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Colorado’s startup community rallies behind Ibotta as Denver’s popular consumer app has IPO

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After nearly a decade of developing what had become one of the most popular consumer mobile apps to call Denver home, Ibotta switched gears to focus on a different customer: big retailers. 

The company signed a deal with Walmart in 2021 to build the same cash-back and coupon technology Ibotta was known for right into the massive retailer’s own mobile app. Ibotta has since added more retailers in deals that have contributed immensely to the company’s bottom line.

That move, apparently, led founder Bryan Leach to decide the technology, the financials and the timing were finally right to go public. Ibotta debuts today on the New York Stock Exchange, where Leach is set to ring the bell to open the market in front of 149 friends, investors and colleagues. The company could only invite 150 people. One-third of the invites went to current and former Ibotta employees. Full-time employees earned stock options over the years.

“By my calculations, I believe there’ll be over 150 people who make at least a million dollars on this IPO,” Leach said. “Many of them are in Denver.”

Ibotta employees showed up to work earlier than usual on Thursday, April 18, to watch a livestream of CEO Bryan Leach open the New York Stock Exchange by ringing a bell. Ibotta’s first day of trading shares publicly comes more than 12 years in the making for the Denver-based developer of one of the most popular consumer shopping apps built in Colorado. (Ibotta)

Ibotta, profitable for the past seven quarters thanks to its evolution, is one of those rare tech startups that was founded in Denver, grew larger, felt pain, shrank some, kept at it and made it to an initial public offering, or IPO — all while staying in the city. It’s not the first local IPO, of course, but one from a company that’s familiar to millions of consumers who use Ibotta’s app to save money when shopping. It’s also a pivotal moment for the region that has local entrepreneurs and investors feeling the excitement.

“There’s definitely a buzz about Ibotta’s IPO,” said Eric Marcoullier, the founding CEO of Gnip, which Twitter acquired in 2014, and who now coaches young founders. “A rising tide raises all boats and a lot of my early founders are over the moon to have a homegrown success story to emulate. Starting a company requires a certain delusion around the odds of success and Ibotta is helping reaffirm a lot of founders’ beliefs that they too can build something meaningful.”

What it was like to start in Denver

As Ibotta’s origin story goes, Leach was flying back to Denver in 2011 after attending a legal conference in Rio de Janeiro. He’d spent the conference feeling bored and wondering if being a lawyer was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The young attorney had clerked for a Supreme Court justice, graduated from Yale Law School and made partner at a Denver law firm before he was 34.

A man in a zip-up jacket that says "Ibotta" poses for a photo
Bryan Leach, founder and CEO of Ibotta in Denver (Handout)

He spotted another passenger taking pictures of receipts for their business expenses. And he began thinking about all the data on a receipt and how companies could get smarter about appealing to consumers to change their shopping habits at the grocery store, and how it could help people save on everyday purchases. He left law the following year to start Ibotta.

Early hire Luke Swanson, who joined Ibotta in April 2012 to help build the app, is still with the company. As its chief technology officer, he oversees the tech and product development teams of nearly 400 people. But back in those early days at an office on 18th and Blake, there were just four or five people building the first app. 

“We would sit in the basement and write code,” said Swanson, who had been an early employee and vice president of engineering at image-hosting site Photobucket. “It was during the summer and we would set up a table in front of our office and as people were walking to the Rockies games, we would give away bottles of water.”

The free water came with a request: Take a photo of a receipt and share the experience.

“And then we’d go back down to the basement and fix things and come back up a couple days later to get more feedback,” Swanson said. “It showed the kind of entrepreneurial state we were in to just get feedback from people walking by and hear their excitement about what we were building.”

Within its first 75 days, the app attracted 100,000 users and since then, Ibotta has had more than 50 million registered users, according to its S-1 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

An app running on a phone with text reading "Hi! Let's get you some cash."
The Ibotta app pictured on an iPhone. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

But beyond consumers, Ibotta also invested in Denver. At the 2015 Denver Startup Week, Leach went onstage and announced that Ibotta had just raised $40 million and planned to triple its downtown office space, as well as hire another 200 to 300 people. At the time, it employed about 100 people. At the end of 2023, it had 815 full-time workers. It’s still headquartered at 1801 California St.

“I remember very clearly Bryan speaking at Denver Startup Week. I also remember when he was transitioning and making the decision to launch the company,” said Tami Door, a cofounder of Denver Startup Week and the CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership for 17 years before stepping down in 2021. She had met Leach when he was a lawyer and recalled his vision, which made walking away from a successful career a lot less crazy than it sounds.

“I remember leaving that conversation with Bryan thinking that people really need to be reminded that they can step out of whatever they’re doing to pursue something else and take a risk,” Door said. “He knew what he wanted to do. And it was clear, and it certainly played out.”

A woman in plaid, jeans and heals puts her hands together while talking to a crowd. The stage behind her has fake mountain features.
Tami Door at Denver Startup Week in 2018. Door, a founder of the annual entrepreneurial fest, also served as CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership at the time. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Finding local investors, however, was more of a challenge. Local venture capitalists, like Foundry Group in Boulder, all passed. Leach found support from family and well-known family friends, like Netscape co-founder Jim Clark and Larry Sonsini, an attorney whose firm helped take Apple, Google and Twitter public. The last investment round in November 2019 added Koch Disruptive Industries and valued Ibotta at $1 billion.

“I was asked every time I was in California, at (venture capital firms) Sequoia or Kleiner or Khosla, ‘Wait, aren’t you from Denver? Do you have any talent in terms of engineers in Denver? Shouldn’t you be in Boulder? Wait a minute, (Foundry Group’s) Brad Feld is not on your cap table?’ There were a lot of geography questions at the time,” Leach said. “We don’t get those anymore.”

As for the local firms that all said no?  “It’s no hard feelings,” Leach said. “We’re all friends now.”

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