Tahoe Mountain Lab’s Jamie Orr talks Telluride Mountain Venture Summit and community progress
Mountain towns across the country are joining forces to work together on shared challenges like affordable housing and attracting capital for startup businesses.
The inaugural Mountain Ventures Summit: The Future of Work took place in Telluride, Colorado from Feb. 2-4. Representatives from over 15 mountain towns — including a number from the Tahoe-Truckee region — came together to discuss ways to make faster and more reliable progress in their communities.
Tahoe Mountain Lab cofounder Jamie Orr was among the panelists asked to speak on behalf of the basin, and this week the Tribune caught up with Orr to find out what a collaborative approach like this means for the future of our mountain towns.
Tell us about the Mountain Ventures Summit.
Hosted by the Telluride Venture Accelerator, the Mountain Ventures Summit was a first-of-its-kind convening of entrepreneurs and community leaders that are all focused upon building sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems in mountain towns. The Mtn Lab (not our coworking space), a Mammoth-based brand strategy & product development firm, co-organized the event with the Telluride Venture Accelerator.
You were chosen to speak at the summit. What did you focus on in your speech?
I was asked to speak in two different capacities based upon my experiences as part of the founding team of Tahoe Mountain Lab and my work in the local community. First, I represented the Lake Tahoe – Truckee Region in a keynote address, “Mountain Town Showcase.” I had five minutes to highlight our region’s startup ecosystem, recent successes, and challenges.
Since the other presenters were from much smaller or isolated mountain towns, I felt it was important to explain the size of the region as well as the unique regulatory environment of Tahoe (and mention our 14 awesome downhill resorts). I spoke on the motivation to relocate to Tahoe for a better quality of life, about opening Tahoe Mountain Lab, and also about the progress Truckee has made, particularly in opening their makerspace, the Roundhouse. I also emphasized the importance of focusing as much upon the community as we do entrepreneurs to truly make a positive impact on the region.
The following day I participated on a panel around the topic of “Building Community & Creating Density.” Here, density referred to the concentration of resources in your entrepreneurial ecosystem. The panel also had representatives from Aspen, Mammoth, Frisco, and Telluride. This was an opportunity to dig deeper into how organizations, like coworking spaces, can support the development of an ecosystem as well as play a role in building community buy-in around the concept of startups helping to diversify mountain town economies.
One of the key points that each of us brought up was the importance of going above and beyond just supporting entrepreneurs in their business — we help people find a social network, find housing, navigate the school system, engage with local nonprofits, and ultimately act as a platform to help people get connected, stay, and thrive in our communities.
Most mountain towns are facing similar obstacles when it comes to building an “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” What challenges were discussed at the summit?
One of the biggest recurring themes was, not surprisingly, housing. Everyone touched on the struggle between housing for visitors versus housing for full-time residents and lack of inventory and high costs compared to average wages.
Also discussed was the need to balance startup culture with mountain culture. We are all living in mountain towns for their unique characteristics, their charm, and their history and would like to ensure that our communities remain accessible to a diverse group of residents. Other challenges that we are all facing include access to capital and talent — both developing existing locals for new jobs and recruiting workers to relocate — and diversity.
Were there solutions posed to these challenges?
This was where the true strength of the summit came into play. By bringing together so many mountain towns (over 15 were represented), we were able to share what has worked in one town and could work again in another.
Each town ranked itself in terms of strength around five elements: Talent, Density, Culture, Capital, and Government. For example, Telluride has been very successful in terms of developing an angel investor and mentor network, in addition to an accelerator program. They accept applications from all over the world from companies looking to participate in their program, some of which have decided to permanently remain in Telluride and are now contributing further to their ecosystem. So they ranked themselves very strong in the Capital category.
South Lake Tahoe is currently the only mountain community with a coworking space as large as Tahoe Mountain Lab, so we were able to share strategies around acquiring enough commercial property to launch a profitable coworking business.
Were there any notable differences between Lake Tahoe’s challenges versus those of the other mountain towns represented at the summit?
In terms of challenges, the average wages in South Lake Tahoe were far below other town averages, and I would say that our current access to capital was similarly behind. One area where South Lake Tahoe actually has an advantage is that we aren’t in the position that places like Aspen or Jackson are in where local housing costs are over a million dollars.
While we do have high relative housing costs when compared to wages, we do still have an opportunity to redevelop our community and work towards solutions that provide real access to housing for full-time residents. We also have a lot more commercial space than most small mountain towns, so the opportunity is there for small companies to find office space.
Why do you think it’s important for mountain towns to collaborate like this?
Being in small communities, it can often feel very isolating, especially when it comes to solving big problems. Entrepreneurs also often face feelings of isolation even in Silicon Valley. So, it is important to connect to as many people going through the same business and life challenges as you are to combat that isolation and keep you motivated. Mountain communities may be small, but there are a lot of them. And if we leverage our strengths together, it will become that much easier to help our communities’ economic resilience, no matter how many snowflakes fall.
What was your biggest takeaway from the summit?
It is an exciting time to be an entrepreneur in a mountain town. We have the opportunity to develop a robust ecosystem across all our communities that, by leveraging the Internet and other technological advances, means we can really work where we want to live. Also, by helping to creating economic resilience, we can contribute to creating stronger mountain towns, all while retaining the charm and the character that make people want to live in the mountains in the first place.
How do you hope to apply what you learned at this conference to our mountain town?
One of the most exciting outcomes was in connecting with so many people just from the Tahoe-Truckee region. There were about a dozen people that attended from Truckee, including members of the Town Council, the Sierra Business Council, and the Truckee-Tahoe Community Foundation, in addition to the half dozen that attended from the South Shore. We are already working on strategies to increase angel investment and mentorship in our region, as well as create a stronger connection across all the Lake Tahoe communities.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Attending this event was absolutely incredible, but I have to say that being invited to speak, and for more than one session, was a particular honor. South Lake Tahoe is now on the map amongst mountain towns in a way that it hasn’t been before. Living here, we know how amazing our home is, but other mountain communities are now recognizing it, too.