When arriving in Salt Lake City, the first thing that grabs you is the awe-inspiring spectacle of the Wasatch Range, which stretches 160 miles across Utah.
Well, that and the fact you can get a TRAX light rail train from the airport—literally right outside the terminal—into town for just $2.50. Not many cities can say that. TRAX ferries 80,000 commuters each weekday to its 50 stations, many of whom I saw brought their bicycles, skateboards, and the odd guitar onboard.
This kind of low-cost, high-efficiency public infrastructure is a big draw to a young, well-educated, and geeky tech workforce. Utah has a population of 3 million and a median age of just 30.7, making it the youngest state in the US, with an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent.
I've visited before; in January, I was in Park City for the VR exposition at Sundance, and last year, I tele-operated a Guardian GT while wearing an exoskeleton at Sarcos. Back recently to cover Pluralsight Live, I took some time after the event wrapped to explore and talk with local tech execs to get their take on the city.
Where Silicon Slopes Begin
The mountain range is important, not just visually but as the backdrop to what's now known as Silicon Slopes—Utah's answer to their tech cousins out west.
It's home to the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, Qualtrics X4, Domopalooza, and next week's Saintcon cyber security conference. In 2016, nearly 100 Utah startups raised more than $1 billion in venture capital, and unicorns proliferate, like Fusion.io (acquired by SanDisk for $1.1 billion), Omniture (bought by Adobe for $1.8 billion), Banjo, and Qualtrics.
SLC is a very different place to Silicon Valley, or the other wannabe startup havens springing up around the country. But there are the usual electric scooters waiting for riders and a proliferation of co-working spaces.
This is Utah, which means The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looms large. The church's founders are responsible for the big broad highways, sensible street grid (you really can't get lost here), ornate street lamp restoration, and the more conservative of the two daily newspapers.
Then there's the Utah geek crowd: an increasingly diverse group of rugged, bearded and/or outdoorsy types clad in Utah is RAD clothing. The city has a thriving alternative coffee house scene (check out Nostalgia Cafe with its chess boards, shelves of battered cult paperbacks, and dairy alternatives), street art, zines and freesheets, music stores, and an arthouse film set.
That's my take. But what about those who live here? I reached out to a few execs in the tech space to find out what they love most about the area.
Why is Silicon Slopes a great place to start a company?
"We are 30 minutes from six of the best ski resorts in the world and within a couple hours from five of the most stunning national parks. If there is another place where you can responsibly run a rapidly growing startup and still manage to ski over 30 times a year, I'm not aware of it. Combine that with one of the most robust talent pipelines in the country, low cost of living, established funding infrastructure, and one of the most supportive business communities available and it creates the best place in the world to do business."
—Eric Rea, Co-founder/CEO, Podium
"The Utah tech economy is incredible and it has been amazing to watch it grow over the past decade. I have always said that no one area has the exclusive on smart people. In Utah, we can just put our heads down and go to work. We aren't distracted. Plus, we get to work in the place everyone else comes to vacation. That's a pretty amazing thing. Last year alone we had over 200 people relocate to Utah to work at Qualtrics. People want to work with great people, tackling exciting problems and do it in a beautiful place. That's what we offer."
—Ryan Smith, CEO, Qualtrics
"University of Utah, Brigham Young University, and the other academic institutions create sharp engineers and entrepreneurs. The big tech companies like eBay [and] Adobe have opened local offices and our homegrown public software companies—like Pluralsight and Qualtrics—add to that by bringing in talent attracted to the outdoors and low cost of living. There are multiple angel networks and early stage funds, while investors outside of Utah are starting to take note. Salt Lake City was a stop on Revolution's Rise of the Rest tour, and funds like Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia, TCV, and Insight Venture Partners have all invested in Silicon Slopes in the past few years."
—Minna Wang, Bioengineer & Analyst, Kickstart Seed Fund"This is the second tech business that I've started and grown deliberately in Silicon Slopes. My first company was Omniture and back then, the world didn't talk about Utah and technology in the same breath. That's changed dramatically in the last decade as we've seen an influx of capital and talent. The past five years have been some of the most dynamic in Utah's tech history."
—Josh James, Founder/CEO, Domo
Where's the 'tech side of town'?
"There are a few pockets of activity: Cottonwood Heights is kind of Utah's Sand Hill Road, where all the VCs are. Silicon Valley Bank also has an office there and the Salt Mine [coworking space] is nearby. The Lehi-Orem stretch, [has another co-working space] Kiln. You'll also find some of Utah's scale-ups along there (Nuvi, Jane, dsco, etc.) South Jordan ("SoJo") right off the freeway is also starting to get a lot of activity. Big names include Homie, Pluralsight, Lucidchart, and HireVue. And of course, Provo (Qualtrics campus, for example) and downtown Salt Lake (where Expert Voice and Church & State—a coworking space—are). You can also find a lot of activity at the universities, like the Lassonde Center at the University of Utah."
—Minna Wang, Kickstart Seed Fund
"We are partial to the heart of Silicon Slopes in Lehi, where we just opened our new headquarters. Halfway between the nightlife and entertainment options in Salt Lake City and the education hub in Provo/Orem, it is ideal for businesses to thrive (Adobe, Oracle, Vivint, Nuvi, Workday, and ancestry.com are all neighbors). Also, Utah Jazz games have proven to be the most dependable hangout spots for Utah tech.
—Eric Rea, Podium
—Joy Driscoll Durling, CIO, Vivint Smart Home
"I grew up in South East Portland, came to Utah, fell in love with it and settled here with my wife and started Pluralsight. Silicon Slopes was created to foster growth in the tech space, and it's working. We're bringing in tech talent from around the world and hiring grads from BYU and University of Utah, both of which have strong computer science programs. Utah is a great place to start a business and grow a business, combined with a high quality of life and a low cost of living. It's an exciting time to be part of the thriving tech community here."
—Aaron Skonnard, Co-founder/CEO, Pluralsight
"When we were looking to expand beyond our Atlanta office and set up a West Coast headquarters, we knew we didn't want to be in the Bay Area and we found Utah to have the best mix of talent, accessibility, and community—the dozens of ski resorts near the city, hiking trails, national parks, and Sundance Film Festival was the icing on the cake. The state also has a growing blockchain community and a large Distributed Systems Meetup that happens monthly, which has been great for our team at Storj Labs, as we are a decentralized cloud storage provider."
—John Quinn, CoFounder/CRO, Storj Labs
"After living in California and working for Adobe, I was attracted to Utah for not only the emerging tech opportunities, but this is an incredible place to raise my family in a beautiful setting with all my favorite activities seconds away. I have more than 300 miles of hiking and biking trails right outside my back door in Park City. I've experienced incredible career opportunities and love being part of this community of talented people who want to make a difference in both tech and the community. Our state motto sums it up perfectly—Life Elevated."
—Joy Driscoll Durling, Vivint Smart Home
"When you add Utah's natural beauty, low cost of living, and industrious culture to a job offer at an exciting startup, many companies are also drawing talent from other tech networks such as the Bay Area. As a new transplant myself, I was surprised when a coworker showed me how to climb a nearby mountain only 20 minutes after leaving work last Thursday."
—Todd Grierson, Senior Director, Business Development and Strategic Initiatives, BambooHR
"As a recent transplant to Utah—having spent my career working for tech companies in Silicon Valley, Portland, and Boston—there's no doubt that Utah has a unique tech scene. There is a common recipe used by many of the Silicon Slopes companies—bootstrap, figure out the business model, and then scale responsibly. It's a recipe we have used at Lucidchart to great effect. We scaled to 10 million users with zero burn, driven by a deep focus on fundamentals. This is the common recipe [here], but it's quite pervasive, and supported by a deep pipeline of business and tech talent coming out of local universities that are familiar with, and supportive of the fundamentals-first approach."
—Nathan Rawlins, CMO, Lucidchart
Local Government Support
"The supporting ecosystem for businesses, especially tech, is amazing. The Governor's Office of Economic Development has a particular focus on tech. One specific example is support for computer science education. They have passed several bills and provided millions of dollars in funding to help keep our talent pipeline strong into the future (e.g., SB 190 - Education Computing Partnerships). We also have excellent tech-focused industry associations like Silicon Slopes and Women Tech Council."
—Vance Checketts, COO, dsco
Festivals and Summits
"Qualtrics' X4 Experience Management Summit takes place in March of every year. We'll have over 10,000 people at the event this year, making it the largest experience management event in the world. We've had everyone from Michael Phelps and Lin-Manuel Miranda to Arianna Huffington and Malcolm Gladwell join us there."
—Ryan Smith, Qualtrics
"Definitely check out: Silicon Slopes Tech Summit—think SXSW for the Rocky Mountain region; Urban Lounge SLC for the hip local music scene; Rooftop Concert Series - family-friendly, but still hip local music scene; Love Loud Fest, a new festival which drew tech titans like Tim Cook to SLC; [and] FanX Salt Lake— anything they do is a colorful and powerful, especially for our tech community."
—Vance Checketts, dcso
Finally, sum up Silicon Slopes in three words
"SaaS and snow."
—Minna Wang, Kickstart Seed Fund
"Grit, Entrepreneurial, Limitless"
—Joy Driscoll Durling, Vivint Smart Home
"Efficient, gorgeous, and growing."
—Eric Rea, Podium
"Secret technology stronghold"
—Todd Grierson, BambooHR
"I'm always looking for efficiency [so] I'm going to go with only two words: vastly underrated"
—Nathan Rawlins, Lucidchart
(S.C. Stuart was a guest of Pluralsight in SLC to cover its annual tech conference.)