Building A Tech Startup in Garden City, Utah
A lot of people don’t know this, but Garden City is turning into a raging tech hotspot for Utah. It’s true, Utah County and Salt Lake County are getting all the recognition but a tiny town that sits on Bear Lake is spitting out tech companies like there’s no tomorrow. Who would’ve guessed this would be the state of affairs back in 2018? Who could’ve seen Silicon Slopes extending to the furthest northern limits of our state borders? What is it about living inside a state park that makes people go bonkers for tech? Why don’t I live in Garden City? Why don’t we all live in Garden City? Let’s get to the bottom of these questions.
For eight years, John Spuhler was mayor of Garden City. Leading a town known for short-term rentals (Garden City, a popular tourist destination on the shores of Bear Lake, expands from a population of 700 to 20,000 during the summer vacation months) Mr. Spuhler was in charge of making sure city compliance issues were being met — stuff like licensing and taxes for short-term rentals, and regulation for visitors like trash, noise, parking, and occupancy.
With a background in tech, Mr. Spuhler thought it prudent to build a software solution to solve this issue. He pulled in a couple of partners (Bob Peterson, Kenny Jacobson) and began working on something to ease the city’s pain.
“The idea with the cloud-based world is recognizing there are a lot of applications,” said Mr. Spuhler. “As mayor, one of the challenges we had was managing our ordinance relating to short-term rentals. It was a fairly complicated ordinance with some strict requirements for compliance — we had to have a way to enforce that. So I thought, software can do this.”
In 2015, the first version of STR Helper was created. At the time, it was built purely for Garden City with no intention of turning it into a business. Over time, that would change.
“With city ordinances, every city is different,” said Mr. Spuhler. “So we built STR Helper to be flexible, we wanted to see as our ordinance changed if we could incorporate those changes into the software. For two years, we built it to see if we could change compliance rates from 50% to close to 100%.”
After using STR Helper, compliance rates in Garden City rose indeed — close to 100% with an increase in tax revenues and a decrease in complaints. The Utah League of Cities and Towns (which is a real organization, not the name of the world’s worst graphic novel) caught wind of the success and approached Spuhler about the specifics. He agreed to speak at one of their events and did so to rave reviews, eventually selling the product to a number of Utah’s cities — STR Helper was now a business.
Mr. Spuhler stepped out of his position as mayor at the beginning of this year and is now concentrating full-time on building out STR Helper’s software. Alongside his team of 26 full-time employees (most of them located in the Bear Lake area), Mr. Spuhler has helped turn STR Helper into a nationally-used solution, scraping large amounts of data (from available short-term rentals, business licenses, geographic information systems, etc) to determine who is and isn’t compliant with city ordinances. They recently secured a $1 million investment and plan to hit $2 million in annual renewable contracts this year. Things are happening, folks. Things are happening.
Again, this has all been done from Garden City, Utah. Our newest tech hotbed. Where you can code by day and wander through forests by night. Where you can ensure everyone stays compliant with city ordinances and celebrate the increased revenue with a quick dip in Bear Lake. This is the tech dream and I envy Mr. Spuhler for being able to live it.
“It wasn’t this idea that we were going to start a business around it, I just wanted to solve a problem for our city,” said Mr. Spuhler. “An ordinance is only as good as your ability to enforce it.”