Perfect Mix: How Utah’s unique attributes fuel its exploding tech scene
If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was the Moscone Center—San Francisco’s iconic convention center where the lanyard-clad of Silicon Valley’s most vibrant industries regularly convene to try out new buzz words and grow their LinkedIn networks.
This was actually Utah’s own Salt Palace, and the event was January’s Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, which mustered greater levels of both attendance and enthusiasm than seen at most Bay Area tech industry events. For many of the 15,000 attendees, it was likely the first time a direct path to the Silicon Slopes ideal of a true top-tier tech center set among these mountains seemed to manifest itself in earnest.
And the timing was auspicious. 2017 was a year beset by bad news for Silicon Valley, as many thousands of job losses, #MeToo scandals and prominent executive defections augmented the sting of nosediving quality-of-life measures.
In contrast, the Wasatch Front’s technology star is firmly in the ascendant, as the area’s placement at or near the top of prominent rankings of best places to start and grow a technology business is no longer even noteworthy. Indeed, publications from Forbes to Entrepreneur consistently rank us at the top of most every measure indicative of a budding tech venture’s success.
But these rankings are pegged to easily quantifiable numbers such as access to venture funding, job creation and cost of living. But for those who choose opportunities in Utah over SIlicon Valley—whether it be to launch a new business or take the next step in their career—it’s generally understood that there’s something more going on here.
The sweet spot
The entrepreneurial path of Andrew Joiner has taken him across the country, but his decision to come to Salt Lake to launch his latest venture, InMoment, was based on a series of factors he finds unusually concentrated in Utah and which, he says, conspire to help a growing business through the perilous scaling period.
“Beyond access to capital, there’s a hidden element that makes Utah an amazing place to scale a tech business,” says Joiner. “That’s the narrative that often gets lost.”
Several years of entrepreneurship in Atlanta left Joiner disappointed by the unwillingness of some of that city’s most established businesses to help promising upstarts by brokering connections.
“Introductions are very easy to get here, and there’s a true collaborative spirit that’s really helpful. And so we have this fraternal business environment where people are happy to make introductions, and that is a true gift to a growing company,” says Joiner, who posits this attitude is fostered by the high degree of connectedness typical of a state where so many are linked by factors as traditionally bonding as university and religious affiliation.
For Nate Quigley, founder and CEO of Chatbooks, Utah sits on a knife’s edge of factors that makes the state unusually favorable to both businesses and their employees.
“It’s a Goldilocks market, where there is enough going on here that you can recruit a bunch of great talent and early stage venture capital, but it isn’t so overheated that you’re competing with 5,000 other people,” says Quigley. “There are enough competitors to have a peer group of other entrepreneurs but not so many you can’t even take a breath. It feels like a just right environment to build a technology company right now.”
Paradoxically, Quigley finds Utah’s lack of a small set of oversized and defining businesses to be a benefit. “There isn’t a shiny new rocket lifting off just down the road. You didn’t feel like your CTO is at a recruiting coffee three times a week with some other highly funded and bright and shiny new object.”
Chris Cottle is chief marketing and strategy officer at MaritzCX. He returned to Utah after a stint in Silicon Valley and says the absence of a few tech monstrosities dominating the local market works to the benefit of the employees as well.
“You have the Google and Facebook cloud that looms over a lot of your decisions in Silicon Valley. You have these behemoths that everything is compared to, and the valuations and the wealth that is created or not created for some at those firms affects how people feel about themselves, and consequently they make a lot of career decisions based on what is the hottest thing,” Cottle recalls. “It’s a really negative thing there and people are getting sick of it. But here in Utah, we’re smart and scrappy but also really hungry to make great products and improve ourselves without that cloud looming over us.”
Cottle believes that the pendulum swinging back in the direction of happiness over income is being driven by Millennials, whose evolving attitudes have recently made a course called Psychology and the Good Life the most popular class ever taught in the 300-year history of Yale University.
“That’s one of the advantages that Utah has—we have that lower-stress lifestyle and lower cost of living. That, plus the outdoors and a family-first focus make us increasingly attractive to a lot of people,” Cottle says.
The outdoor factor particularly offers a boost to young startups, which often lack the cash necessary to offer the typical extreme Silicon Valley perks, says Joiner.
“At Google it’s free food and laundry and massage, and that’s something most growing businesses cannot afford to do. But by having the intangibles built right into the environment here, plus such low real estate costs, you can offer your employees a very attractive facility. These things let you stand out while growing a business.”
Joiner believes one of the Wasatch Front’s greatest advantages over Silicon Valley sits in the Wasatch Back.
“Many senior tech execs here feel like we figured out something great in Park City,” says Joiner, who opted for the Summit County resort town when relocating to Utah. “It takes me 25 minutes to get to the airport with no stoplights. Two of my neighbors commute from Park City to San Francisco on Monday mornings and sometimes beat their [Bay Area] colleagues to the office. The lifestyle advantage of being just down the road from a major tech center while able to retreat to a very active outdoors-oriented environment cannot be overstated.”
The high value Utahns are known to place on social giving manifests itself in the workplace, and this in turn becomes an additional recruiting advantage when attracting Millennials, both to come to Utah and to stay here after graduation.
“Studies show that that over 50 percent of Millennials will choose a purpose-driven company over one that is not,” says Lindsey Kneuven, head of social impact at Pluralsight, “It’s a huge draw. We already have this culture of giving, and as we combine that with this emergent tech ecosystem in a really meaningful way it means significant progress, both socially but also economically.”
A delicate balance
Utah’s family-first culture also influences corporate culture, and this turns out to be a major advantage for a company selling a family-focused product, like Chatbooks.
“We’ve been able to recruit and retain really great people. And specifically we’ve been able to bring in and retain great parents and new mothers,” says Chatbooks’ Quigley, whose company offers new mothers three months paid maternity leave and new fathers one month paid leave. “They come back to work when their maternity leave is over and they’re excited to be here. This is the kind of place you can imagine yourself working even while trying to raise a family or being a new parent, but if this were Boston or Silicon Valley we would have had much more turnover than we’ve had.”
Conventional tech company wisdom says the main trade-off of work-life balance is an increase in employee happiness in exchange for decreased productivity, as 5:00 p.m. is generally accepted as quitting time.
Quigley says a change in company culture can remedy that imbalance.
“We strive to have eight amazing hours each day. When we come to work we’re excited to be here because we believe in what we’re doing, and we put in eight solid hours of work and we get out of here,” Quigley says. “This is not the kind of startup where you’re a hero if you sleep on a cot and have pizza boxes under your desk. We’d rather our team have a balanced life.”
InMoment’s Joiner agrees: “I don’t think that a work-life balance results in a lack of ambition. I do think that a properly run company fosters ambition.”
While many cultural hallmarks of Salt Lake City and environs have little in common with either the more progressive Park City or Bay Area, even this brings with it certain advantages as Cottle sees it, referring to the sexism scandals rocking Uber and other Silicon Valley darlings recently.
“Utah, being a little late to the game, wasn’t stacked with a lot of the hierarchy baggage and ‘man club’ type issues. For example, my marketing team is greater than 50 percent women and we didn’t do that on purpose. It’s just that we have amazing talent here and nothing holding us down.”