Editor's Note: This article is the second part of a series on Utah’s Silicon Slopes. The first part can be viewed here. The third article in the series will run Thursday, July 21.
SALT LAKE CITY—The Silicon Slopes effect has generated unforeseen consequences for Utah. One has been the tech boom’s gradual rebranding of the state’s image.
Known for being a “peculiar” place, outsider impressions of Utah range from being a highly conservative and religious mecca to a hotbed for indie bands and counterculture. The tech scene, after a fashion, has bridged a gap between these diametrically opposed worlds.
Utah’s tech boom brings increasing amounts of capital into the state and with it, the ability to produce cutting edge marketing and messaging, making Utah more appealing to outsiders. In fact, according to the 2015 Utah Office of Economic Development FactBook, the total annual tech payroll was $6.9 billion dollars.
The difficulty of deploying capital in Utah by outside investors has diminished, according to Blake Modersitzki, managing partner at Pelion Ventures.
“If I compare the venture business from 20 years ago today to now, the access to capital is just so much more," Modersitzki said. "There is now more access to the talent stream and ability to build big companies here, which makes it very attractive to investors. I have deployed capital around the world, and there is something about the entrepreneurial spirit in Utah."
The tremendous success of companies like Qualtrics and Domo, who are increasingly scouting for talent inside as well as outside of Utah, has forced tech companies to think more about how they should advertise Utah to potential prospects.
Flashy sloganeering, coupled with Utah’s outdoor recreation and competitive cost of living, has attracted some tech employees. The rebranding of Utah’s business culture, however, has started changing Utah’s overall identity and outsiders’ perceptions of it.
Attracting diverse talent from across the U.S. and the globe to work in Utah brings the state to a pivotal juncture in its history. As the state becomes more appealing to a population beyond native Utahns or those who have historical or religious connections to the state, Utah will have to consider what its identity will be.
“It is this interesting balancing act of protecting what we have now, and also growing and becoming a diverse community. You want to respect the culture we already have, while also being open to other viewpoints and perspectives. There are all sorts of things we can do,” Clintt Betts CEO of BehiveStartups noted.
“If you are looking for someone who has never been to Utah or only to Zion once, for example, it is harder to get people out here: you have to make ‘the pitch.' It is becoming easier to get people out here, though." —Karl Sun, CEO of Lucid Software
“We should change the alcohol laws for example," Betts continued. "It is cool that Utah is peculiar and different, but you do not want to make it so peculiar and different that it scares people away. I think the alcohol laws are a good example of something that we could fix pretty easily, that wouldn't affect the culture we have now, but maybe help more people come in. It is so easy for us to do and change that we might as well start there. It’s like, if you cannot start at that point, then how can we move forward?”
Potential employers or employees may miss out on some of Utah’s great opportunities because of inaccurate portrayals or stereotypes of the state’s peculiarities. Transforming perceptions of the state is crucial if Utah wants to attract outside talent, according to people in the local tech industry.
Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics, and Gavin Christensen, of Kickstart Seed Fund, agree there are many positive aspects about Utah that could be promoted. Christensen explained that increasingly there are a growing number of individuals moving to the state who are excited to participate in outdoor activities and have access to a better standard of living.
“Once people come to Utah, they usually become fiercely loyal to the state," he said. "They are happy to be a part of something that works so well, with a state government that helps build business here."
Changing outsiders' perspectives isn’t a task that the tech industry can tackle itself, though; it has to be a larger effort that involves the government as well.
“The state has yet to put substantial effort into helping out with the identity problem of Utah," Smith said. "If you talk to New Yorkers about what they think about Utah, you are usually going to hear ‘boring and dry’ and that is an identity problem difficult for five tech companies to change. We need to help rebrand Utah, because the reality is when most people come out to this state they love it. We need to raise more awareness about what Utah really is. The way we are building out the state is just like building and running another startup."
CEOs across Utah agree that while procuring outside talent has become easier, employers still have to pitch the state really well — more so than business executives have to pitch the world-renowned Silicon Valley or New York City, for example.
“If you are looking for someone who has never been to Utah or only to Zion once, for example, it is harder to get people out here: you have to make ‘the pitch,' " said Karl Sun, CEO of Lucid Software. "It is becoming easier to get people out here, though. As we build up the tech and startup scene more, this aspect combined with the quality of life we can offer, it’s possible. But, it’s still an uphill struggle. It is easier than it was five years ago, though."
While the future of Utah business is still being written, business executives are hopeful for the future of tech in this state, and believe the state is only at the beginning of its tech success.
David Mink, CEO at Avalaunch Media, said, “Utah is a super incubator for tech companies. So many things are working in Utah’s favor. I don’t think this tech spirit will go away. Utah now, was San Francisco 20 years ago.”
Cameron Van Alphen, vice president at Boomsourcing, also weighed in.
“Utah is starting to gain this reputation for being great for tech jobs and startups," he said. "We do not nearly have to do as much advertising as we used to to get people out here, as people see for themselves the great tech community we have."
Because Utahns are more inclined to stay and work in their state as well, it allows the tech scene to foster and grow, increasing the likelihood that the tech scene will have a chance to flourish.
“We are passionate about our state," Ben Peterson of BambooHR explained. "So, we stay and succeed where we are."