Move Over Boulder: This Ski Slope City Is Becoming a Booming Startup Scene
Why Silicon Slopes–the region between the Utah state capital and Provo–is bustling with hot brands and data nerds.
Salt Lake City and the surrounding area, home of Brigham Young University, is most famous for being the world headquarters of the Mormon church. But this little-known Western tech hub is also churning out fast-growing companies.
Dozens of companies are based in and around Riverwoods, a commercial and residential paradise with 192,000 square feet of retail, at the base of the Wasatch Range and just an eight-minute drive from BYU. A mile down the road are the headquarters for Vivint, a smart-home company valued at $3 billion.
One of Salt Lake City's artsier neighborhoods, Sugar House is home to a cluster of startups, along with fashion boutiques, a streetcar, and gastropubs that sell local craft beers Polygamy Porter and Big Bad Baptist.
Lehi-based farm, garden, museum, golf, and shopping complex Thanksgiving Point, hatched decades ago by WordPerfect founder Alan Ashton, has become a bustling hub for Utah Valley founders, not far from the northern stretch of Utah County housing dozens of companies, including genealogy website Ancestry.com.
Who to Know
BYU grads Josh James and Ryan Smith are considered the godfathers of Silicon Slopes. Smith, whose Qualtrics is now a $2.5 billion analytics behemoth, is a longtime buddy of James, who sold his first data company, Omniture, for $1.8 billion. James--now on to his second data play, Domo--is known for his wit and panache. "People see him as this Willy Wonka character," says Banyan's Carine Clark, a fellow board member at the Lehi-based startup network Silicon Slopes. "He does a lot for people that they don't even know about, including supporting education, technology in schools, and women in tech."
Omniture and Domo founder Josh James (left), Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith, and Banyan CEO Carine Clark.CREDIT: Courtesy Companies
$104,000Average salary for a local software developerSource: Glassdoor$2.1 millionMedian VC investment for startups, as of 2017Source: PitchBook$393.5 millionInvestment in Utah startups in 2017, up from $273 million the year beforeSource: PitchBook
Like many repatriated Utahans, Carine Clark first came to the area to attend BYU. Building on her three-decade-long technology career, she's now CEO of medical software company Banyan, a judge for the annual Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for the Utah Valley (she herself was a 2016 honoree), an adviser at BYU and UVU, and one of the few women in the local tech scene. Clark says of being a woman (and a practicing Mormon) in an area dominated by the LDS: "You have to be pretty tough here to make it, and not afraid to run to the fire. A lot of women are not like that."
Who's Bringing Companies Here
When Washington, D.C., native Jeremy Andrus--the former CEO of headphone maker Skullcandy--acquired Traeger Grills in 2014, he relocated the now $350 million company from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City to access more experienced talent. "I knew I could hire great people here," Andrus says.
Entrepreneur couple and BYU grads Vanessa and Nate Quigley were living in Florida when they decided to move back to their old college town to launch their digital photobook company, Chatbooks. "We were having a hard time finding people in Florida to help develop and design this app," says Vanessa. "I never thought I would relocate to Utah, but we had ties to the entrepreneurial community here."
When Matt Marsh, principal of Lehi-based venture firm Sorenson Capital, left Salt Lake City more than two decades ago, he didn't expect to ever come back. "I grew up here and there wasn't as much from an entrepreneurial perspective," he says. Since returning to Utah in 2005, Marsh has invested in more than 15 local companies, and now manages over $1 billion.
Sorenson Capital Managing Director Matt Marsh (left) and Braid Workshop CEO Allison Lew.CREDIT: Courtesy Companies
While Banyan's Carine Clark isn't too bothered by the lack of diversity in Utah among founders and funders--a dearth of women, non-Christians, and people of color--it is problematic for others. "Being a woman in Utah is like being economically invisible," says Allison Lew, the co-founder and CEO of Provo-based Braid Workshop, a network and consulting service designed for women entrepreneurs. "I'm used to meetings where it's all dudes, all white, and they would not even look at me when I was talking. It is a question I do ask: Would it be easier to start my business somewhere else?"
Where to Talk Shop
Observing the strict no-drinking tenet of the Mormon code of health, founders here don't spend much time in bars. But you can find many of them at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, talking shop at a Utah Jazz game.
West of Park City is Snowbird, a ski resort that doubles as a backdrop for conferences, networking events, and even Sugar Ray Leonard--a speaker at one Provo startup's recent executive summit here.
On any given night, investors can be found chatting up young founders over teriyaki skewers, shrimp tempura, and a glass of ice water at the Lehi outpost of Tsunami Restaurant and Sushi Bar, a local Japanese chain. (Non-Mormon clientele can order wine.)
Entrepreneurs tend to emerge from one of two places: Brigham Young University, owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), or Utah Valley University, which has eclipsed BYU to become the largest university in the state. While UVU has the Entrepreneurship Institute--which provides seed financing and mentorship for student founders--BYU flaunts the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, the Ballard Center for social innovators, and Venture Factory, a product development accelerator, which spawned the Owlet baby monitor.
Brands to Watch
Outdoor apparel e-commerce company Cotopaxi has grown to more than 60 employees since launching in 2014. CEO Davis Smith, who spent most of his childhood living in Central and South America, where his dad built LDS churches, donates 2 percent of revenue to charity each year.
Four-year-old digital photo service Chatbooks has sold millions of Instagram-friendly photobooks. The co-founder couple, the Quigleys, have raised more than $21 million--while raising their seven children.
Founded by brother and sister Derek Maxfield and Melanie Huscroft, the five-year-old peer-to-peer cosmetics brand Younique has over 550,000 women hawking makeup online. Last year, beauty giant Coty bought a majority stake in the business for $600 million, valuing the company at $1 billion.