Welcome to the Silicon Slopes
Utah. A quirky state at the edge of the desert dominated by a single religion and defined by its far-right politics and weird liquor laws. There is a bit of high-tech industry but it's not much.
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The state's image and that of its high-tech sector are among the challenges the industry here faces when trying to recruit talented engineers and top managers, as well as to entice venture capital. And that, in part, is what motivated Omniture CEO Josh James to launch an initiative to more positively brand the state's burgeoning high-tech industry.
With the name Silicon Slopes, James seeks to attach the state's high-tech industry to the other Silicons, the thriving urban centers of high-tech American industry - Silicon Valley of northern California, Silicon Forest of the Northwest and Silicon Alley of New York. But the name also is meant to sell quality of life by evoking and highlighting the access to opportunities for outdoor recreation and the lifestyle that provides.
"There's a lot of misperception out there," said James, whose highly respected Orem company produces products to track Web site use and improve marketing. "We felt Utah needed a better brand associated with it in terms of tech and biotech."
The No. 1 problem of Utah's flourishing high-tech sector is recruiting quality employees, according to Richard Nelson, president and CEO of the Utah Technology Council, a trade group for the state's information and medical technology companies. And it's a circular problem.
"When you have capital, talent will follow. When you have talent, capital will follow," Nelson said. "It's a chicken-and-egg problem."
Alongside the other Silicons, Utah's version faces strong competition when it comes to salaries, working conditions and lifestyle amenities. But it also suffers from an economics of scale - the perception that the sector locally is small and provides few opportunities for changing jobs once you're here.
"In Silicon Valley, one of their major strengths is that they say you can change jobs, you can change companies but you never have to change parking lots," said Shauna Theobald, manager at Novell's Open Source Technology Center and also chair of Utah Valley Entrepreneurial Forum.
It's an issue that James refers to as "redeployability" in an industry where employees frequently change jobs.
"If you're going to build a world-class company in the state of Utah you have to bring in some talent, some executives from outside the state. In order to do that, their biggest concern is redeployability. 'What happens if I don't like my job? What do I do next?' "
To get the word out that Utah has become home to a critical mass of companies capable of providing plenty employment opportunities, James and Omniture have launched the Web site siliconslopes.com.
Among its major points:
* Utah has 5,200 computer hardware, software and life-science companies in a corridor from Logan to Provo.
* There are ample recreational opportunities that allow for a work-life balance, such as a bike trip after work, a trip to the ski areas on the weekend.
* Utah is attracting ever more venture capital, in part because of the state's Fund of Funds, created in 2002 by the Legislature to provide incentives for investment.
* Utah's technological innovation goes back to 1917, when native and Brigham Young University graduate Harvey Fletcher oversaw development of the first electronic hearing aid.
Siliconslopes.com also was created to share information among companies, with news releases, blogs and lists of companies.
The Web site was created in 2007, and Omniture has upped its contributions this year, assigning a full-time employee and spending tens of thousands of dollars, James said.
He adds there has been a "tremendous amount of interest," and that the company is sending out 5,000 promotional calendar/posters this year, with projections of nearly 20,000 for next year.
The posters depict the Silicon Slopes running along the Wasatch Mountains from Logan to Provo, listing an array of high-tech companies with operations here, as well as ski resorts and signs pointing to Moab and other attractions.
The positive spin aside, William Borghetti, a California native who is CEO of SendSide Networks in Salt Lake City, cautions that a Web site or branding effort won't address an area of weakness he sees in Utah's cultural climate, one that hinders the industry even if the state has reached a critical mass of high-tech companies and venture capital.
Although Utah is home to a strong group of entrepreneurs, they rarely get together on their own to trade information and advice, Borghetti contends. Social interaction over food and drink between engineers, entrepreneurs, service providers and venture capitalists is an important component of the San Francisco's area high-tech industry, he said.
"Getting a glass of wine or something after work and talking to other companies and seeing what they are doing, that is sort of commonplace in San Francisco," said Borghetti. "But it doesn't exist here in Utah. There's no wine bar or sort of eclectic place that you can go hang out where entrepreneurs who are building the next generation of technology are hanging out after work."
James said his company tries to overcome stereotypes of Utah, where members of the LDS Church predominate the population, especially in Utah County.
Omniture has recruited 40 to 50 people to move to Utah, said James, who is Mormon.
"It certainly helps the more diversity you get, then when we're recruiting somebody else, those people can all get together and say, 'I'm not from this state, either, and this has been my experience and we love it. We understand the predominantly Mormon culture is here and it's great. The perceptions we had were incorrect.' "