SALT LAKE CITY — As it turns out, Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith is an extraordinary prognosticator on top of running a wildly successful company that pulled off one of the biggest tech deals of the year.
One of the biggest worldwide, actually.
Last January, Smith took the stage at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit and told the record audience of 15,000 that the state would see unprecedented tech deal activity and as many as four Utah tech initial public offerings in 2018. He predicted it would be an "unbelievable" year for Utah's relatively small, but burgeoning tech sector.
Smith pretty much nailed it, and Utah is closing the books on arguably the biggest year ever for Utah tech. This particular journey around the sun included two major IPOs, an enormous acquisition deal involving Smith's company, big-league investments in the state by Adobe, Amazon and Facebook, and a slew of benchmarks for up-and-coming companies that drew national investment attention.
Smith said it's been a year of years for the tech community in his home state.
"I think 2018 will go down as one of the most historic ever for Utah," Smith said. "We knew it was going to be big, not just for us but for the whole state … and for some companies that have been grinding for a long time."
In early November, just weeks ahead of a planned public stock offering aiming to raise $500 million in new capital, Smith's Utah-grown business survey/analytics company was acquired by German tech giant SAP for a whopping $8 billion.
Industry watchers called it one of the biggest acquisition price tags for a venture-backed enterprise software company. It also served to bring SAP, one of the largest and most successful tech companies in the European Union, into Utah, which itself could have further positive impacts on the state's tech sector.
The cash deal blew by estimates that had pegged Qualtrics' value, post-stock offering, in the $4.5 billion to $5 billion range.
"Our mission is to help organizations deliver the experiences that turn their customers into fanatics, employees into ambassadors, products into obsessions and brands into religions," Smith said when news of the deal broke. "Supported by a global team of over 95,000, SAP will help us scale faster and achieve our mission on a broader stage. This will put the XM Platform everywhere overnight."
Back in May, tech education leader Pluralsight, another homegrown Utah company that's been around for over a decade, raised $310 million in a much-anticipated IPO that outperformed expectations. The company also broke ground on a 350,000-square-foot headquarters, the first of a planned series of buildings on a 30-acre plot near Draper.
Pluralsight co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard recounted his company's highlights to the Deseret News.
"2018 was such a gratifying year for us as a company," Skonnard said. "We went public, we broke ground on our new worldwide headquarters in Draper, we opened our EMEA headquarters in Dublin and ramped up our global expansion, we were inspired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala (Yousafzai) at our annual user conference, and we took our first steps to drive significant, lasting social impact through our social enterprise Pluralsight One.
"Most importantly, we empowered tech leaders and their developer teams to drive toward their technology innovations and continued our march to democratize technology skills around the world."
Skonnard also noted the 2018 accomplishments of the broader Utah tech community.
"As proud as I am of Pluralsight and our amazing team, I’m equally proud of all the success we experienced as a community," Skonnard said. "When we look back in 10 years, 2018 will be remembered as an inflection point that launched Silicon Slopes onto the world stage and cemented our distinction as a global hub of technology innovation.”
Hot on the heels of the Pluralsight dive into the public markets was American Fork-based Domo, the cloud-based, business analytics platform founded in 2010 by serial entrepreneur Josh James.
Domo suffered a barrage of slings and arrows following the revelation, in a pre-IPO filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, of some business practices that raised questions with industry watchers. Pledging to address those issues moving forward, as well as sizable outstanding debt, the company still managed a successful June IPO, raising some $193 million in much-needed capital.
Before founding Domo in 2010, James built the highly successful web analytics company Omniture in the early 2000s, and the company was eventually purchased in 2009 by Adobe for nearly $2 billion. James also gets the credit for coining the term Silicon Slopes for Utah's growing tech sector.
James, like Smith and Skonnard, held up 2018 as one for the history books for the Utah innovation economy.
"2018 was a banner year for Silicon Slopes," James said. "The most notable financial events in Utah included the influx of new venture capital, two notable IPOs and the Qualtrics acquisition by SAP. All this activity should help us continue to draft new talent to our state, however we need to stay focused on key issues that will keep Utah such an attractive place to live, particularly clean air initiatives.
"I believe 2018 was just glimpse at what the next five years will look like and I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of Silicon Slopes."
Beyond the big deals for homegrown companies, many Utah-based tech efforts hit benchmarks for growth and venture investment in 2018. And some very big names in tech wrote big checks to fund new projects, or expand old ones, here in the Beehive State.
Back in March, Adobe broke ground on a $90 million building next to its current facility in Lehi, just off of I-15. On completion, it will be home to 1,000 new employees. Adobe's vice president of employee and workplace solutions, Jonathan Francom, said the investment was a reflection of the company's continued confidence in its Utah operations.
"Utah continues to be a great place for us to grow the business," Francom said. "We're excited to be adding talent and resources here as well as at other Adobe locations."
This spring, Eagle Mountain found itself the center of intrigue when news surfaced that a significant, but unnamed, tech company was set to make huge capital investment in the community. State and municipal leaders involved in the deal stayed mum, but industry watchers believed it was likely Facebook looking to build an expansive data center in a field just outside the Utah County community. In May, that guess was confirmed, as well as $150 million in tax breaks for a facility that will likely employ a few dozen people.
And Amazon opened the doors on a hiring spree in July, looking for about 1,500 employes to staff its new, 850,000-square-foot distribution center near the airport in Salt Lake City. While the new Amazonians will get in on the company's new $15 per hour minimum wage policy, most of the hires won't earn more than that. The facility has, however, helped expedite access to Amazon's new one-day turnaround on the delivery of some merchandise.
For Clint Betts, executive director of Silicon Slopes, Utah's nonprofit tech sector support group, 2018 was just a foreshadowing of even greater and wider accomplishments to come.
"We will look back at 2018 as the year Silicon Slopes put its stake in the ground as a world-class tech hub that builds companies that rival any in the world," Betts said. "The headline will be the … companies that went public as well as the largest business enterprise tech acquisition ever recorded in the Qualtrics-SAP deal, but what made this year so incredible was just the sheer number of companies in our community that made significant progress and created incredible value.
"We may well look back on 2018 as the year Vivint, Health Catalyst, Divvy, SaltStack, Ivanti, Podium, Weave, Lucid, InMoment and Traeger proved this ecosystem creates more than just a handful of winners."
Betts also noted that to maintain the momentum that led to such high-level achievements in 2018, a lot of work remained.Comment on this story
"We're living in the golden era of tech and entrepreneurship in Utah," Betts said. "In order for this to continue, we must strive to extend access to the opportunity that exists within Silicon Slopes to all Utahns and beyond.
"We must tackle the challenges of housing, education, transportation, air quality, diversity and the growing class divide in order for this growth to continue. I'm confident we're up to the task, and I don't see Silicon Slopes slowing down anytime soon."