Telluride Venture Accelerator brings eclectic startup help from mountain mentors

By: Phil Lindeman Wednesday February 20, 2013 0 comments Tags: Cheryl Rosner, DJ Jensen,, Groupon, Hoggle Goggle, Jesse Johnson, Lara Young, Q Collection, Rob Solomon, Sarah Fazendin, Telluride

By Phil Lindeman

TELLURIDE -- Sarah Fazendin believes the key to African tourism can be found in the Colorado high country.

Fazendin, the co-founder of Denver-based travel startup, has spent the past decade working with boutique hotels and safari camps in East Africa. As the North American marketing manager for the Kenya Tourist Board, she noticed how archaic technology and money-grubbing scams hurt many of the country's affordable yet legitimate destinations.

Jesse Johnson and Paul Major Telluride Venture Accelerator
"For places like Africa, it's difficult for people to put together these complex travel packages on their own," says Fazendin, who notes tourism is often the leading economic driver for most East African nations. "At many hotels, they're still using a call-based reservation system - writing things down on whiteboards or using Excel spreadsheets. It was difficult for people who were selling long-haul, international travel."

Early last year, Fazendin realized the model used by aggregate travel sites like and could easily be translated to Africa. Better yet, nothing of the sort existed, and she had the professional networks and market knowledge to make it happen. All she needed was funding and a bit of refinement.

Around the same time, Jesse Johnson, a Princeton grad who co-founded the sustainable-design company Q Collection, saw a similar opportunity in his adopted hometown of Telluride. Like many Colorado ski towns, it was suffering from a dip in tourism brought about by low snowfall. The town's reliance on ski travel was like the whiteboard in a Kenyan hotel: comfortably old-school, but woefully unreliable in a decade when business models across the world are rapidly evolving.

"I felt like Telluride needed another economic driver beyond tourism and real estate, and entrepreneurship seemed like a natural fit," Johnson says.

In early February, Fazendin and Johnson's ideas collided at the Telluride Venture Accelerator, co-founded by Johnson and Paul Major, head of local philanthropic outfit The Telluride Foundation. The fledgling program touts an eclectic focus, with a keen eye on promising companies in the tourism, outdoor recreation and natural products industries.

To Johnson's knowledge, it's the only accelerator of its kind in the world.

"Our hope is to become synonymous with great ideas in the areas we've picked," Johnson says. "We really want to make the Telluride area a welcoming, confident place to start a business. We have so many great people and resources that have previously gone untapped."

Telluride's other natural resource

As part of a small inaugural class, Fazendin and her team join three additional residents at the accelerator space in Mountain Village, a relatively new community not far from 150-year-old buildings in downtown Telluride. With clear views of the mountain's trails and offices at The Peaks Resort -- a swanky lodge steps from the chairlifts -- it's an effortlessly attractive environment: Johnson claims 100 applicants from 10 countries applied when the program was announced last September.

"They have a great workspace in Telluride," says Fazendin, who will commute from Denver every few weeks for in-person meetings. "It has really become a cool place that fosters curiosity in the community and residents."

But prime real estate is just an added perk. As the accelerator was taking form, Johnson and Major put careful thought into building a program worthy of the Telluride name. The town has spent decades branding itself as a secluded destination on par with Aspen or Deer Valley - Telluride's trademark film and bluegrass festivals are highly respected, not to mention profitable - and the accelerator founders wanted a business model to match.

"Almost all of the companies we talked to directly about our philosophy ended up applying," Johnson says. "It was a good early indicator that this new and untested idea we had could work."

Like all accelerators, Johnson needed a strong core of successful, respected entrepreneurs, and he looked no further than the hillside homes surrounding Telluride. The program's 52 mentors are all full-time or part-time residents - an ingenious way to make the most of a quasi-natural resource in a well-to-do vacation community.

The list is massive for any accelerator - let alone a brand-new one - and it boasts the variety needed to support Johnson's diverse focus.

The first person to sign on was Cheryl Rosner, former President of and now one of Fazendin's go-to gurus in the travel industry. Rosner is joined by movers and shakers with remarkable pedigrees, from Rob Solomon (former Groupon president and COO) to DJ Jensen, an action-sports expert who has worked with Burton Snowboards and Black Diamond Equipment.

For Fazendin, access to such high-class mentors has been a major boon. Rosner's input helped her tweak to fit the accelerator's "lean startup philosophy," which urges all residents to fine-tune their products before they even consider scaling.

Fazendin says the software only requires $50,000 to develop - $30,000 is covered by the accelerator's initial investment - and will only grow once she's shown value through sales and hotel relationships.

"There is a huge in-person component to this program," Fazendin says. "I think Telluride has really come into this type of internship early, and it really gives them a unique angle in the accelerator market."

Along with the chance to help burgeoning entrepreneurs, the mentors also reap new and unexpected rewards.

"Previously, these people had no interaction with each other aside from maybe skiing for a few days," Johnson says. "Now, they have dinner together and chat about what's going on in their respective businesses. They have also connected to local entrepreneurs outside the accelerator, and it is exciting for them to see new ideas come together."

Local to global

For the accelerator's inaugural class, Johnson says he was "blind to geography" - i.e., Telluride-based entrepreneurs didn't get special treatment.

But one longtime local, Lara Young, impressed the selection committee with her idea for a goggle-mounted protection system. Dubbed Hoggle Goggle, it's an unobtrusive "garage" that houses a microfiber lens cover, almost like a retractable version of screen protectors for smartphones.

"The ski industry is very fashion-forward, and we knew one key was to have something people would actually use," says Young, who has a background in non-profit planning and is now working closely with Solomon from Groupon to raise money for product testing.

"It has been a really fast learning curve, but the team and accelerator have almost given us an unfair advantage in the product world."

Young's invention is a near-perfect way to showcase the accelerator's outdoor-industry experts, as well as its potential to boost the local economy in myriad ways.

"It was incredible to come across an entrepreneur right here in the community who otherwise wouldn't have had the backing of an accelerator," says Johnson, comparing Hoggle Goggle to other mountain-town outfitters like Teton Gravity Research in Jackson Hole. "These people can drive the local economy, and really have a chance to survive and thrive with our assets."

After the first round of meetings in early February, Fazendin returned to Denver with a notebook full of tips and ideas. Like Young, she claims the learning curve has been steep, but she's excited to unveil's potential.

And the time will come soon enough: Johnson and the other mentors push each resident to have a near-finished product within six months, when they'll present to a cadre of investors in Telluride.

"The people involved have pushed us to have an end date, a goal we wouldn't have otherwise looked at," Fazendin says. "They've let us know we don't have to wait for our idea to be perfect, because this is never going to be perfect."

Phil Lindeman

About the Author: Phil Lindeman

Phil Lindeman is an award-winning freelance reporter with experience writing and editing for magazines, daily newspapers and websites. As a Colorado native, Phil has kept a close eye on local innovators and became intimately familiar with Northern Colorado while earning a journalism degree from Colorado State University. Phil is currently based in Vail, where he covers arts, entertainment and culture for a weekly magazine, Sneak Peak, in between wintertime laps through Vail's back bowls.