I recently had a conversation with some one who yet again suggested that if I really want to do a software startup, I needed to move to Silicon Valley. It’s something that I think anybody outside of SV has heard before and thought a lot about. Being a California native (San Diego), I would have no problem moving back to the Sunshine state (although I would prefer So. Cal), but I just don’t think it is necessary and I have no desire to make that move with my family at this point.
In fact, I enjoy the fact that people tell me I can’t do it outside of SV – it fuels me to prove the naysayers wrong.
That being said, I’ve talked to a lot of people here in Utah regarding why there aren’t more successful startups in Utah. There are several possible explanations, and in future posts I may go into more, but for today I wanted to focus on 1 in particular, something I’ll call the Technical Visionary Dilemma.
Here is my hypothesis: For software companies to push the barriers and build products that standout amongst the competition, a startup requires a technical visionary that both understands the business opportunity and how to take advantage of the opportunity through technical means.
Now, clearly, this is not an absolute. There are many examples (which I will also highlight) of companies who may not have this person. So my argument is not that it is a requirement to have this technical visionary, but that it improves the chances of success.
From my interactions with startups in Utah, I feel (in general) there is a difference in the type of people starting companies here vs. people starting companies in SV. The sense I get is that most startups coming out of SV are started by engineers, where as a high proportion of Utah companies are started by more business types (i.e. sales/marketers/generalists) who bring on a technologist to help execute on the problem.
Why is that?
It could be related to the Utah culture (which is very unique for those not familiar with Utah). I think in general Utahns are more conservative in regard to business risk. For an engineer, the risk of doing your own thing vs. getting a pretty good salary, buying a home ( a temptation engineers in SV often don’t have ), and settling down is a high risk.
It could be the lack of engineer friendly capital, although I think that is improving in part due to things like AngelList, BoomStartup. But it still has a very long way to go. I am often amazed when I attend events like the monthly Launchup event put on by Jeremy Hanks and look around and don’t see any investors ( I will give a shoutout to Robb Kunz who I’ve seen a couple times there). I don’t understand why more Utah Angel investors or early stage venture firms don’t attend those types of events regularly. There are great companies presenting at those events.
It could be that that talent doesn’t exist here in Utah. Fair point. But I would argue this. Obviously I’m biased in this opinion, but I’ve worked with engineers in SV and met several engineers here in Utah and I would put the talent level of engineers here up against the talent level in SV any day. There are both good and bad engineers in both places, and more of both in SV, but I believe there is sufficient talent here to see more startups forming.
Or, it could just be the lack of rock star promotion for these successful visionaries like what you see in SV. For example, have you ever heard of a guy by the name of Drew Major ? I hadn’t until a few years ago. I’ve never met him and never even heard him speak in public, which would imply he is probably more reserved and not self-promotional, but Drew is a great Technical Visionary of Utah. Old-school Utah folks know him for being a co-founder of Novell, but more recently he started 2 more successful companies (Arroyo Video Solutions was acquired by Cisco at a decent price from what I understand) and Move Networks (which has had a rocky streak recently but at one point was the hottest thing since sliced bread – I know because when I worked full time in venture capital we tried to get a meeting with Move and couldn’t even get the attention of their secretary). So, why is it that very few people know about this guy, and how many others are there in Utah that I don’t even know about?
The reason I believe it is important to know about Drew and company is because it provides inspiration for me as an aspiring technical entrepreneur in Utah, which is huge at this stage of the game, and those who know me know I need all the help I can get . So, I plan to do my part here today by starting a list of people I would consider technical visionaries in Utah in an effort to hopefully provide inspiration to other techincal counterparts here in Utah who have considered taking that leap of faith. At the very least I know it will help me to have a list of people I respect and admire for what they’ve accomplished and maybe haven’t received due recognition.
This is a work in progress list as I know there are many out there that I don’t know, so please please please help me add to it. Provide your suggestions in the comments.
I’m only going to focus on software/internet companies since that is what I know and have an interest in. Go here for a more in-depth look at technical advancements coming from Utah.
My criteria is pretty simple: someone who through their technical knowledge was able to put a stamp on the outcome of a company that otherwise would not have happened. This needs to be the guy who is pushing the product in a new/different direction based on his own insights, and not someone who maybe executed well but was taking direction from the business team. Ideally this person was one of the driving forces in starting the company. There are many great technologies who have done amazing things beyond just starting a company, or who have roots in Utah but started companies based else where (many of whom are found in the Utah Technology Hall of Fame), and by no means do I want to diminish their work, but for the focus of this discussion, I hope to limit to people involved in the early forming and direction of companies, and companies you would associate with Utah.
That being said, here is what I have to begin with:
The Building Blocks of Utah Software:
Evans & Sutherland (I honestly had never heard of this company before researching this post, but man do they have an impact on industry as a whole): David Evans, Ivan Sutherland. This company also is where following people got their start (and left to SV): Jim Clark (founder of Netscape), John Warnock (founder of Adobe)
Novell: Drew Major, Kyle Powell, Dale Neibaur and Mark Hurst
WordPerfect: Alan Ashton, Don Owens, and Bruce Bastian
Other Early Notables:
Megahertz (acquired by US Robotics): Stephen Aldous (couldn’t tell if David Spafford was also involved technically – someone please let me know)
Precision Data Link: Greg Warnock (now investor with Mercato Partners)
The New Regime:
Omniture: John Pestana (I’ve asked him before if he considers himself the technical co-founder of Omniture and he said he doesn’t think so, but I think he’s just being modest)
Mozy: Josh Coates (now with Instructure)
WingateWeb (acq. by Active Networks): Tom Karren (now CEO of Moki Networks and personal friend/advisor to my new startup).
The Exceptions (great Utah companies started without a technical visionary – at least a publicly known one; if there was one, please let me know so he/she can receive proper respect):
Altiris: It appears the 2 founders (Jan Newman and Kevin Turpin) were not themselves technologists, although they had worked in the industry for quite a while.
Overstock.com – Patrick Byrne
TBD (these are companies I still need to research to determine who was behind their success) – Digicert, Authorize.NET, OrangeSoda, One on One, NetSteps, BlueHost, AtTask, Property Solutions, Fishbowl Invetory, Doba, Corda, Smile Reminder, Access Technology Solutions, Costume Craze, Security Metrics (and many more to come – please help me out).
Have more? Let me know in the comments or on twitter (@DannyFellars)