Best U.S. Cities for Entrepreneurs: Spotlight on Boise, ID

There are a lot of surprises waiting for you in Idaho, especially if all you know about the state is its spectacular scenery and famous spuds.

Yes there are beautiful lakes, rivers, and all sorts of outdoor recreation opportunities in Idaho. Outdoor enthusiasts flock to the endless epic spots for hunting, fishing, camping and hiking, rafting, and whatever gets you closest to nature.

And big potatoes still remain big business in Idaho—they’re even on the official state license plates! Although Washington and Wisconsin have been coming closer in total tater volume, the Gem State still consistently claims the top producer spot, thanks in part to some great deal-making in the 1960s by McDonald’s when the burger giant wanted a quality source for its fries.

But fewer people know that Idaho employs more people in the high-tech sector than agriculture and tourism. The Boise area is home to the world headquarters of Micron Technology, which manufactures computer components. Until recently downsizing, Hewlett-Packard also had a significant presence here.

The region has appeared on the top of several “strong tech market” lists in the last decade, due to everything from inexpensive land to the abundance of talent and the low cost of living. Boise was even called a “techy boomtown” by Time Magazine in 2014.

In spite of its fame in tech circles, Idaho still has a national perception among some as nothing but a collection of remote, isolated frontier towns. But recent demographic information may tell a different story.

While the U.S. population grew 0.6 percent from 2017 to 2018, Idaho led the states with 2.1 percent growth, adding 1.75 million people—a trend that continued in 2019, with a 2.05 increase that added another 1.79 million residents.

Breaking this info down further, Treasure Valley, a region that includes Boise, Meridian, Nampa and even Ontario, Oregon, is rapidly growing. Boise’s population was expected to increase by 1.7 percent in 2018, making it the 15th fastest growing city in the U.S. that year. Meridian was picked as the state’s fastest growing city the previous year, and the whole region was the 10th fastest growing in the nation.

Although there are fears of “Californication” (higher density, higher prices, and not enough services), Idaho still has lots of wild places and room left for growth and exploration. Even though more people keep coming, the entire state population remains under two million which is less than half the size of the Seattle metro area and slightly less than that of the Portland area.

The Boise area, currently at around 700,000 residents, seems to have the most appeal and opportunity. As the state capital, it’s the home to plenty of state offices, as well as an education hub with a public college, a private college, and two community colleges.

Boise is also a perfect mix of urban and rural amenities, from its zoo and botanical garden to its community symphony. You don’t have to go very far to reach an extensive trail system, and go a little further and you’ll be deep in the woods or high desert.

All of this combines to create a high quality of life, which makes Boise a great place to do business, as well as a fun place to live and play.

Continue reading for more info on why B-Town remains a fine location for entrepreneurs.

Fast Facts: Welcome to Boise, ID (ID)

White, but welcoming. Demographically, Idaho is 93 percent Caucasian, a fact that received negative national attention in the 1990s due to an influx of white supremacists from around the country, along with a parallel flight of mostly-Caucasian southern Californians escaping crime, earthquakes, and a weak economy for a safer and more affordable new start.

This perceived lack of diversity also encouraged government and business leaders to come together to promote human rights and spread the word that Idaho very much welcomes all races and cultures. Although the organized skinheads were eventually forced out and the California migration has slowed, state officials and business leaders still continue to emphasize that the state’s embrace of all races and cultures forms an important part of its positive achievements. For instance, the Boise area has one of the world’s largest Basque communities outside of Spain, and Nampa has an active Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The state also has had an active refugee resettlement program in place since 1975, especially for citizens of developing countries.

Boise State University continues to seek more representation and opportunities for all people and has created an Office for Student Diversity and Inclusion. Also, Boise-based Sage Growth Capital has announced its intention to help nurture new businesses, especially women- and minority-owned ventures.

Rodeo Idaho! The state’s agriculture and ranching roots are believed to have contributed to what we know of today as the modern rodeo. Today, even with its urban focus, feats of horsemanship are still a big deal. The Snake River Stampede in Nampa and the War Bonnet Rodeo, two hours away in Idaho Falls, have been taking place for more than a century.

Idaho also has the distinction of being the only state that has sent a former rodeo champion and active rodeo competitor to Congress (Butch Otter, who served in the House of Representatives as well as two terms as governor).

Talking trees. Boise is French for “City of Trees,” a name given to it by early French explorers due to the temperate climate and diverse foliage of the area, compared to the more arid regions of other parts of the state.

Once it was designated as the capital at the end of the 19th century, active civic efforts took place to plant even more trees. Today, initiatives to preserve and increase the tree population continue. Along with active urban forestry programs, home and business owners are encouraged to plant certain species of trees for maximum visual appeal and future esthetics.

Boise has also received TreeCity USA honors and designation from the Arbor Day Foundation 41 times over its 100-plus-year history due to its continuing support of trees and other green spaces. (By the way, the city’s name doesn’t have the French pronunciation “Bwaze” or even “Boyzee.” The locals pronounce it “Boy See” and correct you if you say it wrong.)

Feeling good. Though tech is big, residents also like to get outside, and the region is known for its easy access to all sorts of outdoor recreation activities. There are more than 100 city parks and locals also enjoy the Boise River Greenbelt, a 25-mile network of biking and hiking trails that connect to other trail systems. Boise has also shown up on a variety of “Most Fit” and “Most Bike Friendly” lists over the last few years.

OK with beer. “A good beer scene” is also a frequent ingredient in vibrant communities, and Boise is no exception. Idaho farmers grow a lot of hops and barley, and the state had the third-highest employment growth for breweries from 2006 to 2016. Boise is becoming a hub of craft breweries and brewpubs, some specializing in local grains and water. Local events calendars abound with tastings and beer festivals and similar social gatherings.

Businesses to Watch in Boise, ID

With a growing population comes more opportunities for B2B and B2C ventures. Some of the more creative ones include:.

LiveRez

Although it sounds easy enough to invest in rental and vacation property, it can present all sorts of headaches if you’re not prepared. This Eagle-based company creates software to help property owners or rental management companies easier keep track of the process, including keeping track of reservations, maintenance and marketing.

The Owners: Tracy Lotz (CEO) and nephew Jeremy Lotz (system architect and lead developer)

The story: Tracy Lotz began looking into potential applications to move the travel/tourism industry online as early as the 1990s, including creating opportunities for vacation properties to advertise on national travel sites. This evolved into finding ways for guests to book their reservations online, and LiveRez, which launched in Idaho in 2008, was a way to provide more cloud computing power and other resources for property owners, not only to accept online reservations but coordinate other details. LiveRez now has clients around the country.

Retrolux

Although it’s easy enough for a business looking to upgrade their lighting to start from scratch and order all-new materials, this isn’t always the best solution from a cost or an environmental standpoint. Retrolux was created to offer assistance to businesses and property owners wanting to change and enhance their lighting. Its software is designed to make it easier and faster for contractors, utilities, and electrical distributors to retrofit their lighting systems using quality, sustainable materials, especially clients that specialize in sustainable/green design.

The owners: Leif Elgethun (CEO/Cofounder) and Brett Adler (CTO)

The story: Leif Elgethun was involved in several clean energy startups. After seeing a need for better, faster, and more affordable lighting expertise for this sector, he partnered with Adler, who was involved in several development projects and created an energy audit app. They created a cloud-based, automated process for designing and retrofitting energy-efficient lighting systems. Retrolux officially launched in Boise in 2016, and has worked with 40 companies nationally, completing more than 1,000 lighting retrofit projects to date.

Black Box

Those who follow virtual reality know gamers are the biggest users of this technology. But what if the appeal of gaming could be combined with this immersive technology to create a new way to work out? That question has been answered by Black Box, which has launched the world’s first VR gym in Boise. Users come by regularly, put on a special headset, enter a private booth, and take part in a customized workout. They can do everything from run virtual obstacle courses to focus on certain muscle groups, often with gaming and social VR elements.

The owners: Ryan DeLuca and Preston Lewis

The story: Both Ryan and Preston describe themselves as “fitness fanatics.” They were principals in Bodybuiding.com, which sold online supplements, and they also created a popular fitness social network. In 2016, they launched BlackBox VR as a way to appeal to end-users wanting a better way to work out. It also has licensing potential; investors only have to purchase the hardware and software plus a small physical space, instead of investing in the overhead of a large, well-staffed gym and all the required fitness equipment. The business has one location in Boise currently but has plans to expand in the next few years and may even offer home versions.

Boise Brewing

The craft beer industry has no end of success stories, with all sorts of amateur/ hobbyist beermakers taking a leap of faith and working hard to create demand for a certain unique flavor. True, not all of them have staying power once they get the doors open. But Boise Brewing really shows how to do things right, including the launch of a successful Kickstarter campaign to help with startup costs.

The owners: Collin Rudeen (owner) and Lance Chavez (head brewer), along with about 300 part-owners/investors

The story: Rudeen liked the idea of a local brewery that would offer customers a similar experience to a community garden: stop by and pick up something fresh that was made locally, just like you would your produce. So he spent several years researching what it would take to create a unique community-owned brewery in Boise and selling shares. The first round of investments took place in 2014, followed by Round Two in 2017 that helped the brewery expand production to 2,000 barrels a year. Along with offering the popular brewery, there is a tasting room on the premises. Boise Brewing has won a variety of awards as well and hosts community events. It also offers other occasions for fun and promotions, including “Board Games and Brunch,” “Geeks Who Drink,” and even recipes.

Resources for Entrepreneurs in Boise, ID

People interested in starting a business or making their existing business stronger in the Boise area can take advantage of several programs or courses available through Boise State University, a public university; the College of Idaho, a private school; or the College of Western Idaho, a community college. Other public and private resources may be found through the Departments of Labor and Commerce.

Trailhead

Sometimes you may have great ideas but don’t know how or where to get started. That’s the purpose of Trailhead, which, since 2015, has offered different levels of shared space. Members of Basecamp (downtown) get use of an open desk, high-speed Internet, WiFi access and coffee for $35/week. Trailhead North members pay $150/month for those amenities plus access to a private office, dedicated desks, and conference rooms for meetings. This non-profit began in 2015 by a coalition of private and public support, and more than 350 small businesses are now taking part, including holding meetings. Members of the tech and business communities are also encouraged to donate so its efforts can continue.

Startup Week

Boise Startup Week brings together people with great ideas and community members who want to help get their business endeavors off the ground. The first week of October traditionally includes a variety of networking events and opportunities for good ideas to find enthusiasm as well as financial backing. The state’s largest event of its kind is also an opportunity for existing businesses to share what they offer to hopefully spur future partnerships and collaboration. One event that attracts interest is Trailmix, put on by Trailhead, where people pitch ideas for innovative food products. The winning idea receives a substantial cash award to begin development as well as guaranteed shelf space at a regional grocery chain. The week also includes a block party with music and food and a dodgeball tournament.

Idaho Small Business Development Center

The IDSBDC offers confidential, customized consulting for business ventures, along with a variety of training opportunities for new and existing businesses. People with ideas or those with established businesses can take online or in-person classes, and also meet with a coach to help them with general concepts plus any local, state and federal regulations. Businesses can learn the fundamentals of financing, marketing, hiring, and management, in addition to more advanced concepts like importing and exporting, acquiring contracts, and complying with environmental regulations. The state office is in Boise, but there’s another location on the BSU campus. It also offers accelerators in Boise and Nampa that include shared office space plus access to a lead business consultant.

Mission43

This non-profit encourages individuals to explore and develop business opportunities. It provides guidance in connecting them with possible markets, financing, and places to improve their skills. The program is especially interested in working with veterans and veteran/military spouses to help them with their transition and take advantage of their skills and creativity. Mission43 works closely with Boise State University’s Venture College to offer an entrepreneurial course and can even arrange scholarships. In addition to information on networking, the “garage” courses teach fundamentals of lean business and ends with the opportunity to pitch ideas to experts in public and private business sectors.

College of Innovation and Design

Boise State University’s CI+D program provides degree and certificate courses in a variety of skills and topics, everything from game creation to database design. Some are geared towards full-time student schedules, while others are created with the lives of busy professionals in mind. One component is the Venture College, which supports and encourages entrepreneurial development by students in any major. Part of the program’s emphasis is in thinking creatively and in new directions, and part of it focuses on seeking collaboration with other BSU departments and Boise-area professionals. Along with a wide range of courses and lectures, the college sponsors the Idaho Entrepreneur Program, an annual competition that invites students from across the state to share their innovative business ideas and possibly go home with seed money to make their idea a reality.

Joe Butler
Joe Butler
Writer

Joe Butler is an accomplished writer and editor in the Northwest with more than 20 years of experience publishing in newspapers, magazines, and specialty websites. He graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in mass communications and has worked with a variety of clients nationwide. Joe lives near Spokane, WA, where he writes, reads, and collects spoons as well as the cheapest, plastic snow-globes he can find.

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