What a difference 25 years makes for some Boulder County businesses

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Pernillan/Wikimedia Commons

For many in the media business, it was a very different world back in 1993 when Boulder Weekly printed its first edition. That’s an understatement, of course. Few industries have seen as much change in the last 25 years as publishing. And while newsrooms across the nation have shrunk, papers have folded and reporters have switched careers, the Weekly has actually managed to grow and thrive through it all. While this edition is a celebration of our first 25 years in business, we also thought it would be interesting to talk to other successful businesses that launched around the same time.

Sue France

What we learned talking to a handful of Boulder County business owners is that a lot can happen in 25 years, and the need for businesses to adapt to change is universal. The population surge in Boulder County, the proliferation of the internet and wind gusts of political and social change has forced local business and organization owners to adapt in order to succeed.

As part of our look back, we spoke to six local owners whose businesses are turning 25 about what they’ve done to keep up with the changing times.

Michael Shuger – Owner/CEO, Tribal Rites Tattoo and Piercing

Michael Shuger entered the world of tattoos and piercings “on a lark.”

“It was suggested by my partners who said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ We were just playing in rock bands and having a good time, and we did it to have fun and have something on the side. Despite our poor management, it actually made some money.”

The first Tribal Rites location opened in Fort Collins, with one soon to follow in Boulder and another, later, in Longmont. Shuger says getting clients back then was much easier — as easy, he says, as going into a bar, making friends with the patrons and encouraging them to stop in at the shop.

But the market has since become saturated. The silver lining, Shuger says, is societal acceptance of tattoos and piercings.

“We’re no longer a fringe service,” Shuger says. “I see statistics pop up every now and then, something like 25 to 30 percent of people have piercings other than in their ears. I think it’s as high as 50 percent of people have some small tattoo. It’s a massive market. It’s huge. The artistry and how it’s evolved is amazing. The choices you have for jewelry has just expanded logarithmically.”

Back when tattoos and piercings still existed on that cultural fringe, Boulder served as a welcoming enclave because of its progressive values, and despite, Shuger says, what some perceived as the “hoity-toity” attitude that came hand-in-hand with that worldview.

“Boulder always … was on the bleeding edge of progressivism, but it had the upside of being open to the edge of taboo as well,” Shuger says. “I personally think Boulder stayed, at least socially, kind of the same. Things that were taboo in other places and where it took some time to warm up to them, it didn’t in Boulder.”

Eric Hozempa – Executive Director, Longmont Community Foundation

The Longmont Community Foundation is a great example of how the growth of Boulder County has been driven by those within it. The idea to launch a community foundation in Longmont started in 1988, with a challenge to raise half a million dollars from local philanthropists that would be matched by the Boettcher Foundation. By 1994, the money had been raised and the Longmont Community Foundation was up and running.

There were plenty of projects local stakeholders were ready to address, says Eric Hozempa, executive director of the Longmont Community Foundation.

“One of the things was to help with infrastructure issues in Longmont. At the time, we were looking at reconstructing the library and what to do … downtown,” Hozempa says. “So there was the sense of what to do with revitalization and economic growth. … There were some other things going on. Homelessness continues to be an issue, [as does] affordability. Education was one of the bigger ones too.”

Today, the Longmont Community Foundation helps connect nonprofits and do-gooders with money to achieve their goals. Hozempa points out several success stories over the years, including construction of the OUR Center and the Longmont Museum, and providing access to scholarships for local students.

The Foundation also took in funds to aid those affected by the 2013 floods, and Hozempa says it’s a point of pride that nearly all of the money was dispersed, transparently, within four weeks of the flood.

The Foundation currently manages about $13 million in assets, and of the 100 or so groups that apply for funding through the Foundation every year, about 75 percent receive some degree of support.

Teresa Dodge – Owner/Executive Director, Artemis Gallery

Teresa and Bob Dodge were living in Massachusetts, spending their weekends indulging their passion for antiquities by perusing New England’s many flea markets, auctions and antique stores. When they came out to Boulder County 25 years ago to be closer to family, they noticed Colorado didn’t have the rich landscape of antique goods the Northeast did, and pursued buying and selling old and rare goods as a hobby.

More than two decades later, what was once a passion project has blossomed into a full-fledged business. The Dodge’s Artemis Gallery — thanks in part to the advancement in internet auction sites — had its biggest auction to date last fall, selling $1.2 million worth of global antiquities from its Louisville warehouse to a worldwide customer base.

“What the internet did, if you collected Native American baskets from the 1940s, you pretty much in those days, would’ve hooked up with somebody else [who sold to a specific market],” Dodge says. “You basically were limited to where you could drive and who you knew. What the internet did with these niche markets is that I now sell to the world. Thirty to 40 percent of what we sell goes outside the U.S.”

Today, Bob is the brains, and Teresa’s the brawn, so to speak — Bob locates antiquities and Teresa figures out how to sell them. The internet first provided access to eBay, then came LiveAuctioneers, which has ignited Artemis’ growth. But even though the company sells mostly to customers outside of Boulder County, the internet-derived growth has enabled Artemis to employ 20 people locally and fill out a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the Louisville Tech Center.

Spike Ilacqua – Founder/CTO, Indra

Speaking of the internet, Spike Ilacqua founded one of the country’s first internet service providers in Boulder in 1994, Indra. The company not only provided access to the early web, but helped connect people along the Front Range via telephone, when calling from Longmont or Nederland to Denver was considered “long-distance.”

At a time when the internet was still in its infancy, Ilacqua remembers a robust community of tech entrepreneurs in Boulder County helping to connect people.

“It kind of reminds me of the startup community now,” Ilacqua says. “By a matter of coincidence and the presence of the university, there was actually a fair number of internet pioneers here.”

Of course today, large internet service providers like Xfinity and CenturyLink have forced smaller companies like Indra out of that field, but the company still provides email and web hosting. Ilacqua says the growing skepticism of faceless companies holding and selling data has driven the company’s growth.

“We set ourselves apart from the big guys by having strong customer service,” Ilacqua says. “There’s been a lot of consolidation, the world runs around Google and Facebook and things like that. I am seeing a lot of backlash; people don’t like these companies with all this data. There may be a trend back to smaller, local companies.”

Ilacqua remembers, with a laugh, uploading pictures of editions of Boulder Weekly onto this publication’s first website. Web publishing has grown immensely since then, and Ilacqua is proud to be one of the remaining tech pioneers still in business, even as those big-name companies set up shop in Boulder County.

“I think it’s really exciting. It’s impressive to walk down the street and see the Twitter logo or Amazon logo. It’s kind of cool the tech community we started building has attracted this,” Ilacqua says.

Mark Benassi – Owner, Lafayette Music

The internet’s growth and corporate consolidation has affected retail business as much as it has the publishing industry. Mark Benassi took over a music shop, now Lafayette Music, that launched in 1994, and he’s had to adjust his business in order to compete with internet retailers like Amazon that can sell sheet music and instruments below market rate, and national chains like Guitar Center, which flood the market and dictate prices.

But Benassi’s found a way around those changes, creating unique incentives for his customers like a lease-to-own system that allows people to buy, say, a trumpet on a monthly payment plan, and allow these folks to trade in that instrument for another and attribute the money they already paid on the trumpet to the new instrument. What Benassi laments, however, is common among Boulder County retailers: the high cost of doing business in this area in 2019.

“The biggest change is really how much more expensive it’s gotten to operate a retail business,” Benassi says. “Things like this increase in minimum wage. … I will not hire a high school kid anymore. We used to hire high school kids, seven, eight bucks an hour. Forget it, I can’t afford it. I don’t know where those kids are going to learn what it takes to have a job.

“It’s very deceptive, the press doesn’t report it,” Benassi continues. “We want this bond issue, it’s gonna cost the average homeowner 50 bucks a year, but it costs the average commercial property owner 500 dollars. For that increase on the homeowner, there’s a much bigger increase on the commercial property owner, and he just tacks it onto the rent. Boulder County is killing themselves.”

But Benassi maintains that the challenges he faces are consistent among all Colorado retailers, and he laments that the state hasn’t done enough to support its independent businesses.

“When we looked at this business 10 years ago, the cost and the climate was so much better. People were coming here from other states because it was cheaper to live and we still had jobs. We have the exact opposite today,” Benassi says. “We’ve made Colorado great, property values have gone up, but we’ve created a state that’s so expensive. People are leaving California in droves, they used to come to Colorado; now they’re going to Texas, to Tennessee. That’s not a good sign.”

André Bollaert – Executive Director, The Acorn School

The surge in property values has surely benefited Colorado schools, at least. Even schools like The Acorn School, which caters to infants and preschool-aged children, benefit from a community that has the means to invest in early childhood education.

But that doesn’t mean the change has been automatic. When The Acorn School launched 25 years ago, it was one of the County’s first schools to place an emphasis on early childhood education, says Executive Director André Bollaert.

“There’s a real focus for our school on education. That seems like a strange thing to say,” Bollaert says. “We’re not daycare. We do early education. Our teachers have a background in early childhood development. They understand how we can support the development of young people.”

The kids who were in Acorn’s first classes are now out of high school or college and making an impact in the world, and Bollaert says the proof is in the pudding for intervening in a child’s education early on, even if the research proving so has only come about in the last decade or so.

“That’s become a little more mainstream over time… having a rich environment, encouraging play, really working with children to learn their pre-verbal skills,” Bollaert says. “In the last five to 10 years, the focus has started to shift, and we really understand how much social emotional development occurs [early in a child’s life]. It’s just absolutely transformative what the long-term results are.”

Bollaert says that Boulder County has proven to be fertile ground for parents interested in getting their kids into early childhood education programs, and the abundance of the area’s preschools and early grade schools, no matter the specifics of the program, has proven to be a case study in the benefits of doing so.

Congratulations to all our business peers who have made it 25 years. We’ll look forward to celebrating your 50-year mark before you know it.