Anyone considering a career in the tech industry needs look no further than Utah Valley. The area has seen a boom in technology companies, and many bigwigs from the West Coast are starting to take notice. In such a seemingly low-key state, just how has this peaceful mountain valley managed to warrant the nickname “Silicon Slopes?”
“It definitely takes more than just an entrepreneur to build what has happened here. Beyond the cover stories we all hear about, amazing people have built solid, growing businesses because of the teams of people who are passionate about doing great things. It’s a culture as much as it is just a few entrepreneurs,” says Ben Peterson, co-founder and CEO of BambooHR, a software company specializing in cloud-based human resource organization. The company was founded in 2008 by self-proclaimed “nerds” and now caters to clients in over 70 countries. Blue chip clients include SnapChat, SoundCloud, and social media mammoth Pinterest.
Michael Zaro, the 28-year-old owner of Verisage (a custom web development firm) and Reef3 (web development for the financial industry) echoes these sentiments. “There’s a lot of activity going on here. We have access to talent, design, development, or sales.”
Zaro’s Verisage built a sales tool for ADP that has helped the payroll service company see 25 million dollars in new business.
After relocating from Seattle to attend school at BYU, Zaro started his first tech company while still an undergraduate. Today he owns four businesses, all located in Utah County. He also owns and operates Startup Dojo and Coding Campus. Startup Dojo creates and fosters a community for startup tech companies through shared office space, mentorship, community events and networking. “The goal is to have a lot of smart entrepreneurs all in the same room,” he says.
Coding Campus is a small college that teaches accelerated courses in coding languages. After completing a 9-week course, graduates average an annual starting salary of $55,000.
Noting the tech trend, Utah County Economic Development Manager Russell Fotheringham asserts that many of the now large tech companies started in Provo, after witnessing the success of Novell and WordPerfect. But, as Provo is a landlocked district with limited room for large developments, companies migrate north to Lehi where they can straddle both counties.
Zaro agrees that Provo is the seed of the tech boom. “Seeing Vivint, Novell, Omniture and WordPerfect succeed in Provo makes a lot of people want to go out and take a stab at it. With the string of BYU entrepreneurs, pairing that with people who have been involved in it, it’s a recipe for good things to happen. BYU is great because there are a lot of people who have sales and communications experience. The Princeton Review consistently ranks it number one or two in entrepreneurship in the nation.”
Fotheringham goes a step further and credits BYU and UVU students as playing the key role in the success of the valley’s tech industries. He also reveals that test scores for entering freshmen at BYU are comparable to those at higher-ranked schools, such as Stanford.
But what enables Utah tech companies to grow so quickly compared to those in other states? The answer points back to the pioneers. Business owners disclose that Utahns inherently place enterprise (remember the Beehive’s meaning) as the major part of a growing company’s business plan, whereas tech companies elsewhere tend to focus on getting the product out first, then make plans to add a revenue stream later.
And speaking of revenue, one of the myths surrounding Utah County is that there are major funding incentives, but such funding has only been made available recently. “Historically the funding has been here but limited, but has skyrocketed even in recent months,” says Peterson.
In addition, Utah Valley offers no exclusive tax breaks. All major incentive bills must come from the state. Fotheringham does, however, agree that in general Utah is a more inviting environment for startup businesses. “Business regulations are a lot less cumbersome and onerous than they are in other states. We have a very welcoming tax structure here in Utah. But everything we do incentive-wise is post-performance.”
“Compared to five years ago,” Zaro expounds, “funding in Utah is much better today. What I can tell you is that, based on other business owners elsewhere in Utah, we have a very supportive government [in Utah County]. Mayor Curtis came out to our open house and officials regularly keep in touch to provide help in any way they can. They do their part to be supportive without getting in the way.”
Neither Peterson nor Zaro have any plans to relocate their businesses, as each maintains that the quality of life in Utah County is inimitable. “A lot of the companies here are not moving out. Other companies are moving in, building big offices and campuses and plan on being a fixture in the community for a long time,” says Zaro.
And he’s right. International companies such as Adobe have developed large campuses in Utah County and plan to expand only here. Adobe intends to add two more pods in Utah, creating further employment opportunities to improve the 3.5 percent unemployment rate–the second lowest in the nation.
Other locally-started Utah County tech companies, such as Inside Sales and Property Solutions, are currently in huge growth phases, creating additional jobs that have helped boost the local economy. “And there are people who are starting to pay attention. Several venture groups approach us and ask what’s happening. Some bigger funds from San Fran come here at least quarterly to keep tabs on the next big thing,” says Zaro.
“The bigs from Silicon Valley are becoming more and more interested as great things continue to happen,” agrees Peterson. “Utah has a lot of grit and passion. We love to build great things and we just figure out how to make things work. We love technology, and so does Utah County. It’s a perfect fit. The fact that the talent pool and quality of life is incredible just makes it that much easier to be here. And we feel it is only getting better.”
Fotheringham references Utah’s past and how it once suffered from limited job opportunities and mobility in the tech industry, which deterred prospective workers. But thanks to the Silicon Slopes, a rapidly growing “critical mass” now allows employees to potentially move from one company to another. “We have the fourth most diversified economy in the United States,” he says. “And a diversified quality of life.”