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A Love Letter to DSW: Conferencing, Reimagined (Part One of Six)

In 5 days of roaming seminars in downtown Denver, I attended 30 events, collected 50 contacts, scored 5 clients, and landed 2 speaking gigs. Perhaps most important, I changed my idea as to what a business conference should look like.

Once a year, Denver Startup Week hosts 22,000 creatives, engineers, entrepreneurs, designers, makers, and artists to partake in a free week of events. Coming out of Silicon Valley – the birthplace of business innovation – I had to see what this was all about.

Sunday (Day of Arrival)

I knew I was in for a treat when I heard the mayor come over the intercom of the airbus taking me from the airport to the transit terminal:

“Welcome to Denver Startup Week!,” he hollered.

And then again, as I’m walking to the mall ride – a free bus that runs up and down 16th, a touristy shopping district – there were banners every half block: “Welcome to Denver Startup Week.”

And the bus driver: “Welcome, it’s about to get crazy ‘round here. 20,000 people last year.”

When I make it to Denver Startup Week headquarters, aka Basecamp, the Design Co-Chair is there arranging giant helium-filled clouds as big as cars on the side of the tricked out “Commons on Champa” building, which is essentially a tech-enabled, open-to-the-public community center. There are decals all over the building, in the windows, on the brick, on the ground, all promoting the DSW brand in hip shades of light blue, grey, and white.

The Commons is super modern; it looks more like a futuristic space station with its monitor panels lining the hallway, the wavy furniture, high bar stools, food stations, and big open spaces.

The Co-Chair, Castle, who is one of the most humbly ubiquitous people in Denver (and a former San Francisco roommate of mine), puts me on shwag duty for her Maker Wall. I begin unloading samples of local Denver products, everything from doilies and dog toys to cask whiskey and inflatable paddle boards.

In the background, people buzz around the space, periodically flying over to Castle with questions and then zipping out of sight. She introduces me to some of these bumbling bees, including her co-chair Brian, who smiles and laughs as much as I do. We’re instantly friends who are comfortable smacking each other’s shoulders.

After some pizza, Castle suggests I check out the Jerry Maguire Video Store.

“You should meet them,” she says. “They’re your roommates. They’re from LA.”

Castle is not only the quasi-Mayor of Denver, not only a creative force in the city, she is a realtor, as is her sister. They arranged for me to stay at her sister’s pool house. With roommates, who apparently own a Jerry Maguire Video Store…

I grab a sample of the cask whiskey, already open, and walk 4 blocks to Larimer street, an uppity neighborhood with great food and outdoor tables, the perfect juxtaposition for an art installation pop-up commenting on the inaneness of the American Dream.

After walking along Cherry Creek a few blocks, I get to the video store, which is set up to look like an old-school Blockbuster Video, only every single video on display is the same iconic red-and-white boxed VHS tape of Jerry Maguire starring Tom Cruise & Cuba Gooding Jr. Turns out these guys own 22,000 copies of this film. Their mission – this is the American Dream part – is to own every single one and store them in perpetuity in a specially built pyramid in the middle of the desert. Why, you ask? To preserve a piece of Americana, but mostly to fuck with the next civilization that comes along after us.

These guys, Nic and Jess, are hard at work, Indian sitar music blaring in the background. They don’t want my whiskey.

“Need to stay focused, man.”

Indeed. When all is said and done, the Jerry Maguire store will have a Jerry Maguire throne, floor to ceiling Jerry Maguire walls, a Jerry Maguire parque floor, an X-rated Jerry Maguire video section, and a few Jerry Maguire pyramids, one of which I was invited to build.

About halfway through my pyramid of alternating layers of Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr sides of the tapes, I notice something: I’ve landed.

Away from everything I know in Oakland and the Bay Area. The buzz of intra-continental travel has worn off. I’m really here.

Nic, the taller of the two LA artists, wearing a yellow tank with white overalls and drinking a kombucha, catches the look on my face…

“Welcome to Denver Startup Week,” he says, smiling, with a stack of “Jerries” running up each arm.

I pick up my pace, clicking the tapes against the wall and each other in a percussive beat to the sitar, wondering what lies ahead.

Lesson of the Day:

Wherever you’re going, get there early. Help set up. Give yourself time to become part of the space.

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