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Utah Business

This month, Utah Business partnered with Holland & Hart to host a roundtable event featuring Utah based entrepreneurs to discuss business in Utah.

A Conversation With Utah Entrepreneurs

This month, Utah Business partnered with Holland & Hart to host a roundtable event featuring Utah based entrepreneurs to discuss operating a business in Utah. Moderated by Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director at the University of Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, here are a few highlights from the event.

Why is Utah a great place to be an entrepreneur? 

Maggie Kruse | VP of People & Culture | Nav

I mean, the quality of life you have here compared to other states that I’ve been in, is phenomenal. And I really think [Utah] is kind of a hidden gem. I think we hear a lot about the community and how people feel like they’re welcome. I think it’s that, and I think that the work ethic in Utah is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Anne Marie Wallace | State Director | Women’s Business Center of Utah

American Express puts out every report every year, annually in December, called the Open Report. It’s basically a report on the state of women-owned businesses across the country. It includes rankings both for economic clout (which is the growth in number), the employees that they have, and the revenue they earn, as well as secondary ranking. That’s employment vitality. But Utah ties for number two in the whole country. We hear all these things about how we’re the worst, in like almost everything for women, like the wage gap, and poverty, and education. 

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Dr. Susan Mattson at UVU is a world-renowned researcher, but she would agree that there’s one area that’s really great for Utah when it comes to women and that’s entrepreneurship. We see there’s an “access to capital” problem, and that’s a big problem. But when you look at the whole, opportunity is really good here for women business owners. It’s easy to start a business. Other states, it’s really difficult to get a business registered and licensed, Utah has made that very easy.

Maggie Kruse | VP of People & Culture | Nav

I lived in Atlanta and Boston for 20 years combined between the two. In Utah, I have had insanely brilliant, kind, wonderful male mentors. And that doesn’t exist in other states that I have lived in at all. I’m looking forward to seeing Utah lead the way for women’s equality and I don’t think we’re there yet, but I do actually see it moving in that direction. When we really can work together for that type of diversity, that’s where the magic will happen.

What sets Utah apart from other states?

Than Hancock | EVP of Sales | Podium

I have six kids and I think that raising a family in Utah is just easier. It just is… from a cost perspective and from a convenience perspective. I laugh when people ask me about my commute and I say 20 minutes, when that was what it took to find a parking spot in the Bay Area. I think Utah has done a lot to support the family and I actually think it plays out in the work culture as well. 

I have found it to be incredibly friendly to raise a family here, especially because there’s so much to do. As we bring people in from outside, they look around like, “Wait 30 minutes to a ski slope, 10 minutes to mountain biking, three hours to some of the most beautiful landscape you’ve ever seen in your life?” That’s powerful.

Tina Larson | COO | Recursion Pharmaceuticals 

People in Utah are just friendlier than people anywhere else. Another thing is growth. I think there is this growing sense out there that Salt Lake City is poised to be one of these great markets. That’s really exciting for a lot of people. 

Romney Williams | CEO | Enso Rings

What was unique and a part of why my wife and I decided explicitly to move back and continue to raise our kids in Utah, is a deep respect for work-life harmony. That it all can work together. You can have the passion and commitment to disrupting the big market or changing the world and yet be justified in saying, “My child has an event tonight, I’m going to go watch her dance, or I want to do my son’s program at one in the afternoon and not feel bad.” It’s enormous. 

Utah is growing rapidly. What are the pros and cons of that growth on businesses and community?

Sean Wilson | Cofounder & CEO | Chip

Well, I have a pro and a con I guess, a pro for us is that more people eat cookies. So, I’ll happily take that. We love putting smiles on people’s faces. The pro is that there is so much competition to get, and keep, good employees.

If this population influx can happen sooner for us it’d be better just so that we can have great talent. I think there already is great talent out there, but there’s a lot of competition to get those people. In a business that is not a tech business and margins aren’t as big, you have to be really cognizant of how much we are able to spend on employees and how we’re going to manage our growth and the businesses growth as there continues to be competition for all employees across the board.

Maggie Kruse | VP of People & Culture | Nav

I think there’s a lot of press about huge names in the valley begging people to come to Utah. Now we have a lot of people that are knocking on our doors asking to come to Utah. The challenge we’re seeing, at least in our space, is that the local Utah talent hasn’t been able to scale as quickly as somebody who’s been in the Bay Area coming in. So we’re seeing these very large gaps and talent, but the con is very similar. Some of the things we’ve had to start to think about are how do we scale our own people as fast as someone from the Bay and how do we do it in a way that we’re not disrupting our business at the exact same time?

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Than Hancock | EVP of Sales | Podium

I think another con may be that a lot of outside companies are seeing, “Hey, we can get good talent here. Fairly cost-effective talent, but they’re not really committed to Utah.”  We’re seeing they don’t embrace the full culture of everything that Utah has to offer. So they’re trying to bring Bay Area concepts to the Utah talent pool and oftentimes we see they actually will pull out and run after a year and a half or two years. We get a lot of fight for competition, there’s a lot of noise out there, but some of these companies aren’t 100 percent committed. 

How do you see your ability to raise capital as a company in Utah versus being a company on one of the coasts?

Davis Smith | Founder & CEO | Cotopaxi

When I started my first business in 2004 out of BYU, there were a handful of startups that were really doing something interesting. It was clear that once you have one success, it breeds more success. So it’s been really fun to see these great success stories with Josh James of Omniture and then Domo.
I think how that impacted us is that all of a sudden there’s been a lot more venture capital flowing into the state. We’re in a very nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem still here in Salt Lake. We’re going to see some exciting things happen over the next decade.

Romney Williams | CEO | Enso Rings

In 2012, I was leading a software company in Colorado and we desperately needed capital to grow. So I was pitching VCs all over the US and it was amazing and frustrating how frequently I heard a VC on the phone laugh and say, “well no offense but Colorado and Utah are flyover states.” Then one VC said, “I love Utah, I invested in Omniture, I’m in Domo, and we look for more opportunities in Utah.”

It’s interesting how people caught that vision and woke. Plus it helps that you have a lot of VCs that have houses in Deer Valley and  Park City. They want an excuse for a Friday afternoon board meeting to be able to spend the weekend.

Tina Larson | COO | Recursion Pharmaceuticals 

The Health Catalyst IPO recently was a great boom for us because it brought awareness to the life sciences and then particularly helped raise awareness about Utah. I was talking to an investor from the Bay Area. He was a VC and we were talking about how great the Health Catalyst IPO was and he was like, “Oh, that’s a Utah company?” I definitely echo these comments earlier that the more capital we see coming into the state the more awareness it raises.

What is your company’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

Davis Smith | Founder & CEO | Cotopaxi

The lead investor in our seed round was a group of 400 ventures in San Francisco, which is led by Kirsten Green, who’s just absolutely amazing, one of the best known VCs in Silicon Valley. We have had women on our board from day one and it’s really shaped our team.

About half of all of our managers and our directors and VCs are women in our organization. A lot of that was because we had women on our board and then all of a sudden we had these great women leaders in the company and other women wanted to work for us because they saw that there is mentorship, and there are opportunities to learn from other great women leaders.

But I think that’s where this has to change, right? There’s not going to be women going out and raising venture capital for big businesses if they haven’t had the experience of helping grow a startup. We need to do a better job of bringing women into senior leadership roles within our companies. Or we’re never going to see this change because the bottom line is that VCs aren’t going to back women if women haven’t had these opportunities to network within these communities to lead and to have experiences growing organizations. And so it really starts with us as leaders in organizations and bringing more women into the fold.

Than Hancock | EVP of Sales | Podium

We’ve done a bunch of things at Podium. For example, on the sales side, we built a women in sales council at Podium, which is kind of unique and different. But we now give outside training, mentorship, and development,  particularly for women who don’t have a lot of software sales experience. We put them now on a specific career development path. One success story we just recently had is a mom of six kids who’s now joined the workforce, never sold software before, now leads one of our sales teams.

And it’s just cool because again, if we had just organically kept going down the path, we probably would’ve gotten worse and worse and worse to the point where it was painful for us. And now we’ve had to make very, very specific intentional changes within the business. One of those being the daycare system.

Maggie Kruse | VP of People & Culture | Nav

One of the things we decided to do this year is attack the gender pay gap because it is one of the most searchable things about Utah. We decided to neutralize the pay gap, and it was hard. We lost a lot of engineers because they felt like because they have a special skillset, they should be paid more than someone else. And we said, no, we’re going to pay for your value and your impact on the company.

So I think if you want to try to attract diversity into the state, you have to tackle the things that are preventing us from bringing more diversity into the state. And while doing things like mentorship is awesome, it doesn’t necessarily bring them in because they’re used to having that already outside of the state. It’s normal to have all of that stuff. So you’ve got to hit the things that are really, really hard.

JP Tarbutton | Advisor| Holland & Hart

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I want to applaud what businesses here are doing in this area. I’ve also seen in my business you actually don’t have to do these good things to be successful in business that we’re talking about. You don’t have to. There is certainly a business case for it. It certainly helps but I’ve seen the other side where you know what you can be. In the old boys club, you can do things that aren’t  women-friendly or diversity-friendly and still hit a home run. So I wanted to applaud that we’re thinking of this not only because it is genuinely good for business and intrinsically good for business, but I feel like the answers that are coming here because it’s the right thing. 

What are the things holding you back from even more growth?

Than Hancock | EVP of Sales | Podium


The competitive marketplace is tough. We really try to teach that career development doesn’t have to look public on LinkedIn, but it’s so much more about the skills and the talent that you develop and the experiences you have, but that is hard, right? You gain momentum with an employee and then they leave after 12 months because of another title. 

Zack Bomsta | Cofounder & CTO | Owlet

The biggest drag that is slowing us down is attracting and maintaining that talent. It’s harder when your product development lifecycles are so long or so much longer than in software.  You’ve got these long development cycles, and engineers, or developers that have been working on the product and then leave halfway through the product development so now you’re training new developers. That’s a drag.

Davis Smith | Founder & CEO | Cotopaxi

Money has not been a challenge. I think the environment that we’re in has a strong market, there’s a lot of capital in the market looking for good opportunities. So, if you’re building a good business you’re not really going to have a problem getting funding. I think talent is always a challenge. Fortunately, we’re not competing against Podium and some of those other tech companies for talent. But we chose Utah because we knew there was a base of talent at backcountry.com and a few other parade outdoor brands who understand e-commerce and also understand the outdoors. So, we’ve done our fair share of poaching from some of those great companies. I think our biggest challenge is that we’re in a very competitive and saturated industry.

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