Jefferson Graham visits tech startups in Utah, who tout the low living costs, access to graduates from 2 major universities and family dynamics for why the Beehive state is attracing major investment.
Panelists at #talkingtechLIVE podcast event at the Start Fest in Provo. (Photo: Jefferson Graham)
149 CONNECT 111 TWEET 77 LINKEDIN 1 COMMENT EMAIL MORE PROVO, Utah — Sam Stoddard was born and raised in Portland, Ore., but after attending Brigham Young University here, he got an idea for a tech start-up and looked no further than the “Silicon Slopes,” for its home.
“I never thought I’d start a company here, but as soon as I saw the access to capital and CEOs giving back to the community, I stayed,” Stoddard says.
And why not? Even though his native Pacific Northwest has tons of digital investments, high-powered tech firms from Microsoft and Amazon in the Seattle area, to divisions of Intel and Hewlett-Packard in Portland, Stoddard says Utah’s scene seemed more open to young startups.
The CEO of Simple Citizen, Stoddard talked to USA TODAY, in fact, on the corner of 300 West in Provo, demonstrating just how vibrant the scene is. The headquarters of three major tech companies worth $1 billion or more were right behind him.
There’s Vivint, the home automation firm that sold its solar division to SunEdison in July for $2.2 billion; Ancestry.com , the No. 1 source for online genealogy; and Web survey firm Qualtrics.
And that’s just one corner in Provo.
Down the way, Adobe’s analytics firm, Omniture (purchased for $1.8 billion in 2009) is in Lehi, as is Domo, a company valued at $2 billion.
In just the past 18 months, some $1 billion has been invested in Utah, according to TechCrunch .
Sam Stoddard, front center, with his Simple Citizen staff. (Photo: Jefferson Graham)
“Two years ago, when I joined, this was all fields,” says Vivint chief marketing officer Jefferson Lyman, in an interview at Vivint’s offices in what used to be rural Lehi, overlooking a new, heavily guarded data gathering outpost for the National Security Administration.
Things are booming in the Beehive state, thanks to low taxes, affordable real estate and available talent from two major schools, the University of Utah in Salt Lake and BYU in Provo.
According to the National Venture Capital Association, about $800 million was invested in Utah in 2014, putting it in 9th place for most investment in the USA. That’s up from $300 million in 2013.
Because of the heavy influence of the Mormon Church in Utah, which emphasizes family time and celebrating elders, folks here are less likely to want to pack up after graduation and start their adult lives somewhere else, tech entrepreneurs said during a recent visit.
“Sure, we fight for talent, just like anywhere else,” says Carine Clark, CEO of MaritzCX, a Utah customer service software firm. “California is ahead of us, but all it has is size. You can find money here, and a lot of talented folks to work for you. I’m doubling my engineering team every year with no problem.”
UTAH TECH SCENE THRIVING Vivint's doorbell camera - #talkingtech | 01:03 Jefferson Graham visits home automation giant Vivint on a recent trip to Utah, where he gets a demo of the new Doorbell Camera, which works in tandem with the home security system, on #talkingtech.
1 of 3 UTAH TECH SCENE THRIVING Website aims to simplify immigration process | 02:44 Sam Stoddard's Simple Citizen looks to ease the pain of applying for immigration, with a $249 website that walks you through the steps. He explains to Jefferson Graham on #talkingtech.
2 of 3 UTAH TECH SCENE THRIVING Goal Zero makes consumer solar gadgets | 00:48 Jefferson Graham visits Utah solar company Goal Zero, which makes solar powered consumer gadgets.
3 of 3 Last Video Next Video Vivint's doorbell camera - #talkingtech Website aims to simplify immigration process Goal Zero makes consumer solar gadgets But talk with startups here, and they admit that big money is easier to come by in California. And sure, there are some companies with billion dollar valuations here, but no consumer household giants like Apple, Facebook and Google, all California based. New York has Kickstarter, the Boston area TripAdvisor and Chicago Groupon. Here, most of the companies serve other businesses, as opposed to focus on consumers.
USA TODAY recently hosted a podcast on the appeal of Utah for tech firms at the recent Startfest here. One of our panelists, Nick Efstratis, a partner with Epic Ventures, says his firm spends 35% of its funds in Utah, another 30% in California and the rest in other areas of the country.
Right now, this market is booming,” he said. “Whenever we go elsewhere, like Portland, Boulder or Phoenix, they’re all looking at us, and saying how can we be like Utah?”
A long time disadvantage to tech startups in Utah was finding senior management, and persuading them to move, Efstratis said. “But there’s so much opportunity now, that challenge has been overcome.”
Beyond the family values, the other appeal of Utah, say boosters: close proximity to the airport, dozens of award-winning ski resorts (Deer Valley, Park City, Snowbird, Alta), world-class mountain biking in the summer, and folks who cherish the outdoors.
Jaybird CMO Rene Oehlerking (Photo: Jefferson Graham)
“This is the only place in the country where you can be 20 minutes away from 13 of the best ski resorts and best powder in the world,” says Rene Oehlerking, the chief marketing officer for wireless headphone maker Jaybird. “It’s a fantastic place to work, with low taxes, and it’s easier to attract talent here than we ever expected.” Goal Zero, a young solar firm, decided to focus on natural power with consumer products instead of providing another form of electricity for the home.
The company just developed a solar-powered tent with outlets for charging a phone and laptop, fan and light. It will go on sale in March for $799.
“Our customer base for this sort of stuff is right here,” says Bill Harmon, Goal Zero’s vice-president and general manager. “It makes sense to have the company here.”
Goal Zero vice-president Bill Harmon with a solar powered flashlight, and tent, complete with outlets to charge computers and a fan. (Photo: Jefferson Graham)
Potential drawbacks: learning to deal with local customs, which, per the LDS church, requires family dinners nightly, and family time all day Sunday.
When Matt Eyring, Vivint’s chief strategy officer arrived in the area from Boston, he says he was surprised to see the office clear out at 6:30 each night. He had been used to his staffers working through the evening.
“I was told, very quickly, to learn to adapt,” he said. “This is how they it’s done here.”
Execs from Vivint in the test smart home at company offices in Lehi. Includes Matt Eyring and Jefferson Lyman and Jeremy Warren (Photo: Jefferson Graham)
In the 1800s, Mormon pioneer Brigham Young fled religious persecution in the Midwest and liked what he saw in Utah. “This is the place,” he told his followers.
So many years later, it’s clear the local tech community is saying the same thing: Utah is the place to be.
Follow USA TODAY tech columnist and #talkingtech host Jefferson Graham on Twitter, where he’s @jeffersongraham , and listen to his daily #TalkingTech audio reports on Stitcher and TuneIn.
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