As the vibrancy of Utah's information technology sector gains increasing prominence in the national press, it's worth reviewing the reasons for its success — and watching out for ways to keep our state from sabotaging itself.
The emerging Utah formula for tech sector success is: "Entrepreneurship plus an educated workforce, plus venture capital, equals a sustainable environment for economic growth," I wrote in an October column.
Last week, two national studies highlighted the strength and diversity of the Utah economy. One, from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, ranked Provo No. 12, Ogden No. 14 and Salt Lake No. 15 in U.S. cities generating "advanced industries" jobs.
The other report, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, ranked Utah third for economic growth (after North Dakota and Texas). But it was the only state to place in the top 10 for all the study's categories: talent pipeline, exports, entrepreneurship, business climate and infrastructure.
Just as significant is the on-the-ground evidence visible at last weekend's StartSLC, an entrepreneurship and startup festival attracting more than 4,000 people.
Organized by Beehive Startups — itself a new publication chronicling the growth of the high-tech industry — the event was a coming-of-age party for the tech industry in Utah. In a weekend with more than 66 keynotes and panel discussion, the highlight was the "pitch competition" before a panel of 10 judges.
Like the hit ABC television show "Shark Tank," a pitch competition has real life entrepreneurs trying to get those with the money to value their company and invest to move it to the next stage.
Unlike pitch competitions anchored by a wealthy individual or foundation, StartSLC was pure Utah-collaborative: Each of 10 venture funds ponied up $25,000 and joined the panel of judges.
Taking home the biggest purse from the Jan. 31 contest was the Orem-based Vidi Action Gear, which won a total of $200,000. The company makes a cheaper and stylish version of the action camera popularized by GoPro.
As quoted in Beehive Startups, Vidi's Spencer Taylor discussed the problem that animated him: “People have frustrations with GoPro. People have frustrations with the people who use GoPro. Skaters and snowboarders kind of have a chip on their shoulder, they’re not the rich kids. So we realized we could cozy up to these guys and create a brand/ecosystem that would resonate with them.”
Entrepreneurs, in other words, see the world’s problems and try to find solutions. Vidi believed GoPro was alienating a key market segment — snowboarders — which it knows well by virtue of living at the edge of Utah's slopes.
Another entrepreneur speaking at StartSLC who also tried to solve an ever-present problem is Parker Conrad, CEO of the online human resource and insurance brokerage company Zenefits. Yet late last year Zenefits was targeted by the Utah Insurance Commissioner. Fortunately, Rep. John Knotwell has introduced HB141 in the Utah Legislature in order to address the argument that free online HR services constitute a "rebate" under insurance law.
After giving a rousing keynote address on Friday, Conrad sat down with me to discuss the company’s past and future. Originally from the New York area, Zenefits is Conrad’s second try at entrepreneurship. His first company "was never very successful" and was "constantly changing" its mission in the financial services arena.
What did he take from the experience? A "deep resentment" about having to handle scores of human resource systems: Payroll, time and attendance, vacation, stock options, etc. Thus was born the idea of a one-stop shop for HR paperwork without the paper.
Based in San Francisco, Zenefits opened its doors in May 2013. It had 15 employees and $1 million in annually adjusted revenue at the start of 2014. It had 600 employees and $20 million in annually adjusted revenue at the end of 2014.
Its growth is forcing it beyond San Francisco. And until Utah opened its investigation of the company, Zenefits was considering locating in Salt Lake City. "We ended up going to Phoenix instead," said Conrad.
Their new Arizona office will encompass 94,000 square feet of space by mid-2015, and ultimately employ 1,300 people in positions ranging from HR specialists, account management, to sales and client support — jobs that Conrad said could pay from $50,000 to $100,000 annually.
The numbers of jobs, startups, and venture capital in the state support the hype behind a burgeoning Utah tech industry. Whether from home-grown startups or Silicon Valley refugees, the sector has indeed reached a critical mass of sustainability. This is all great news for the state — if we can can keep it.