-changing is the idea of a mobile, or hot desk. Basically, you don't have a specific desk, and you just sit wherever is open.

It is really a much more efficient way to allocate space, because people are in at different times of the day. It also gives you the ability to move desks around when you to host events. It adds a great deal of flexibility to the space. Things are also done on much shorter timescales. At Spark we charge month-to-month. I know there are also co-working spaces that charge by the hour.

I love the gym membership analogy. When you said that I think back to when I was at 1871 in Chicago. Instead of pilates and spin classes, there's JavaScript and Design classes.

Well, how did you get involved with Spark Boulder?

After I started digging myself deep into the startup world. I started to notice a few things.

The main problem was that the University of Colorado Boulder is not well connected to the startup community. Other startup communities—Silicon Valley, Boston and New York—they all have a really strong private university that is directly connected to them. Stanford, MIT, NYU—these are all great feeder schools with a startup community built around them.

Here in Boulder it was a lot more about TechStars, Foundry Group and other programs that brought a lot of the talent and energy. The school, being a public university, is not in the center of all of this activity and has gotten left behind.

“I decided to study engineering because of entrepreneurship. I just love the idea of creating things.”

There is this gap, and it has an actual name. We call it the Boulder Creek Divide, because Boulder Creek runs between the University and Pearl St., where all of the tech startups are.

It is crazy, 90 percent of students don't even know that their back door opens to one of the top startup communities in the world.

I started helping students get internships with these startups, and at the time I was working with the on-campus entrepreneurship center who was trying to find a space.

Everyone knew that we needed a space for student entrepreneurs to work, but nobody had done it. I think partly because the University is very fragmented. The engineering school does one thing, the business school does another, but they seldom come together.

In the Fall of 2012 I was shown a 5,400 sq. ft. empty basement space about a block from the school. It hadn't been leased in five years, so the price could be negotiated down. It was absolutely perfect.

I spent a semester trying to get the school on board, but didn't have much luck. The University of Colorado has a notorious aversion to new things. They want to make sure something is going to be successful before jumping on board.

We ended up partnering with a local law firm that was really excited about being involved in an incubator, because it is great lead generation for them.

Additionally, we went out and raised a bunch of money from the community. Everyone was saying "We want you to build this bridge to bring together students and talent." We raised about $140,000 from individuals and from businesses. It was absolutely incredible. I was sending cold emails out to CEOs and getting checks back.

That allowed us to build out this empty 5,400 sq. ft. space into Spark Boulder. We now have four offices, two conference rooms, ten desks, a big event space, kitchens, bathrooms and more.

I like that you saw this divide where there needed to be a bridge. Then, in a very startup-like way, you went and got buy in from the communities to build it.

Since Spark opened its doors, what has the environment been like?

It has been amazing.

Obviously, it wasn't just me doing it. We had a great core group of students helping out. One student did all of the architectural work, while another did the branding and design.

Right before we opened there was a 20-day-period where we ran out of money. To cut down on our budget, we decided to do all of the painting and staining ourselves.

Fletcher Richman Profile
Fletcher Richman holds the mic at Spark Boulder.
Spark Boulder Entry
Spark Co-Working Desks
Spark Boulder Stairway Motion
Inside the 5,400 sq. ft. Spark co-working space. It has four offices, two conference rooms, ten desks, a big event space, kitchens, bathrooms and more. Photos by 23rd Studios.

We thought it would be easy.

As it turns out a commercial-scale painting job is a pretty big deal. Over the course of those 20 days, we probably had 50 students come by and help—this was on a volunteer basis.

On the day we opened we had this huge event with 300 people. All of our supporters came, and there was just this amazing energy.

In the first two or so months we attracted something like 2,000 visitors with our events. We held internship fairs—in March we hosted a Startup Weekend.

The key for us was building a community before Spark even opened. We got a lot of buy-in from all the students, who were really the key players.

We had some classes working in the space. There was a computer science class called Startup Essentials of Computer Science that taught CS students how to build a business. We also had Watson University, which is a social impact university based in Boulder.

Because of the students working on the space and those classes, Spark never really had the cold start problem that some co-working spaces run into. We opened with 70 people that were excited about it, and quickly grew up to about 110 in the first semester.

Considering that we opened halfway through the semester, and that we were making students pay, I think it has gone above and beyond everyone's expectations.

Are those events at Spark attracting students?

One of the big things with Spark, is that we weren't trying to create our own programming. For example, there was already an internship fair called Startups2Students. There are probably 10 major clubs that are related to entrepreneurship in some way. We simply gave them a better venue, and home for their events.

We hosted them for free, because it was great publicity, and a great way to get a lot of faces in the door that didn't know anything about us.

Another great thing is that we're directly in the middle of student life on what is called The Hill in Boulder. There's cheap food, and it is where most student live. That allows us to bring in people that are just walking by.

It definitely helps us get awareness.

“I was sending cold emails out to CEOs and getting checks back.”

Now that the place is built, what does your day at Spark look like?

It is much different now than it was during the school year, obviously.

We've discovered a few things that differ from other co-working spaces. Students definitely keep more late-night hours. We changed our hours from the usual 9 to 5. We now open at 10 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. to accommodate students. We're also open on the weekends.

This summer we've got two full-scale accelerator programs happening. One is called the Unreasonable Institute, which is a social impact accelerator that has been around for a few years. They actually rent out a whole frat house to live in. They're used to hosting workshops in the basement of the frat house, so having a real workspace is a big upgrade.

There is also Catalyze CU, which is a pilot for a university accelerator that the engineering school at CU is running. There are six teams, and each team gets a $4,000 grant from the university. They get free space and mentorship with the hope of taking student teams to the next level.

It is pretty cool, and is a big step for CU. I think we've passed the tipping point, where now we're going to see a lot of entrepreneurial activity and growth.

Let's take a break here. You gave a talk called Failure is Fantastic. If you would, tell us about some of your failures.

Sure.

Let's go back to that first company I was talking about, The College Life Guide. That was my first foray into the startup world.

I actually taught myself how to build websites with Drupal. I don't know what made me decide that was the best CMS, but it seemed like what I should learn at the time. It worked OK, I got what I wanted, which as a site with a rating system.

The big mistake I made was pulling my friends in and convincing them to be part of it. I asked them to come to weekly meeting, but I didn't really have buy-in from everyone on the team. They were my friends, and wanted to support what I was doing. I don't necessarily know that it was a bad idea, but I didn't have the right team around me. That was the main reason that it died .

Also, I wasn't terribly passionate about ratings and rankings for college students. I was caught in the middle of that sort of stuff as a sophomore in college, but over time I lost a lot of passion for it. Obviously that is key when you aren't getting paid and you aren't making money.

The next company was called MusikFly, which cleared the first hurdle—it solved a problem. I had a bunch of friends that were good musicians—they mainly focused on electronic music—but had no clue how to get their music to a larger audience. They would send out 30, 50, 100 cold emails to music bloggers, and ask them to post their song. Nobody had any success.

I started talking music bloggers to figure out why nobody responded. As you can imagine, they get blasted with thousands of emails from desperate artists everyday. 

Email clearly wasn't working. I decided to build an alternative. This time around I built a much better team. It was me, three computer science students and a business guy. We built a great product, had traction, a bunch of blogs, a few thousand users and about 20,000 songs. For a while things were looking pretty good.

There were a few problems. First of all, we couldn't find a way to make money. Music is a terrible, terrible space to make money. Nobody was going to fund us, and both of our customers were broke.

Also, we just lost momentum. We pivoted and shifted our revenue model so much that everybody lost their motivation to keep moving. The site is still up an running. People are still using MusikFly, but we don't really touch it at all.

MusikFly has lead to some consulting work for us. People see that we're a development team capable of building cool stuff.

The business was a failure as a startup, but a total success as a lesson learned. Look at Spark Boulder. I was able to go build a great team, keep momentum, identify a problem and avoid a bunch of the mistakes I made a previous startups.

Spark Boulder Grand Opening Speech
Fletcher, Spark's Managing Director, takes the stage at the space's grand opening. Photo by 23rd Studios.

Well, now I've got to ask you why failure is fantastic.

Well, because it makes a good title.

[laughter]

Look, you don't need failure to have success, but it is a great stepping stone on the way to success. Those lessons learned from previous companies where I failed helped tremendously at my next endeavors. It also gave me the network and credibility I needed, because I became known as someone that gets stuff done.

Failure in the startup world—and now I'm beginning to see it in the rest of the business world—isn't a bad thing. People would much rather hire someone who has failed twice than someone who hasn't tried.

Everything went wrong at the first company. A little less went wrong with the second company, and then you had all the things go right with Spark.

You put a lot of emphasis on building a good team. What makes a good team, and how do you build one?

A lot of what goes into building a team is fuzzy. It is difficult to say. Deep down you know if you're building a good team.

One thing you can do is look at your strengths, identify what those are, and figure out what you don't do well.

You've got to be completely honest with yourself. For example, I know I'm not good with creative design. A good part of Spark's success is because it is a well-designed space with a well designed brand. We brought in my friend Jaimie, who came up with the name and built the brand. Stephanie was the architect, and had the vision for how the space should look and feel. I do engineering and implementation—that is where my strengths lie.

Identify strengths and weaknesses and go with your gut.

Let's talk about PivotDesk, which is a startup that helps people find places to work. How did you get involved with them?

It was total luck.

I was pitching at a TechStars Meetup at the end of 2012. I was looking at their website on my new Google tablet. I told them looked terrible.

By odd luck they asked me to interview. Three weeks later I got an email from Kelly, one of the co-founders, asking me to come into the office. When I got there they told me I'd be starting tomorrow.

It ended up working out great. I had to teach myself Git and Rails on the fly, but I guess that is the best way to learn it. When I started they'd give me small projects. Those slowly started getting bigger, and I ended up running our intern team last summer.

It has been about two years now, and I actually just started working here full-time today.

Congratulations!

Thanks. It's super exciting. We're in 29 markets now across the country.

I know because of Spark and PivotDesk everyone kind of associates me with co-working spaces. PivotDesk is actually more of a next step. After you've outgrown co-working, and get your own office. When you first move into your office it will likely be too big at first. That is when you can use PivotDesk to rent out those empty desks to other people.

Interestingly, Spark uses PivotDesk to process payments.

Earlier you talked about learning Ruby on Rails, and mentioned that you built your first company on Drupal. How should someone decide what programming language or framework they should learn first?

Our generation has an advantage over everybody because we are so Google-prone. Every question that I have, I Google it. I've gotten to the point where it is a habit.

When I was trying to figure out what the best way to build this College Life Guide website, I had a friend tell me that I needed a content management system. So I took to Google and started reading articles about content management systems. 

The short answer is Google is your best friend. As you advance as a developer, Stack Overflow will certainly help.

The common joke is that if Google went down the world would be filled with exponentially less qualified developers.

[laughter]

The guys that wrote Rails and JavaScript would be fine, but the rest of us would be screwed.

Coding in general is a pretty incredible educational opportunity, because you can learn everything you need online for free.

Speaking of those books. Are there any tutorials or specific resources you'd recommend?

It depends on your learning style.

I recommend the Hartl tutorial to everybody learning Ruby on Rails. Rails for Zombies on Code School is good and pretty entertaining.

Once you get past those first-level tutorials, I think the best way to learn is just to try and build something.

You could go to a hackathon and join a team with a really experienced developer, and learn from him. Watching someone else set up the infrastructure for Rails is beneficial.

What else? Here in Boulder there are a ton of Meetups.

“People would much rather hire someone who has failed twice than someone who hasn't tried.”

Fletcher, who do you look up to?

Good question.

Since I've gotten into the entrepreneurial community, the way I've tried to structure my path is to find people I respect, and who's life is similar to one that I'd like at their age. When I find those people I do whatever they tell me to do.

Specifically for me, Brad Bernthal, who is the director of the Silicon Flatirons entrepreneurship program. He is an amazing connector, and has an incredible demeanor.

The other one is Jason Mendelson, who is one of the managing directors at Foundry Group. Him and Brad Bernthal actually taught a class called VC 360, which was a 360 degree view of venture capital. It was my favorite class as an undergraduate.

I know you've provided a ton of advice here, but for someone looking to start their first business, is there one thing you'd tell them?

I'd just reiterate that you shouldn't be afraid of failing.

Whether or not they realize it, the fear of failure holds a lot of people back from starting a business.

You'd be amazed how much it puts you above the crowd by just doing. Actually go do it. People will respect you for trying to build things—even if it looks like crap. Even if you built it in Drupal, and don't know any CSS, and it barely works. People will respect the hell out of you.

Over time it will get better. I think that is one of the reasons the Lean Startup and other similar movements have had success. It isn't so much that putting out a crappy product helps you learn about your customer, but that it actually forces you to build a product. It gives you a scope that is manageable.

Don't be afraid. Go do it.

Fletcher, this has been a great conversation. Where can people find you?

Twitter is probably the best way to get in touch. You can find me @FletchRichman. I'm on LinkedIn. Also, my website is fletcher.io.