The Great SCAPE:
Turning the Four Corners
into an Entrepreneurial Hot Spot
Endless hiking trails. A rockin’ live music scene. Sick mountain biking, and sweet skiing. And… a world-class entrepreneurial development program?
That’s right. To the list of Four Corners attractions, we must add SCAPE—the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs, which helps budding businesses get off the ground, pairs them with investors and mentors, and works to improve the quality of life in our region. It has powered rocket engines, created more than 150 well-paying jobs, and drawn millions of dollars to our corner of the world.
“I get several phone calls a week from people wanting to learn about the entrepreneurial community and the startup scene,” says Elizabeth Marsh, the executive director at SCAPE. “It’s become another thing that people look for when they’re deciding where to vacation, where to relocate, where to become involved and give back.”
It’s no secret that the communities SCAPE serves are full of scrappy, hardworking people. We are all here because we want to be here, even when work is seasonal or hard to come by. In the last seven years, SCAPE has turned this innate creative spirit into an economic engine. The program works for about six months with fledgling businesses to develop business plans, financial projections, marketing strategies, and fundraising opportunities to prepare them for launch and growth.
Once viable business ideas get going, SCAPE maintains long-term relationships with these companies, assisting them with different investment rounds, expanded hiring, and other challenges they encounter, all with the help of mentors—many of whom have relocated to the Four Corners in large part because their expertise was welcomed.
All told, this program has raised $25 million for 36 local businesses in Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, and San Juan counties in Colorado, and San Juan County in New Mexico. That’s a lot of success stories. And many of the businesses are not what you might expect to blossom in these places.
One such company is Agile Space Industries, which designs, tests, and manufactures integrated aerospace propulsion systems—literally, they are rocket scientists with NASA contracts. Impact Fenders reconceptualized the boat fender and dock bumper, which had remained largely unchanged for half a century. Then there are the companies that choose the Four Corners over Silicon Valley: Software-as-a-service companies, like MUNIRevs and its platform LODGINGRevs (which automate sales tax and vacation-rental compliance, respectively).
“We work with a lot of businesses [like these] that are likely to stay headquartered in the area and provide meaningful employment,” Marsh says. “We get over 50 applications a year from local businesses that are looking to start and grow. It’s exciting to see all the different ideas and things that people want to do.”
The whole SCAPE model is about more than just supporting new businesses: It’s about creating resiliency for workers (most SCAPE businesses offer wages at least average for the region) and for our economy. Every community from Silverton to Farmington and Cortez to Pagosa Springs relies on its own brand of economic support: tourism, outdoor recreation, and oil and gas. Those are all subject to ebbs and flows, and each is particularly vulnerable to shutdowns and other disasters.
“It’s important to diversify the local economy,” Marsh says. “We need additional businesses that are not retail- and service-focused, so people can continue to be employed and operate during a pandemic or a shutdown. If you can provide employment opportunities to people, you can really impact their access to affordable housing, childcare, and healthcare. We see it as very effective and direct.”
It’s easy just to focus on the businesses that SCAPE helps to achieve lift-off; but cultivating relationships with investors makes that flight possible in the first place. Marsh explains that SCAPE works with a network of about 50 angel investors who meet accredited criteria, and the mere opportunity to participate in the program as mentors is a draw for many people with invaluable experience not always readily available in smaller communities like ours. Plus, SCAPE works with other community organizations, such as the Hawk Tank Business Plan Competition at Fort Lewis College, to develop the entrepreneurial spirit at all levels.
On both sides of the equation, with investors and mentors as well as entrepreneurs just starting out, Marsh gets to work with some of the most passionate people around. “Seeing the creativity of the entrepreneurs and watching them get their dreams off the ground—combined with the generosity of the investor community that wants to pay it forward and the extensive volunteer-mentor network of people who are willing to dedicate their time and experience to helping others—makes our role a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s a great way to put the best of the community behind new businesses to see what can happen.”