After graduating from Y Combinator's summer program in San Francisco, the three co-founders of Lumineye made a choice that many of their peers would not: They left town. The trio moved back to Boise, Idaho, where they had started the business, which builds portable wall-penetrating radar to help first responders locate people. "Staying in the Bay Area," says Megan Lacy, one of the founders, "didn't seem as necessary as it might have 10 years ago."
Idaho's capital city has long been a hip and attractive place, given its rich music scene and proximity to nature. But it has routinely been ignored in favor of its cooler, and bigger, regional siblings, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Today, though, Boise is luring talent from those northwestern giants and other costly coastal competitors, attracting entrepreneurs with a newly thriving business scene and a good quality of life. "Now there's a group of [business leaders] who are doing cool things and celebrating one another," says Nick Crabbs, co-chair of Boise Startup Week and partner at Boise-based software and digital product development firm Vynyl. "That's the seed of change."
Boise is making its debut on Inc.'s list of Surge Cities, a ranking of the best American hubs to start a business, at No. 5--a notch above San Francisco. Call it one of those overnight successes that was years in the making.
"Five years ago, Boise was struggling," says Crabbs. Local leaders were bemoaning the fact that other small cities were gaining reputations as entrepreneurial havens. So in 2014, he and about 20 key area players met to determine what Boise should do to become the next Austin, Seattle, or Portland for business owners. They settled on two major goals: broadening the talent pipeline and increasing access to capital--and local institutions began to borrow tactics from those in other cities.
That same year, Boise State University, which was already working on doubling its number of computer science graduates, opened Venture College, which teaches classes in entrepreneurship, arranges internships at local startups, and hosts an on-campus incubator. Co-working and innovation space Trailhead also launched in 2014, followed by coding school CodeWorks and developer's boot camp Coding Dojo.
Meanwhile, founders realized they could attract out-of-state talent by touting the city's low cost of living. Though Boise's housing prices are rising, a visit to real-estate database Zillow shows that you can still buy four houses there for the price of one in San Francisco. In 2010, before the community's initiatives began, Boise had 616,566 residents, according to U.S. Census data. In 2018, that number had grown to 732,257, an increase of 18.8 percent.
While high-level occupations continue to draw people to expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, fewer job seekers are migrating to areas where housing isn't affordable, says Jenny Ying, an economist at LinkedIn. She points out that in the past four years, for every LinkedIn member leaving Boise, 1.57 members were moving in to take their place.
Jessica Rolph, a long-time Boise resident, chose to launch her second company in the city because of its lower costs for starting a business, access to the outdoors, and shorter commutes--factors that make for an easier lifestyle, she says. But she braced herself for the same recruitment and fundraising challenges that she faced in 2006, when she co-founded baby food company Happy Family in Boise. By 2017, though, when Rolph and her co-founder, Roderick Morris, launched Lovevery, a maker of child-development toys and play products, the community's efforts had changed the city's landscape, and the duo had few problems drawing talent from Seattle and the Bay Area--or raising $32 million in funding.
As for the city's other goal--broadening access to capital--in 2014, Boise-based startups closed eight venture capital deals totaling $18.4 million, according to PitchBook, a data and research company. (PitchBook and Inc. are both owned by Joe Mansueto.) To increase those figures, community leaders met with firms outside the state, invited them to Boise, and cultivated relationships. As of presstime, local companies had already closed 15 deals with a total value of $70.2 million in 2019. Also in 2019, StageDotO launched the city's first venture fund, with a target of $50 million, to invest in Boise tech startups.
But even when local funding and out-of-state talent were harder to come by, Rolph was a big Boise believer. "I don't know," she says, "if I could have co-founded two companies, had three babies, and been a daughter, wife, mother, and CEO if I had lived somewhere else."