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In Gigabit City Provo, Utah, a Startup Ecosystem Thrives in Good Soil and Deepening Roots

PROVO, Utah, September 11, 2015 – Utah is uniquely hospitable to entrepreneurship, and its deepening roots in software and search analytics have enabled it to become a significant technology hub, said Gov. Gary Herbert and a host of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and national journalists participating in the first annual Startfest here.

The startup festival last week featured more than 200 speakers and panels, including CEOs or top executives from Domo, Qualtrics, Pluralsight, Maritz CX, MX, Oracle, Vivint and a score of VCs.

“Utah, in a lot of ways, is a stronger and vibrant community than Austin, Texas; or Boulder, Colorado; and yet they get an insane amount of press,” said Clint Betts, the founder of the publication BeehiveStartups.com, which hosted the event.

Timed to coincide with Provo’s annual “Rooftop Concert Series,” showcasing local bands, and the smartphone-focused Pocket Film Fest, the event also concluded with a Google Fiber-sponsored “hackathon” devoted to helping develop applications for Gigabit fiber connectivity.

Cheerleader-in-Chief Gov. Gary Herbert

“I see Utah rising like cream to the top,” said Herbert, governor of the 33rd largest state since 2009, and who is running for re-election in 2016. He kicked off the panel programs on Tuesday, September 1, with a speech followed by a question and answer session with Betts.

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“That doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges, but we are on the right road and going in the right direction,” said Herbert.

Herbert said his job is being a cheerleader for the state: “Mainly, it is making people aware that if you invest in Utah, your chances of success are greater than elsewhere.”

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Drew Clark

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PROVO, Utah, September 11, 2015 – Utah is uniquely hospitable to entrepreneurship, and its deepening roots in software and search analytics have enabled it to become a significant technology hub, said Gov. Gary Herbert and a host of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and national journalists participating in the first annual Startfest here.

The startup festival last week featured more than 200 speakers and panels, including CEOs or top executives from Domo, Qualtrics, Pluralsight, Maritz CX, MX, Oracle, Vivint and a score of VCs.

“Utah, in a lot of ways, is a stronger and vibrant community than Austin, Texas; or Boulder, Colorado; and yet they get an insane amount of press,” said Clint Betts, the founder of the publication BeehiveStartups.com, which hosted the event.

Timed to coincide with Provo’s annual “Rooftop Concert Series,” showcasing local bands, and the smartphone-focused Pocket Film Fest, the event also concluded with a Google Fiber-sponsored “hackathon” devoted to helping develop applications for Gigabit fiber connectivity.

Cheerleader-in-Chief Gov. Gary Herbert

“I see Utah rising like cream to the top,” said Herbert, governor of the 33rd largest state since 2009, and who is running for re-election in 2016. He kicked off the panel programs on Tuesday, September 1, with a speech followed by a question and answer session with Betts.

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“That doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges, but we are on the right road and going in the right direction,” said Herbert.

Herbert said his job is being a cheerleader for the state: “Mainly, it is making people aware that if you invest in Utah, your chances of success are greater than elsewhere.”

As the newly sworn-in chairman of the National Governor’s Association, Herbert has the opportunity to frequently tout the state. He told of an interaction in which Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo asked him, “What is it about Utah?”

But Herbert got some pushback on his boosterism from Betts, particularly regarding the controversy over Zenefits, an online benefits company. Herbert’s insurance commissioner told the San Francisco-based company in late 2014 that its free business model was illegal in Utah. After pushback from local techies, and from the governor himself, the Utah legislature passed legislation in March 2015 overturning that ruling.

Telling the Qualtrics Story

Within Utah’s technology ecosystem, there are five billion-dollar companies, based on market capitalization. Most are in software or search analytics.

They are Qualtrics, a leading online survey tool; Domo, a “big data” analytics engine; Pluralsight, an online educational platform, and InsideSales, a lead-generation tool. Vivint, a major home automation company, and which also includes wireless and solar divisions, weighs in with roughly a $2 billion market capitalization.

In an interview at the festival with TechCrunch journalist Sarah Buhr, Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith recounted its founding story. Going to college in Los Angeles, Smith dropped out when he learned that his father had cancer with a prognosis of three month to live.

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He came home to Provo, where his father was a professor of marketing at Brigham Young University, to spend time with his dad. Smith brought his technical skills to online surveys, and soon Qualtrics was born. His father, who outlived the terminal diagnosis, and his brother, a former Google executive, constitute the company’s core leadership together with Smith. 

In part because venture capital in Utah has been hard to come by recent years, Qualtrics financed itself by bootstrapping. Indeed, the company had obtained to $50 million in revenue before it received any serious funding offers.

Then, all of a sudden, everything was on the table, said Smith. The company got an offer that might have led the family to sell the company. Or it could continue on its organic growth path. Or it could take on new capital investment.

He faced the dilemma of successful entrepreneurs: “There is nothing wrong with the business, it is scaling beautifully, and yet there is a multi-billion opportunity,” said Smith. Fundamentally, he wanted to control his destiny – but without turning his back of what the company could become.

“My goal at Qualtrics is to write my own story; I don’t want others to write it for me.”

He decided to take the investment. One year ago, Qualtrics brought in $150 million in venture capital, a sum that bumped Utah last year to sixth in the nation for venture capital.

“I believe you can do this in Utah,” said Smith, referring to his intent to grow the company further and further. “There are probably five to six really big companies with founders who have the ability to write their own story. They haven’t sold out yet, and they want to do something big.”

And the upside? Everyone is still only “in the third of fourth or fifth inning,” he said.

College Friends and Fellow Entrepreneurs

Josh James is CEO of Domo and one of Utah’s most successful tech executives. He built Omniture into an analytics powerhouse and then sold it to Adobe for $1.8 billion in 2009. The division remains based in Utah, with the high-profile Adobe building overlooking the booming City of Lehi in Utah County.

James took the stage with his friend and former BYU college friend Jeff Kearl, now CEO of the lifestyle/clothing company Stance. Previously, Kearl played a key role in founding Skullcandy, the headphone and peripheral manufacturer based in Park City, Utah.

Both James and Kearl are bullish on Utah, although Stance is based in San Diego to be closer to surfing. Their wide-ranging “conversation among friends,” moderated by Greg Warnock of Mercado Ventures, touched on everything from the unique peculiarities of Utah’s business culture to Kearl’s past antics in arbitraging frequent flyer miles from Kellogg’s waffle packaging.

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James, for example, addressed the need to actively court tech talent from out of state.

“We give them the red carpet treatment,” said James. “We send flowers to their spouse. We make sure to carve out at least an hour to show them real estate” – so they can see how much of home they could buy in Utah, versus Silicon Valley. “We invite the smartest engineers to spend time talking, and shield them from the ones that don’t come across that way.”

That morphed into a discussion about building a corporate culture that will be valued by all-import tech-savvy millennials. 

“Work is different today than 20-30 years ago, when we went to factories and produced things. Then on Friday it was over,” said Kearl.

‘The information age created a bunch of companies with computers and conference rooms. It has shifted the activities that happen in the day. This is a different type of work: social dynamics are much more different, and the millennials punctuate this.”

“I don’t want to call someone at 9 p.m. at home and have them not take my call,” said Kearl. “Yet if I am going to ask [24 by 7 availability], I have to create a workplace that allows employees to go to their kids’ activities, or to go out for a surf.”

“We just say, ‘life is holistic,’ so let’s work together and not break [work and home life] apart.”

Leading From the Front: Nike, Apple, Vivint

Jeff Lyman, Chief Marketing Officer of Vivint, spoke about the need for companies to “lead from the front.” Formerly with Nike, Lyman told the story of Steve Prefontaine, the legendary University of Oregon runner and who became the model and muse for Nike’s aggressive approach to business marketing.

Lyman said most distance athletes, runners and bicyclists, race in a pack. Not Prefontaine. He had the courage to break out the pack early: To dominate the race from beginning to end.

That’s what Nike began to do with marketing more than a decade ago. It stopped viewing the shoe sale as the completion of a marketing campaign. Rather, the sale was the first point of contact in the cycle of digital communication with the customer.

“Nike was reinventing itself and the relationship with the customer,” he said. “It was not marketing to you, but bringing you in and building loyalty.” That’s led to a database of 60 million “members.” Yet it’s acquired that at fraction of the cost of competitors.

Apple showed the same courage in launching the iPhone without a keyboard, in dropping the traditional clamshell design, and abandoning conventional web browsing technology. Those choices, he said, put Apple five years ahead of any other phone.

Vivint has done that for home security and automation, he said. It has reconfigured the entire value chain: product, sales cycle, installation, customer service, home automation and filed service.

For example, CEO Todd Pedersen was dissatisfied with Honeywell wall monitors. Yet, said Lyman, board members told him: “Stay back in the pack; don’t take the risk. Let’s just keep doing what everyone else is doing.”

Bucking that advice, the company has tackled each element of the value chain to become a leader in the smart home platform. The company sees 80 percent of security service subscribers signing up for smart home services (versus a 45 percent industry average), and obtains $63 in month recurring average revenue per user (versus a $39 industry average), he said.

Finding an Oracle Home in Park City

In a “fireside chat” late on Tuesday, Oracle Chief Information Officer Mark Sunday talked about his company, and why Sunday has chosen to make Utah the base for his work at the company. 

First Sunday worked for 7.5 years as the top technology officer for Tom Siebel and his database company Siebel Systems. Acquired by Oracle in 2006, Sunday has since run the technology show at Oracle, a Redwood Shores, California-based software giant with nearly $40 billion in annual revenue.

His secret for longevity at these tech giants? “You always put the company first,” said Sunday, speaking in the second person about himself, even “when it hurts you personally.”

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Sunday extolled the vision and corporate leadership of Larry Ellison, whom combines the attributes of “the vision of where things are going; being willing to make the ‘bet the company’ call; and the ability to instill direction into the company culture.”

As an example of a “bet the company” move, he recounted Ellison’s decision, after only six days of review, to buy competitor Sun Microsystems when others had passed over such an opportunity. In recent years, Ellison has instilled a much stronger uniformity throughout Oracle than in its “early decentralized days.”

Sunday said there were many benefits to being located in Utah. Siebel Systems faced power shortages in California in 2001, and sought a backup facility within a day’s drive of Silicon Valley. 

Salt Lake City outclassed Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle. It didn’t hurt that former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt used the invitations to the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics to entice Sunday to make that move.

“I live in Utah because I choose to live here,” said Sunday. “While I am not part of the dominant faith here, it has been a great experience here for family. I don’t know a single person here” for whom that hasn’t been the case, he boasted.

Living in Park City, a ski resort, has also broadened his professional horizons. “When I moved to Utah from San Francisco, I thought it would be like moving to Fiji: A great place to live, but my professional network would end.”

Instead, he said of his family’s experience, “We made connections that we never would have made had we lived in California.”

‘This is the Place’ for Tech Startups

USA Today reporter Jefferson Graham led a panel discussion on Wednesday about “Silicon Slopes: What is Driving Utah’s Tech Success?” It included the CEOs of Health Catalyst and Pluralsight, plus Betts.

“It’s hard to put your finger on what makes Utah so unique and special,” said Betts, although he and the others did highlight a dedicated workforce that prizes education and initiative, particularly in Utah County around Provo/Orem. It is home to both BYU and the large public Utah Valley University. It was also the birthplace of the once-formidable technology companies Novell and WordPerfect.

Beehive Startups hosted a major tech event in January in Salt Lake City, yet 70 percent of the attendees came from Utah County. That’s led the company to move its main event to Provo.

Even one of the early challenges formerly faced by Utah-based entrepreneurs may have proven to be a blessing, said Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard. Rather than building up venture-backed companies into which revenues would eventually flow, “we took a very different approach – although common for Utah – rooted in the fact that we haven’t had much venture capital. You are forced to produce cash-flow early on.”

Still, for vibrant tech startups, it is “easy to feel trapped inside the state when everyone is flying over,” he said, particularly when “you don’t have a good PR strategy; you don’t have a wake to make noise.”

But things have definitely changed over the past two to three years, said Skonnard: “More and more investors are paying close attention to Utah and more actively. And if you fast forward 10 years, things will change even more. There will be a lot of companies, with a lot of wealth and success, and that will feed into more and more awareness in the West and in the East.”

Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club. He tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund and wireless policy @BroadbandCensus. He is also Of Counsel with the firm of Best Best & Krieger LLP, with offices in California and Washington, DC. He works with cities, special districts and private companies on planning, financing and coordinating efforts of the many partners necessary to construct broadband infrastructure and deploy “Smart City” applications. You can find him on LinkedIN and Twitter. The articles and posts on BroadbandBreakfast.com and affiliated social media are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Broadband's Impact

Partnerships And Trust Go Long Way To Securing Financing For Broadband Projects, Panelists Say

Broadband Breakfast panelists wrestle with the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure projects.

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from Broadband Live Online event

April 16, 2021 – Financing broadband projects requires real human relationships among everyone involved, said Broadband Breakfast experts Wednesday.

The weekly panel addressed the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure. Billions of federal dollars are making their way to expand internet access across the country, including the $9.3 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. There is significant funding to be spent, but it’s not always as simple as receiving a check in the mail from the government.

Getting the necessary funds to build broadband networks — whether they are private service providers like Comcast, electric co-ops or municipal-owned networks — often requires financing with banking institutions or other means of funding.

“You really want to strike a deal with someone that you can trust, who you think has your community’s interests in mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. “Human relationships are important, and often are a precursor to striking any of these sorts of deals.”

He mentioned unique ways that companies and communities can collaborate to build broadband networks.

For example, he referenced some long-term agreements in Minnesota between localities and CTC – Consolidated Telephone Company. The localities would pay for and own fiber-to-the-home networks that are operated by the CTC. “That can really help for operators that have the capacity to do more work, but may be at their lending or borrowing limits,” Mitchell said.

Internet Service Providers “can work with a community that would take on the debt in order to build the network and then offer, whether that’s exclusive, whether that’s permanently exclusive, or timed-exclusive, that’s one way,” Mitchell said.

Partnering with anchor institutions

Another method is for providers to partner with communities or schools to build networks that are owned by the company but paid for by the community or school with state or federal funding, such as the company Clearnetworx in Colorado.

“ISPs sometimes have to build those relationships and have creative ideas to make these things happen,” Mitchell said.

“When I think about the creation of MBC back in 2004, I think it was really all about leadership and relationship and good timing,” echoed Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). On grant processes and getting the necessary financing, she said “the biggest thing is building those relationships and keeping that determination, and if you haven’t started, start today, because it is a process.”

Many smaller banks often lend out for broadband projects, sometimes even banding together if they hit their limits, because they see it as a wholistic community development, explained Tim Herwig, district community affairs officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“A lot of these banks are locally-owned, the bank president, the members of the board, sit in the pew at church next to customers,” Herwig said. “Their kids go to the same schools together, they eat in the same restaurants, they go jogging down the same streets, right? They have a deep sense of corporate community responsibility. They see broadband as a gateway to the financial security and future of the communities where they serve,” he said.

High cost challenges

“The big challenge in a lot of these markets for rural operators is the economics of providing service in high-cost areas just don’t pencil out,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist at CoBank, a private bank that focuses on services in agriculture and infrastructure for rural areas.

In addition to getting the upfront funding to building the infrastructure, there is also the operating costs to consider, and for some areas that’s not feasible without extra support, he said. “It’s one thing to get support up front to build a network in a high-cost area, but there’s on going expenses to managing the network,” he said.

Johnston also mentioned financial issues that may occur in federal reverse auction programs such as RDOF. “They’re great programs, first of all, but I also think operators going into these reverse auctions don’t overextend themselves,” he said. “Be realistic in what you think you can do operationally and financially.”

For MBC, which operates in Virginia, they pair funding with state and federal programs, such as the 1998 national tobacco settlement through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Mathena said. “We’ve been able to pair state and federal grant applications together, so that we’re using state dollars to help build that match, so that’s not just coming from MBC’s revenue,” she said.

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Broadband's Impact

FCC to Vote On Emergency Connectivity Fund Policies By Mid-May: Rosenworcel

The agency is expected to vote on policies for the new connectivity fund by mid-May, chairwoman says.

Derek Shumway

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April 14, 2021 – Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Tuesday the agency will be voting by mid-May on policies to deliver the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which has received over 9,000 interested institutions through its portal.

The Emergency Connectivity Fund is part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law in March 2021.

It’s “the nation’s largest ever broadband affordability program,” Rosenworcel said Tuesday on a virtual panel hosted by Allvanza, an advocacy group for Latinxs and underserved communities within the technology, telecommunications and innovation industries; the Multicultural Media Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC); and the Asian Pacific American Advocate group (OCA).

It’s “designed to make sure we get every household in this country connected to high-speed Internet service because this pandemic has proven like nothing before,” she added.

The FCC made a sign-up portal on its website to determine interest in the program, and over 9,000 institutions have signed up to date, Rosenworcel said, adding she hopes the policies for the EBB can address the homework gap by extending internet subsidies normally reserved for schools and libraries to households.

Evelyn Remaley, acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator, said minority-aimed broadband initiatives have done great work in bringing together providers and companies with minority-serving institutions.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the FCC will vote by mid-May on policies related to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. In actuality, the agency is voting on policies for the new Emergency Connectivity Fund from Biden’s new American Rescue Plan. 

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Digital Inclusion

Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events

Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.

Tim White

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Photo of GHS co-founder Victor Zonana, left, from Global Health New Zealand

April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.

Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.

The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.

“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.

Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.

Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.

Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.

Broadband central to digital activities

“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”

Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.

“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”

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