Utah Looks At What It's Got

Driving home from work recently, an NPR story caught my attention—last year Utah outpaced all other states in job creation with the exception of North Dakota. Oil and gas are creating the job market in North Dakota. What about Utah? By the numbers, it’s tech jobs. But underlying the statistic is the importance of place, a concept we’ve observed and described in the Elements of the Entrepreneur Experience

Entrepreneurship, as a rule, is place-based. Many people startup and practice where they live, drawing from whatever resources exist within their local area. Others choose location with intent, based on a place’s entrepreneurial and resource reputation. Yet, many states forego taking inventory of their local ecosystem in favor of emulating a wildly successful program or ecosystem developed elsewhere. (Think Silicon Valley and YCombinator, for example.

Utah is being mindful of what it’s got, and it’s paying off. Let’s start with Park City.  It’s creating enormous pull for high tech companies where the culture of outdoor and startup lives mesh perfectly. In the NPR story,Jill Layfield of backcountry.com discuss the benefits the great outdoors provides from attracting young talent to building company culture. With over 6,600 tech companies now present in Utah, the conditions that entrepreneurs cite as those that make for a great entrepreneurial environment—density and proximity of communities that increase opportunities to meet and network with other entrepreneurs and mentors, and a sense of affiliation where starting a business is the norm not the exception—are alive and growing in Utah.

The tech ecosystem wasn’t new in Utah (the NPR story mentions a 30 year history), but by looking at what they had, the state was able to make investments where there was a lack—in university research programs and licensing and tech transfer systems. The result; an increase in the number of university spinoffs by a factor of eight. As Utah entrepreneurs like Josh James, founder of Omniture and the startup Domo, succeeded they reinvested in their local ecosystem creating pull for outside investment from VCs and others, and building out another necessary component of the local scene. Utah is also beginning to capitalize on a unique resource, foreign language skills. Mormon missionaries returning to Utah with foreign language and cultural skills are now a hot talent pool for companies like eBay who put these skills to use in their call centers. And, Utah will be the home of the (future) National Security Agency data center which is believed to be looking to make use of these talents as well.

Each state or community can draw a circle around the interactions of people, organizations, and infrastructure and look at how they combine to heighten or diminish entrepreneurial activity; in any particular place, there might be several of these circles or ecosystems. Assessing and cataloging the existing organizations and resources within a place provide a clear picture of the local entrepreneurship ecosystem and a platform for enabling people to easily see and access myriad resources. In the process, entrepreneurs themselves and other stakeholders in the system learn to be collaborative, transparent and proactive in growing their own unique ecosystem.

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