Utah tech leaders discuss the state of the industry
This month, Utah Business partnered with Dentons Durham Jones Pinegar to host a roundtable event featuring Utah’s tech industry leaders. Moderated by Simplus CEO Ryan Westwood, they discussed the value of a network, raising capital as a woman, reinvesting the tech industry’s success into other local sectors, and more. Here are a few highlights from the event.
Is it more difficult to raise capital as a woman?
Amelia Wilcox | Founder and CEO | Nivati
It’s my one experience, and I don’t have anything to compare it to—I’ve never been a man raising money. I’m still super privileged, right? I’m still a white, middle-class American. So I’m not complaining, but based on the types of questions that I was asked as a female entrepreneur and where the concerns lie focused more on my ability to execute. It was surprising to me that I got questions like, “Can you keep going? Are you going to burn out?” Maybe there’s a perception that I’m weaker than my counterparts. I will say—my board members, who are male, are of the opinion that some questions I was asked would never be asked of a male entrepreneur.
Rilee Buttars | Co-founder and CEO | Dónde
The things that I was asked were interesting. They’d say things like, “So can you actually handle hard conversations? Can you negotiate?” And I’m like, “I’m literally negotiating with you right now.” There does seem to be some difference, although both of us have agreed that we’re not quite ready to really claim that—it’s hard for anybody to raise money.
Why do you think successful Utah entrepreneurs feel called to invest in the next generation of entrepreneurs?
Brock Blake | Founder and CEO | Lendio
I think there’s pride in Utah, first of all. When you go through challenging experiences, I think it’s a natural inclination to want to turn around and put your hand out to help the next person on the way up. It also creates additional capital—there are a lot more angels out there now than there ever has been in the history of Utah.
Brad Pace | COO | Impartner Software
Those generational trees that develop over time—those trees involve large pockets of capital, and capital tends to follow your personal and professional networks. If you were born and raised here in Utah, or if you made Utah your home for a while, a predominance of your professional network is going to be here in Utah or in the surrounding areas. Capital almost always tends to follow your personal and professional networks pretty closely. It’s an enormous advantage for Utah looking forward. As we develop these resilient pockets of capital, there’s actually a resource pool that’s available to Utah and business networks that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago. I think that will compound itself over the next 50 years and I think that’ll get stronger and stronger as this community develops and has more capital to invest.
Does Utah have enough seed stage investors?
Randall Lloyd | Founder and Managing Partner | Grix Venture Capital
Venture funds, generally, are just going to get bigger and bigger. If they do well and have good returns, they’re going to raise bigger funds the next time. I think this has been a natural byproduct of the success everyone’s had. But as you grow—say you’re a $100 million fund instead of a $20 million fund, you can only do so many deals, so you have to write bigger checks.I think for a lot of these funds, it has made sense to grow a little bit and wait a little bit to do these checks.
At Grix, we’ve done six deals in the last year, and all six are pre-revenue companies—pre-product in many cases. In some ways, I think it’s never been better here. There’s more capital than ever, but the timing is such that I think we’ve got a bunch of funds that just got a lot bigger.
From the legal perspective, what’s it like to help some of these Utah tech companies set up anything philanthropy-related?
Russell Smith | Shareholder | Dentons Durham Jones Pinegar
You’ve got to be careful when you’re an operating company and you have a philanthropic purpose, because generally, you’re driven by shareholder value. You can have some social and other philanthropic purposes, but it cannot out-strip the need to provide for your shareholders. If you get too far bent to the philanthropic side, you can have trouble raising capital.
A lot of employees really want to have a social aspect to what they’re doing, and that’s going to be part of the driving force into bringing and retaining some of our employees. There are things that you can do to build value that can be part of your marketing mechanism as well. I think companies are going to have to continue to do it, not just because it makes you feel good, but because it’s going to be driven by employees, suppliers, and by the community as a whole. People are going to want to give back.
We’re having a lot of success in tech. How do we reach out to other parts of the community and support other parts of our economy?
Tara Rosander | M&A Diligence and Integration | Brandless
I think it’s true that the tech sector definitely gets focused on, but I see this support happening in multiple ways. There’s been this influx of success in the tech community, which has led to an abundance of available capital. I think it’s being reinvested back into the community, which has led to this really active angel investment group—which may, over time, trickle up into the seed stage as they get more sophisticated in their investing. But I also feel like they can support the rest of the ecosystem by reaching out into those broader networks and making sure that people are networked in. Sponsoring events, going out to these networking events, supporting the Women Tech Council—there are a lot of different ways you can reach out to the broader community and be supportive. Show up, speak, and share your experiences.
Bassam Salem | CEO | AtlasRTX
I think one that we might understate is higher education in Utah and the collaboration between the private sector and higher ed. As we think about what was “in the water” in the Bay Area in the 70s, 80s, and 90s to make Silicon Valley what it is now, I can’t help but think that Stanford, Berkeley, and the UC system had an impact. For example, the ability of Stanford to incubate ideas and turn them into commercial ventures. I wonder if we have that unique opportunity with the universities here in Utah. There’s so much tech that can’t be commercialized. There’s so much opportunity in biotech, high-tech, and otherwise. I wonder if we can do an even better job at collaborating with the higher education system here.
Dan Lawyer | CPO | Lucid Software
There’s actually some really smart stuff that tech does that would benefit other sectors. For example, look at Crumbl Cookies. It’s actually a tech company. The way they operate is like a tech company—they’re a social marketing company. Their success is all because they took something that was not tech, turned it into tech, and applied competitive technology. They’ve invested and built what a consumer expects from a technology experience around how you get a cookie and how you can order. Chick-fil-A does this, too. It’s what you expect in the modern world. And if you look at Crumbl even deeper, they took growth hacking strategies and applied them in a physical domain. The reason they sell four cookies is because you can’t eat one by yourself—you have to share it. It’s this classic growth hacking strategy applied to cookies. I think that there’s a benefit there when you cross-pollinate some of the more progressive ideas from the tech sector into what has been traditionally pretty old-school thinking.
How do we attract more talent and diversity from outside of Utah? Is geography even relevant anymore with the rise of remote work?
Rajesh Patange | VP, Product Management and Engineering | Vivint Smart Home
I’m the best person probably in the room to answer that since I just moved. The purpose of the company is very critical. What does the company do for you? I was attracted by that at Vivint—home automation. Security was very commoditized, but automation was more important, so that attracted me. And, definitely, the people who I work with were great. I noticed it’s very family-oriented here [in Utah], and it’s great. Those are the three reasons I decided to come: Purpose of the company, the people I was going to work with, and the culture here.
Steve Peterson | Business Technology Manager | Nexus IT
I think [outside the state of Utah] is definitely a place to look. We’ve actually recently hired one guy from North Carolina. He’s gone through different universities, different trainings, and has different exposure. It’s helped us get a different take on where they’ve come from and what they know, essentially.
Brock Blake | Founder and CEO | Lendio
We have about 500 employees, and we’re all hybrid. We spend about three days a week in and two days out. There’s a bunch of analysis we’ve done on full-time in the office—or in-office regularly—versus full-time remote. There were productivity improvements at home at first, but those started to decline pretty dramatically. And we saw an increase in stress, anxiety, mental health challenges, and other things like that in a remote setting. There’s also less buy-in to what you’re doing and your mission. There are benefits at home too, and we get that, which is why we really like the hybrid approach.
Grant Gordon | Co-founder and CEO | Artemis Health
The roles that we’ve seen be productive remotely have to be really well-defined. They have to be the kinds of roles where people are interchangeable, like cogs. I agree that employees feel more detached if they’re not coming in and spending time with people. It almost pushes everyone into gig worker-type detachment to a certain extent. If you’re just like working to live, that’s fine. But if you want to join a mission or you’re doing a startup, you have to do a lot of puddling and figuring out problems. So if you’re a big company and you just want a bunch of cogs, you can probably make it work. But man, that’s so sad.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs in tech?
Dan Lawyer | CPO | Lucid Software
Everybody says, “Love the problem, not the solution,” and there’s a reason people say that. But I think the things that I really focus my teams on is this mode of rapid learning and de-risking. De-risking is a form of learning. You have to constantly be asking the question, “What’s the next risk that is either going to kill us or is going to cause us to pivot? And then how do I get signal on that as fast as possible?”
When you can teach a team to learn 300 times faster, you’re smoking. There’s probably a threshold to that, but most learning plans and de-risking plans are just way too long. The question I’ve asked is, what would you have to believe to be true in order for our desired outcome? For this to be a $100 million product in three years, what would you have to believe to be true? You’ve got to believe that it’s low-friction and easy to discover, and if that actually isn’t true, and you can’t pivot, there’s no business here. Success and innovation are all gated by that—how fast do you learn, and how quickly can you de-risk?
Chris Baird | CMO | Weave
One of the things that I noticed in coming in is the deep prioritization of our influencers. And I’m not talking about Instagram influencers; I’m talking about industry-specific influencers. Going back to the basics of having that third-party validate the solution you’re offering has never been more important. It’s very easy to create compelling, emotional-driven marketing content that can move people to make decisions. But I think the consumer has been trained—whether it’s through Amazon or YouTube—to go and get validation from a third party. More than ever, creating those relationships with influencers and those that can control the narrative and have communities that you’re not a part of has never been more important.
For those who have exited, what were the learnings? What have you experienced since?
Shaun Richie | Owner | Blue Matador
When people ask me, “What are some of your career highlights?” It’s not the sale of the company—it’s actually what we were able to do. What we were able to do for our employees was life-changing for me. I get emotional when I think about the individual experiences of what the employees were able to do with that extra benefit—paying off something, IVF, a handful of different kinds of things that they were able to do for themselves and their families.
Going public, or having an exit, fundamentally changes so many people’s lives. I felt responsible, and I was responsible for the outcome of so many people’s lives. [The employees] didn’t make the decision to go public. So hopefully, you, as the CEO, are making that decision for the right reasons. And not because it’s directly personally beneficial, but because it benefits the entire community, the entire organization, and the company within both companies.
I have a couple pieces of advice: If somebody approaches you and reaches out via one of our partners, one of our venture capitalists, I knew the conversation was legit. The piece of advice that I got independently was to lean into the conversation—just lean in. Maybe you’re not ready, maybe it’s not important, maybe it’s not on your radar, or something like that out. But hey, run those scenarios, think about that, and then lean into a conversation because you never know where that might go.