Nearly 14,000 people were at the Salt Palace Convention Center when Dave Elkington announced Thursday that Microsoft was investing $35 million into his Provo-based tech company, InsideSales.com.
The size of both the investment and the audience reflected the growing stature of Silicon Slopes, the nickname for the high-tech community in northern Utah and southern Salt Lake counties.
“That’s one of the largest private investments Microsoft has ever made,” boasted Elkington.
The companies’ partnership, begun in 2015, promotes the development of artificial intelligence to help clients accelerate sales and improve customer satisfaction.
He revealed the investment at the opening session of Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2018, a two-day meeting that is attracting almost three times as many participants as just last year.
“That’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” Silicon Slopes CEO Clint Betts asked rhetorically, adding, “We should be proud of this state and what we’ve accomplished as a community. We’ve become a globally recognized tech hub.”
Elkington was one of eight local tech company CEOs who kicked off the convention, individually walking onto a Salt Palace stage accompanied by blaring music, to answer questions from Betts about the status of Utah’s tech industry.
While there were a few concerns, the CEOs generally were high on what Utah has to offer and the direction things are going.
“I’ve set up businesses in three other countries. It was nothing like here,” said Marcus Liassides, an Englishman who is now president and CEO of Sorenson Media, a software company that delivers high-quality video online and to mobile devices. Based in Taylorsville, the company has doubled its workforce in the past year and now has nine offices overseas, he said.
“I love the belief here. Belief is important to me,” Liassides added. “If you’re an entrepreneur, you have to have belief in yourself. Utah has that culture of belief.”
Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard said he reached a similar conclusion when looking for a new headquarters complex for his company. It had outgrown offices in Lehi and Farmington as it developed video training courses for software developers, information technology administrators and other computer-savvy professionals.
“We had lots of choices of places where we could go, but it was clear — this is the place,” he said, obviously enjoying the response of the crowd that understood his play on the words Brigham Young allegedly uttered before leading Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
Having added 477 employees in 217, Skonnard said Pluralsight “will be building a campus that will last for decades,” developing products and working through its philanthropic foundation to help people in marginalized communities have access to technology.
While many in the large crowd were Utah natives, a question from Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith illustrated that almost half were transplants.
“We’re kind of a state of implants,” he said, predicting the trend will increase. “For everyone [in the tech community] to be successful, we need to relocate more people to Utah. If every person here could invite one person to relocate, to fill the tech jobs we need filled … it would go a long way to setting the stage for future generations.”
His point was echoed by Carine Clark, CEO of Banyon, which develops communications systems to help healthcare providers connect with patients online. She cited statistics showing that Utah will create 1.1 million new technology jobs by 2024, but only 45 percent of those positions will be filled by graduates of the educational pipeline provided by Utah’s universities.
“I’m worried about diversity. We do not have enough. Companies with diverse teams are better,” Clark said, predicting local tech companies will end up engaging in “a war for talent. And we don’t have enough women in tech, in leadership positions. … It’s not a gender issue. It’s a business issue.”
Two CEOs, Josh James from software supplier Domo and Todd Pedersen from home-security company Vivint, offered advice to the numerous students and young professionals in the audience.
Pedersen said it’s a mistake to have a goal of simply making money. “Whatever business you’re getting into, whatever concept you have, has to be customer-focused: you have to have the best product that makes the biggest difference in a person’s life,” he said.
“We can do anything we put our minds to,” added James, recalling a recent conversation with a student who said he was “young, dumb and broke. That’s where I was, but great things can be done. Shoot for the stars and you’ll end up on the moon.”