In the second of our Startup Ecosystem Series, we go from the sunny shores of Los Angeles to the snowy peaks of Lake Tahoe. We visit Truckee, a quaint town in a region with a lot more startup activity going on than meets the eye.
Truckee town center
Johannes Ziegler started Tahoe Silicon Mountain (TSM) more than 5 years ago to give technology-minded people in Truckee/Tahoe a place to meet, have intellectual conversations, and build a tech-focused community in the mountains. For the last few years they have focused on getting the word out, and what started as only a handful of people has now grown to over 500 members. They are now live streaming their events to reach a larger audience in South Lake Tahoe and Reno.
Founder Johannes Ziegler addressing the crowd at a recent meeting.
I sat down with several organizers of TSM to discuss the emerging scene and the challenges they faced. Present was Johannes Ziegler, founder of TSM and CEO of MiaPlaza Inc.; Rachel Arst McCullough, Head of promotions for TSM and owner of a McCullough Web Services; Tim Olesnavage, EVP of operations and cofounder of Elevate Blue a venture accelerator in Incline Village; Garrett McCullough, a front end developer for Clear Capital and the speaker coordinator for TSM; Dave Sick, Principal of Brand Breadcrumbs; and Colleen Dalton the Marketing and Communications Director from the Truckee Chamber of Commerce.
What is the startup scene like?
Dave: It’s a fairly new, but collaborative group. Most of us have some background in Silicon Valley. Recently, in the last 2-3 years there has been an increasing number of start ups that have made it past the beta stage, raised money and are growing to a 3-10 person size.
Tim: It’s growing rapidly. In Reno there is a lot of infrastructure and imbedded programming with the gaming companies. There are not a ton of consumer facing SF style tech companies but that is quickly changing.
Garrett: I feel like the scene is growing and there's starting to be some exciting movement. Since I organize the speakers for TSM, I'm always keeping my ears open for interesting new companies. I've been doing it for 5 years now and I've never had trouble finding speakers with all of the stuff going on in Reno, Truckee and Tahoe. And it seems like every time I go to a new meeting, I learn about 3 new companies that are just getting started.
What is unique about it?
Tim: The entire tech community is moving in one direction together and very interested in working together/networking for the greater good. It's unlike the scenes in LA, SF, NY where there is intense competition and everyone keeps their cards close to their chest and isn’t necessarily interested in community. It’s very much the difference between a smaller pioneering type mindset than a competitive big city vibe. There is no lack of networking events or professional meet up groups and even this is growing exponentially.
Rachel: A lot of people who come to live in the mountains are determined, tough and creative individuals, who are used to being innovative and resourceful to sustain their lifestyle. These are some of the same qualities that help make them successful as entrepreneurs.
Johannes: The only thing I'd like to add is the cost advantage of our region. The increasing cost-of-living differential between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Reno/Tahoe region will continue to support an influx of high-tech folks who are not required to be physically present in the Bay Area. This is in addition to the "pull" created by the amazing outdoor opportunities of the Tahoe region.
Colleen: From a data collection standpoint, high primary reasons people live in Truckee is quality of life, live/work balance, clean, fresh air, a safe place to raise a family, stunning scenery and beauty and most importantly, access, proximity and location. Truckee seems to be a natural hub, at least in that regard.
Image Courtesy of Alpine Meadows
What are the challenges?
Garrett: As a developer, I'd like to see more startups and tech companies locate here so that I have the confidence that I can switch jobs if I want. The scene is growing but it's not quite to the point where you can have confidence that you can get a new job the day after leaving your old job.
Tim: Talent is always going to be a challenge, and the types of companies located in Reno/Tahoe aren’t always that “sexy” like they are in SF... but this is easily overcome. I can’t speak for Reno, but Elevate Blue is located on Lake Tahoe and the recruiting value is huge. We are seeing a very high number of developers from the Bay that have always wanted to move here but never had anywhere they wanted to work.
Rachel: One challenge is that there is very limited access to the fast and reliable internet that would be essential for building and scaling a tech business.
Johannes: Regarding the need for fast and reliable internet: this is a significant problem because unless you (or your office) is located in one of the rare areas where fiber is available, the internet tends to be slow and/or unreliable. Taking a longer-term perspective, however, this problem should eventually be solved by the next-generation 5g cellular networks that are expected to be available in 6-8 years.
What is the funding environment like?
Tim: I would say Incline Village has a higher per-capita net worth than anywhere in the bay. We have a very very strong investor base and it’s continually growing. Investors from the bay are very interested in coming to Tahoe for meetings/etc. Incline Village is essentially the getaway for the highly successful techies with second homes so when they find out there is an accelerator in their backyard, most want to get involved, and at the very least be in an advisory role to our startups.
Dave: We just need to get some awareness around what’s happening up here to get that organized. Reno has a ton of funding, too. It’s definitely harder to raise money than in the Bay Area, though.
Who are the breakout or interesting companies?
Garrett: My employer, Clear Capital, was founded in Truckee in 2001. Clear Capital now has offices in Truckee, Roseville and Reno (our headquarters moved to Reno last year). Likemoji was founded in Truckee. They're venture backed and working on their IP right now but I think they'll be really interesting once they announce their plans. Reno has several interesting companies including Fillament, Kurtosys (a branch office) and a number of casino gaming companies.
Where do you see the local scene in 5 years ?
Garrett: I picture us growing and gaining a lot of momentum. We have a number of startup accelerators in the area that continue to help foster new companies. I know of two different places that will be opening coding schools in the near future, which should help contribute to the number of developers living in the area.
Dave: I see 1-2 breakout companies that are seeing some real growth. I think you’ll continue to see a migration up the hill for folks who love the outdoors and quality life. This should continue to help build and formalize the network of tech folks up here. Hopefully, there will be a solid group of successful companies that spin off next set of start ups.
Tim: VASTLY different. The scene has been absolutely blowing up in the past few years and I see it continuing. SF has a ton of challenges as a developer/entrepreneur that simply don’t exist in Tahoe. It’s a relatively frictionless life, no noise, stress free, substantially lower cost of living. With Nevada's tax structure, it means you automatically make 13.5% more just from moving. And we are still close enough where we regularly attend events in the bay area. With the advent of Surfair and their routes flying from Truckee to SF, LA, Vegas, the sky is the limit.
Thank you to everyone for their insight. We look forward to seeing how things progress throughout 2016 in Truckee and the Tahoe area.