The Beehive State is abuzz. The stretch along the Wasatch Front from Ogden to Provo is growing into a hub of technology entrepreneurship, dotted with everything from scrappy startups to billion-dollar ventures. Meet Seven Marriott School Alumni inside Utah’s Tech Boom
Silicon Slopes—the Utah foothills’ new moniker—has landed headlines in national publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes. The accolades are piling up fast: This year the US Chamber of Commerce named Utah the No. 1 state in innovation and No. 2 in high-tech performance, and Entrepreneur included both Provo and Salt Lake City on its list of the fifteen best entrepreneurial cities. Six Utah-grown businesses appeared on the 2016 Forbes list of the world’s best cloud companies. Forbes and CNBC also placed Utah atop their rankings of best states for business, and Livability.com named Provo the No. 3 city for entrepreneurs. Investment in Utah-grown companies reached $800 million in 2014—that’s more venture capital raised per capita than in New York, behind only reigning tech kings Massachusetts and California.
There must be something in the Jell-O—or maybe it’s Utah’s business-friendly government, cheap real estate, ready pool of STEM and business grads, and flurry of student startups. Successful entrepreneurs mentor fledgling companies and invest back, and many founders credit local values such as industry, work-life balance, and self-reliance.
In this tech boom, BYU has been a key player. Read on for a look at seven Marriott School alumni among the builders and shapers of Silicon Slopes.
John Pestana has seen a lot of change in the past twenty-five years. For one thing, he’s no longer the only person he knows plugged into a cell phone. For another, the sponsor ads at BYU football games—dominated in his mid-nineties college days by telephone companies and banks—now flash the names of Qualtrics, Adobe, and Vivint, all evidence of one of the biggest changes he’s seen: the tech industry gaining dominance in Utah.
Silicon Slopes, if not yet a household name, carries some clout. And that’s thanks in part to Pestana himself. He and Josh James, his cofounder at Omniture and the CEO of Domo, not only coined the term “Silicon Slopes” and branded an organization to attract venture capitalist dollars to the area, but also built a company that formed a foundation for today’s tech ecosystem.
“I’m proud of what we built over thirteen years at Omniture,” Pestana says. He and James sold the marketing and web analytics company—which was conceived soon after they met at BYU—to Adobe in 2009 for $1.8 billion.
“We made many employees millionaires,” says Pestana, who loves watching Omniture alumni land on management teams around the state. “We laid that foundation; we trained people and helped facilitate an environment where they excelled, and I take a lot of pride in that. It’s almost like seeing the things your children accomplish.”
Pestana’s current venture, ObservePoint, tackles a problem he faced at Omniture: quality control on data collection. The web analytics auditing company now serves clients such as HP, Time Warner Cable, and, fittingly, Adobe.
“We audit online marketing technologies to ensure people can trust the information they’re looking at,” Pestana says. “We’re doing some great things. I feel pressure to take this company somewhere.”
This year Pestana, who with his wife, Heidi, is a proud parent of three children, solidified his status as a bona fide Marriott School alum: after leaving college early to focus on Omniture full time, Pestana finished up the last six credits of his bachelor’s degree in information systems.
When Carine Clark graduated with her MBA in 1993, her father came to her with an apology: “I’m sorry the world’s not better for you and your sister,” he said. “You are going to have to be better to be equal.”
Fortunately, being better isn’t much of a problem for Clark. The CEO of market-research company MaritzCX, Clark was named EY’s 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year and was inducted into the Utah Technology Council’s Hall of Fame this summer. The only woman in her company’s C-suite, Clark has never felt uncomfortable—thanks, in part, to another lesson from her father: “Decide today not to be bugged, and nothing will stop you.”
Even as a rarity in the field, Clark feels right at home. She’s always been a “gadget girl,” fascinated by electronics from smartwatches to robots. “I’m an early adopter,” Clark says. “I buy the latest and newest just to see how everything works. I’m always looking for how things can be better, faster, more efficient.” She channels this curiosity into tasks ranging from streamlining the family laundry—Clark and her husband, Bryan, have two sons—to growing a worldwide tech company with nineteen offices and about $200 million in revenue.
“MaritzCX helps companies do a better job at taking care of their customers,” says Clark, an ovarian-cancer survivor. She started her career with Novell and Symantec before becoming CEO of Utah tech startup Allegiance, which merged with Maritz, a forty-year-old research firm, early last year. “We’re known for innovation. I will have 100 percent year-over-year software growth, and that’s mostly unheard of outside Silicon Valley—but maybe not outside Silicon Slopes.”
When Clark was asked to helm MaritzCX, it wasn’t a hard sell to set up headquarters in Utah, where she’d been running Allegiance and living since graduation. “I wanted to double my engineering team quickly, and I knew I could double it here faster,” she says. She loves hiring interns from nearby universities and collaborating with local industry leaders. “We compete, but we also build each other; the work everyone does helps all of us.”
Clark—who plays keyboard in an after-work band—doesn’t necessarily see herself as a role model. “There’s really nothing special about me,” she says. “It’s just that I truly am not afraid. But I do feel a huge responsibility to try to be an example of confidence to all people, especially women.”
While many high school students short on cash might apply for a job at a fast-food joint, Tyler Richards instead designed and sold T-shirts at skate shops.
“I made a little money and thought it was awesome,” remembers Richards, a 2013 grad in entrepreneurship. “That was the first time I realized this whole entrepreneurship thing actually works.”
Entrepreneurship runs in his blood: Tyler’s father, John Richards, a former BYU entrepreneurship professor, struck gold during the dot-com boom and has been growing startups ever since—along with teaching family home evening lessons on debt and managing wealth. “I have always been taught that the best bet in life is on yourself,” Tyler says.
Tyler’s biggest venture now keeps Silicon Slopes supplied with a steady stream of coders. DevMountain, headquartered in downtown Provo with campuses in Salt Lake City and Dallas, teaches crash courses on coding and app development. Acquired this year by Capella University for $20 million, the boot camp churns out about 150 job-ready grads every twelve weeks.
“Our goal has been to provide students with the skill set to be hirable within the industry,” says Richards, who cofounded DevMountain with Cahlan Sharp and Colt Henrie.
DevMountain started as a side project when Sharp, who was regularly asked for coding tips, partnered with Richards to create a tech boot camp. They bought a domain name for nine dollars and started holding class in September 2013, growing primarily through word-of-mouth success stories.
The appeal, Richards notes, stems from the constant demand for coders in Utah and beyond. “It’s hard for tech startups to land a developer because traditional universities aren’t pumping them out fast enough,” he says. “DevMountain is creating a direct path.”
Which, he adds, is a win-win-win: startups find hirable employees, boot camp grads land tech jobs, and DevMountain’s reputation grows, attracting even more students. “I don’t know if DevMountain would be here if it weren’t for the Utah tech environment,” he says.
Richards is also collaborating with his father and brother on another boot camp—Startup Ignition, which offers courses on entrepreneurship.
“You evolve with the life of your startup,” says Richards, who has one young daughter with his wife, Nicole. “From ideation to first revenues to scale, it takes a different kind of entrepreneur. I’ve learned to become a chameleon as DevMountain grew from nothing to one of the top coding schools.”
Aiming high has been a lifelong quest for Marc Chenn, CEO and cofounder of cloud data-management startup SaltStack. A former high jumper on BYU’s track team, Chenn broke school records and trained for the 2000 Olympics—but he knew he’d eventually have to hang up the spikes and get a “real job” outside athletics.
“So I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do?’” remembers Chenn, who later founded a track club with his former teammates and now coaches his three kids toward winning their own championships. After exploring his interests and network, he secured a summer internship at Cisco—and got his first taste of the tech industry. “The software industry is typically pretty upbeat, pretty optimistic, and that’s invigorating,” he says.
After finishing his BYU bachelor’s degree in international relations in 2001, Chenn worked at Utah startup Altiris, where he helped the company grow before it was sold to Symantec. Chenn earned his MBA in 2007 and then explored an interest in Wall Street, working for Morgan Stanley in New York City for three years before switching back to tech with startup Compliance11. There he again contributed to a successful exit. In researching his next step, Chenn realized he was ready to build.
“If you work for someone else, you have to follow an agenda that’s not your own,” Chenn says. “I wanted creative freedom in my career, to imprint on an organization and participate in the upside of our success.”
That’s when he connected with Thomas Hatch, a Utah software engineer who had invented a platform to automate large-scale data center management. The product was ready to roll; it just needed business oversight.
Chenn stepped in to build that business. He moved with his wife, Theresa, and their children to Utah, and SaltStack was launched there in 2011. In 2013 Forbes named SaltStack one of ten cloud startups changing the data landscape. Last year the company earned the Utah Innovation Award, and this year it was named one of the ten most buzzworthy startups by the Utah Venture Entrepreneur Forum.
“This is the most challenging professional thing I have ever done, but it’s also the most joyous,” Chenn says. “In tech, a simple idea has the opportunity to change industries—and the world. I feel like we are at the crossroads of something great.”
Serial tech entrepreneur Cydni Tetro’s alter egos include Black Widow, a Super Bowl player, and a Disney Mouseketeer.
“I think I have printed myself as a Disney princess too,” says Tetro, whose latest hit brings “alter egos” to life by mixing 3-D printing with fandom fervor. “They are totally different but really fun.”
3DplusMe, which she sold earlier this year to Whiteclouds (another Utah company), lets fans “print” out figurines—of superheroes, athletes, Jedi, and more—customized with their own likeness. The company placed kiosks at retailers and conventions nationwide, allowing fans to make scans of their faces and select a favorite character to become.
“I’ve always followed the latest technology trends closely,” Tetro says. “I was really early in social media”—she helped build a Facebook app that grew to eighty million users—“so for me, the interesting thing about technology is how these arcs come and how to get in the market early and innovate a new product. I found that in 3-D printing.”
The venture was inspired in part by Tetro’s work with Walt Disney Imagineering. “I gained a deep appreciation for storytelling there,” she explains. “When I launched 3DplusMe, it was all about creating a story-driven experience. We understood where the brands were coming from and put their fans in context with their brands.”
Tetro finished her bachelor’s degree in computer science at BYU in 1996—one of three women in her graduating class, she landed no fewer than one hundred job interviews—and an MBA at byu in 1998. Since then, Tetro’s career has been in and out of tech and new media startups with stints at more established companies such as Disney and Novell. “I feel like my opportunity to exist between both worlds has really added to my ability to create, deliver, and execute,” she says. “You learn things from each that make you better in the other.”
Tetro and her husband, Erin, have three children. In the tech industry, Tetro has found the flexibility to balance career and motherhood. Recognizing what the industry has to offer women—and stands to gain from them—Tetro founded the Women in Tech Council in 2007. The council hosts events, such as this year’s Talent Innovation Summit, as well as the SheTech program that matches young women in high school with female mentors and internships.
“To maintain growth, we in tech have to drive the talent pool,” Tetro says. “We have to get students educated in the areas of greatest economic impact—science and technology—and accelerate the momentum behind getting more women into technology and into senior positions.”
You won’t catch too many CEOs walking around the office in a panda suit.
But when it comes to boosting workplace happiness and culture, BambooHR CEO Ben Peterson and cofounder and COO Ryan Sanders have never been above playing the mascot.
“We feel a deep loyalty to our team,” says Peterson, a 1998 BYU graduate in entrepreneurship. “We all perform better when we’re happier, when we have time for families and personal lives. Focusing on company culture and employee happiness trumps focusing on dollars.” He applies the same principle to himself; it enables him to spend more time with his wife, Natalie, and their six children.
The company’s philosophy has attracted recognition: named a Best Company to Work For by Utah Business every year since 2013, BambooHR made Entrepreneur’s Best Large-Company Cultures list in 2015. This year it was certified by Great Place to Work, won multiple PC Editor’s Choice awards, and appeared on the Today Show for offering vacation bonuses.
As a student, Peterson was one of the first employees at MyComputer.com, which later became Omniture. After building and selling a string of personals websites, Peterson dabbled in investing but felt his true calling was entrepreneurship. So Peterson teamed up with Sanders and looked to the software-as-a-service mode. Keeping in mind challenges faced by Sanders’s consulting clients, they decided to automate HR services.
They realized they were wandering into territory long patrolled by the world’s biggest payroll and HR companies. But like most entrepreneurs, Peterson quips, they lacked a piece of human DNA: the risk-aversion gene. The cofounders funded themselves from the beginning and have done very little fundraising since, creating the Goldilocks of HR software: bigger than spreadsheets but smaller than enterprise software. “We built something just right, focusing on what small and medium businesses need,” Peterson says.
BambooHR now serves more than six thousand customers worldwide.
“Hitting our goals is rewarding,” Peterson says. “But more importantly, if you provide a great place to work, then more great work will take place.”
Down in his family’s basement fourteen years ago, Ryan Smith was sweating.
As he struggled to scale a young startup without funding, “our competitors were raising a bunch of money and rolling out the marketing,” Smith remembers. Frustrated with slow growth and software he knew could be improved, Smith urged his father and business partner to make changes.
“Who’s stopping you here?” former Marriott School marketing professor Scott Smith asked his son. Ryan looked around the basement, where the two founders stood alone. “It was an ‘aha moment,’” Ryan says. “If this was going to go anywhere, I couldn’t blame anyone else if something wasn’t right. It was on me. From that point on, we got really good at working together; no one was stopping us.”
In a basement no more, the duo later brought in Ryan’s brother, Jared, and college buddy, Stuart Orgill, to build Qualtrics, today an international leader in online survey research and market-data collection. Qualtrics, which is valued at $1 billion, employs 1,200 globally, claims thousands of top-brand clients—Microsoft, Pfizer, and KMPG, to name a few—and dominates the academic market. This year, Smith became the first Utahn to land on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 ranking of influential young business leaders.
The term “startup” hardly applies anymore, as Smith aims to build a company with staying power. “I don’t want Utah to be known for just a bunch of startups; Utah needs to be known for companies that have done great things. We have the makeup here to go the distance.”
Billion-dollar company notwithstanding, until this summer Smith had yet to accomplish a lifelong goal: appearing on his grandma’s “smart shelf.” “The only way I could get on there, it didn’t matter anything else that I did, was to have a college degree,” says Smith, who recently completed his BYU management degree. He was also happy to claim his place among his network of twelve college buddies—all Marriott School alums who live around the world and have kept in touch for ten years through fantasy football and a yearly round of golf. At this year’s game “it was nice to tell them that I graduated college.”
Along with nursing a healthy obsession with BYU sports, outside the office Smith keeps busy with golfing competitively; biking; pickup basketball; and spending time with his wife, Ashley, and their five children—all of whom are under age eight. “It is chaos at the Smith house,” he says.
Looking to Qualtrics’s future, Smith is teed up for more growth—“I love our optionality, and we have great partners and investors who believe in Qualtrics and believe in Utah,” he says—and ready to take on the English lexicon: “I want Qualtrics to be a verb. If someone has a research question, they can ‘Qualtrics it’ and get the data.”
Elsewhere on the Slopes
These seven entrepreneurs represent only a small slice of Silicon Slopes. Want to see for yourself how far tech has spread in Utah? Check out siliconslopes.com/companies for an interactive map of locally grown ventures, big and small, along the Wasatch Front.
Article written by Sara Smith Atwood
Photos by Bradley Slade