What is life like in Boulder, Colorado? In case you cared…
Here’s my perspective as a 22 year old software engineer working at a small, venture-backed startup. It’s probably worth mentioning that I moved here in April 2012 after doing TechStars Cloud with my company in the spring, and that outside of work, I surround myself with more of the travel community (CouchSurfing + AirBnB) than I do with the tech community.
Upon getting off of the plane with my one suitcase in April, one of the first things I noticed about Boulder was how blonde everyone was. I felt like I had just landed in Scandinavia. This, and I had culture shock over the fact that 90% of the population was white. Coming from San Antonio, where I was a minority, this was shocking. I also took immediate notice at the dry air and elevation difference. One beer and I was tipsy. I felt overall a bit lethargic for the first two weeks, and the first month I constantly felt dried out (you adapt though… now it just feels normal, and going back to the east coast feels like entering a rain forest.) I was also stunned at how bright it was. The sun is intents here. You won’t find many people walking around without sunglasses. Oh yeah. And it NEVER rains. But when it does, it’s a cause for celebration – the five minutes (fine, more like two days) out of the month that it rains here are wonderful as you can finally not feel guilty about not going outside. I used to think that Boulder is so outdoorsy because it’s next to the mountains, but I’ve since realized that it’s just because the climate guilt-trips you into spending every waking moment outdoors.
As I got to know people better – mostly through CouchSurfing events – I began to notice just how many people here are working at and founding startups. And thank god, not all of them are iPhone apps – many of them are organic-foods related, outdoor-sports related, weather related (NCAR is here), music related, etc. There are plenty of other non-startupy employers here as well – Google, IBM, Microsoft, the University of Colorado, etc, but I have to admit I haven’t met many of them as they don’t seem to be popular employers of young people like myself.
Just coming out of TechStars Cloud in San Antonio, Texas, I was actually a bit surprised to not hear a lot about TechStars initially. I figured that Boulder, being ground zero of the number one accelerator in the world, it would be everywhere. The reality is that it is everywhere, but people don’t talk about it or boast their alumni status the way you might if you were in Durham, NC. Perhaps simply because there are so many people here that are somehow connected to TechStars, it’s not necessary to talk about it – it would be like geeking out with your college buddies that you go to the same school while you’re still in school. It would just be kind of odd. That said, plenty of people still strive to enter the program here.
I was also surprised to discover that Boulder is not especially popular for kids aged 20 to 30. There are plenty of us, but it’s not a target destination for 20-somethings. Folks of our age are more likely to end up in Denver. Or New York City for that matter. Here, college kids and families with small children seem to far outnumber most other demographics. Those and tourists – another surprise for me. Starting in May and lasting through September, the Pearl Street mall is swarming with tourists, beggars, and street performers to the point that it’s difficult to walk around. Most tourists seem to be families traveling with kids. I still have not figured out exactly what they’re here to see.
Aside from Tourism, Boulder has an enormous community of short-term residents, not even including the college students. We refer to it as “transient.” Many people move here planning on living here for a year or two to enjoy the mountains but end up falling in love and staying, but so many others move here planning to stay to quickly realize that they need to get used to making new friends every few months. I think it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. People come and go for all reasons… because they get tired of paying $1k monthly rent, because they can’t handle the college kids, or because they randomly decide to go to Antartica.
Daily life here is comfortable. Creepy comfortable. So comfortable that you’ll get into the flow of life quickly and feel like you’re on vacation when you’re not. The streets are so safe that you can walk anywhere in Boulder at any hour. The worse I’ve heard of happening here was a hobo throwing a rock at one of my friends as she was walking home. Maybe just wear a helmet if it’s after 2am and you should be good to go. There’s also the comfort of clothes. Everyone here wears comfortable, outdoorsy clothes. That, or they wear their favorite startup’s t-shirt. There’s no obligation to dress up – I’ve actually felt overdressed in some of the bars before just because my shirt had a collar – quite shocking if you’re coming from NYC or Boston, land of the neverending pea coats.
On top of atire, Boulder is not a bad place to be a pedestrian. While many people are not walking distance to downtown, they are probably bussing distance. If they’re not near a bus stop, I guarantee there is some combination of bus and bike that will get them anywhere within the five-by-five mile radius of this town. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to get stuck in traffic. I literally walk 5 minutes to work every day and five minutes home. Every once and awhile, I’ll need to go somewhere that’s not in downtown. When this happens, I just chose which greenway to bike down.
Boulder is certainly an interesting place as far as wealth is concerned, too. It seems that there is some sort of wealth-management associate or stock broking agency on every street corner. The average cost of a house here is $829,000. Some nice single bedroom apartments in downtown are over $2,000 a month. I’ve seen Lamborghini’s, a Tesla, and a Ferrari once or twice. In short, there is a LOT of money here – quite odd for a random, small town an hour outside of the nearest city.
Evening activities here are abundant. If you check out meetup.com, your mind will be blown by how many active meetups are here – everything you could imagine involving technology, software, startups, yoga, meditation, food, travel, etc. If not doing a meetup, you’ll take yoga classes, go to the (climbing?) gym, go hiking, or go out for a beer. For such a small town, it certainly feels like every resident is 110% active socially. How else could there be so much going on?
Boulder resembles many other very liberal towns. The music and arts scene is surprisingly small, in comparison to larger cities or other liberal towns. Though there is plenty of art here, one would expect more from a town like this. My personal theory is that most artists and musicians don’t make much money until they make it big, and thus can’t afford the rent here.
Weekends here are very different than weekdays. On a weekday you can walk down Pearl Street, spin around with your eyes closed, and you will find that the first person you see when you open your eyes is statistically most likely to be a software developer. Funny story – you can usually tell who they are because they have a particular look going for them. Don’t ask me what it is, you just know it when you see it. Weekends, on the other hand, are touristy. On weekend nights, the streets fill with drunk people. Mostly college students, but certainly not only college students. The coffee shops here fill up with entirely different crowds on the weekends than the weekdays.
I would also add that Boulder is conveniently located so close to a lot of wonderful destinations… Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Vail, Sand Dune National Monument, Pawnee National Grasslands. In fact, it’s not that far from the Tetons/Jackson Hole, Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower, or Mount Rushmore either. I highly recommend grabbing a great group of friends and venturing out of Boulder to check these places out. If not a destination, then maybe rent a cabin on AirBnB for the weekend or climb a few 14′ers?
Even the slowest weekends can be quite fun – I can’t count how many lazy weekends I spent tubing down the Boulder Creek, beer in hand. Eben G. Fine park fills with what seems to be half the town’s population on nice summer afternoons as picknickers and tubers gather in bathing suits to enjoy the long hours of sunlight. It’s barely winter now, but holy shit, people block off entire sections of their brains to devote specifically to skiing. From October to March, you’ll never have trouble striking up a conversation with a stranger. Just ask them what their ski plans are for the winter and you’ll find yourself immersed in a long conversation about which ski destinations are best and what the best deals are for season passes.
So yes, Boulder does live up to it’s reputation as being a bubble of unreality. It’s far, far from perfect, but it’s quite lovely, for a bubble.