Tech in the mountains
EAGLE COUNTY — There are some places in the high country where a good Internet business is just not feasible. Red Cliff is the prime example, where the web is scarce. But for the most part, service has been upgraded in our region enough over the past few years to the point where it’s now possible to do business at the level a tech startup would need.
Doug Clayton, the facility director at the Entrepreneurs BaseCamp at the Vail Centre in Avon, has been studying this closely. When he started 8150 High Altitude Entrepreneurs, the goal was to attract and assist startup companies through networking.
“Our area attracts a lot of high-caliber-type people who will team up, and you get this ensemble-type cast of these people who are top-notch performers,” Clayton said. “Everybody up here is a good coder; they’re all good, because they have to be.”
Clayton’s partner in the 8150 effort is attorney Brad Bickerton, who says the Vail Valley has the advantage of having a lot of people who want to live here.
“I have found that there’s an incredibly high-end work force up here,” Bickerton said.
That, in conjunction with a trend toward Internet telecommuting, is creating opportunities.
“Technology is supporting remote working,” Clayton said. “Before broadband, it didn’t exist. … More companies are having more liberal work-at-home policies, and you’re seeing a lot of companies start to decentralize and not have these giant headquarters anymore.”
Rackspace, a company that provides hosted exchange and secure web-based email hosting services, has an employee working out of the Vail Centre.
“Other techies are jealous that we’re living up here,” Clayton said.
SILICON VALLEY TO VAIL VALLEY
A tech startup formed through the 8150 High Altitude Entrepreneurs networking group was The Dropp, a free new app that connects local customers with limited-time, limited-quantity promotions.
Founder Kevin Bohren has seen the ins and outs of the tech industry over the last few decades. He started working at Compaq in Texas in the 1980s and bought a house in Vail in the ’90s. By the late ’90s, Bohren was involved in the early days of DVR business, commuting back and forth from the Silicon Valley to Eagle County every other week.
What he’s seeing these days would have blown his mind a few years ago.
“In the old days, everybody had to be in a big room,” he said. “At Compaq, we had a software building, we had a hardware building, and you came together for meetings that were four hours of excruciating pain.”
These days, the hardware and software buildings are location-neutral.
“I don’t even know where our stuff is hosted right now — I just see a charge every month on my American Express saying how much capacity and horsepower we’re using,” Bohren said. “Five years ago, you had to go buy servers, you had to go buy switches, you had to go buy routers, dedicated data base servers, all that.”
The Dropp’s software development team is based out of Argentina.
“We talk to them every day — it’s kind of mind boggling,” he said. “It wouldn’t have worked five years ago, or even three years ago. That makes it much more feasible, much more economical. It has been refreshing to know that it really doesn’t matter where your software team is located, as long as they’re hitting schedules and giving you prototypes.”
Locally, the talent Bohren needed to make The Dropp successful was in the field of digital marketing.
“When I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I was concerned if I could start something here, if there was there enough talent as it relates to technology,” he said. “I was shocked that there was sure talent here, and it was really the talent that I needed. In just six months we’ve gone from not knowing anybody, to having an app in the marketplace which we’re testing right now, and it’s getting really good feedback, which is exciting.”
TECH FOR GUESTS
The possibility of Eagle County becoming a hub for tech startups is more of a local’s concern. But if you talk to those locals about technology, they might just ask, “What’s in it for our guests?”
Technology, as it applies to tourism, has a different role — or even a responsibility — says Jeremy Rietmann, of the Vail Valley Partnership.
“When you go on vacation, you’re supposed to be exposed to the most incredible, world-class technology experiences that you can,” Rietmann said. “You go, you have this amazing experience, and then when you get home you say, ‘Why don’t I have this stuff at home?’ and that’s what progresses and exposes you to amazing technology the first time.”
From color TV to air conditioning to wireless Internet, many people were first exposed to those technologies while traveling, Rietmann said.
A good example of futuristic lodging in Vail is the Four Seasons, where the bar in the lobby area has a 9-by-9-foot wall of television screens like the all-seeing video walls depicted in science fiction.
Recently, the hotel added a new, high-tech addition to its suites — bathroom mirrors that double as television screens.
“It is pretty amazing,” said Randi Alt, the hotel’s public relations manager. “You can’t really see the TV until you turn it on, and then there is a TV behind the mirror.”
BROADBAND FOR red cliff?
As tech startups now operate out of the space above Loaded Joe’s in Avon, how long might it be until today’s best technology comes to the most remote regions of the county, like Red Cliff? Could one of the last bastions of the Wild West one day become an Internet-telecommuter town for professionals with location-neutral jobs? Clayton is not so sure.
“It comes down to infrastructure, and infrastructure is more than just broadband,” Clayton said. “Is there any real estate in Red Cliff?”
Mayor Scott Burgess says Red Cliff could be a startup hub — or at least an efficient place to work — if recent efforts prove fruitful.
“I just had a real estate agent contacting me today asking what’s the status with the Internet, because she can’t sell any houses when there’s no cell service or high speed Internet,” Burgess said.
A plan announced earlier this year that would bring wireless, broadband-speed Internet to Red Cliff has stalled due to the National Environmental Policy Act — the proposed tower needs one review regarding possible interference with historic structures, and another regarding use of federal land — but Burgess says it’s possible that the town could have high-speed Internet in time for Christmas of 2016 if a tower can be installed on existing structures.
“What would really help our town is if we could have location-neutral businesses — accountants and lawyers and whatnot — who could work from home and take care of the kids at home instead of driving up over Battle Mountain,” Burgess said. “I can’t balance my checkbook on Quickbooks as it is.”
A new Hallmark Channel movie set in Vail, starring Lacey Chabert of “Mean Girls,” will make its debut on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. EST.