We Are Utah

There can’t be two Silicon Valleys and that’s 100 percent fine. It’s great, it’s wonderful, because it means that Utah gets to be all these other amazing things. You have to figure out what makes you unique and special, then embrace that.

Creating a startup is like creating art. There are no rigid guidelines to follow, no bullet list that ensures success, no be-all and end-all piece of information that guides your way with the holiest of light. You can draw on outside sources for inspiration, but the moment of awakening that truly sets you on a unique and triumphant path must come from within.

Think of a musician. He hears the words of Bob Dylan and yearns to write lyrics with such poetic grace. He feels the rampaging guitar of Jimmy Page and wonders why his fingers can’t climb the fretboard with such ingenuity and skill. He listens to the childlike wail of Neil Young’s voice and wishes that his vocals could climb to such unrestrained heights. But when he tries to match these virtuoso performances and claim them as his own, he cannot — the highest forms of music, of art, of creating a startup, can’t be replicated. They are free-flowing. They pull upon influences, but don’t try to replicate them. They create something so breathtakingly unique that anybody who happens to witness walks away with a smile, a shrug, and a feeling of wonder at all the world holds.

Traditionally, when talking about the pinnacle of tech and startup scenes, Silicon Valley (for good reason) is held as the gold standard. But in the same way that countless artists and musicians have aspired to replicate the success of transcendent talents and failed, so too has many a startup scene been swallowed by the lofty expectations of “the next Silicon Valley.” Trying to create a replica of Silicon Valley is pointless in the same way a songwriter can’t recreate “Like a Rolling Stone” — when a high-water mark has been reached, you learn what you can from it, tip your hat, and move on.

There is a threshold being reached in Utah. Each passing day brings more news of the blossoming — funding rounds, startups being launched, companies transitioning from home basement offices to multi-million dollar buildings. At the heart of this upswing lies the entrepreneur, men and women known outside the Utah community for their distinct and uncoachable traits. They are hard-working. They are loyal. They are technically-savvy. They don’t give two shits when people tell them how terrible their business idea is (and might get offended when you say the word “shit”), because they recognize that 90 percent of being an entrepreneur is showing a willingness to learn from falling face-down. And they bristle when compared to Silicon Valley, knowing that anything short of recognizing their accomplishments as completely unique and Utah-centric minimizes everything they do.

The ever-watching eyes of those outside the Utah tech and startup community are taking note, tracking movements like a parent watching their child ascend to adulthood. As birds perch on a limb observing the day grow long, these people watch with growing interest as Utah’s startup scene nears its climax. They aren’t seeing a mirror-image of Silicon Valley, they’re watching the unfurling of something completely different: they are witnessing the birth of Utah.

Michael Glukhovsky, the founder of RethinkDB, recently paid a visit to breathe in the Utah tech and startup scene and while here, he noticed a community rising.

“I visit a lot of cities where I get the chance to engage with the community, get the chance to work with people who are part of our community, see how they interact and the kind of events that they put on,” Glukhovsky said. “I have not had an experience like I had in Utah in a very long time. Everyone was unbelievably enthusiastic and engaged in a very deep, intellectual, technical manner. Everyone was very optimistic and engaged in a way that I don’t often see in communities.”

Based in Mountain View, California, RethinkDB is a database company that builds open-source software helping people build real-time apps. It’s the same experience as Google Docs, but for the app world — everybody typing and collaborating in real-time, building something simultaneously. With over 100+ collaborators and 100,000+ developers across the world using the software in some form, RethinkDB is able to pinpoint areas that boast a high count of users (San Francisco, London, other typical tech hotbeds). When they recognize a large amount of people using their software in a specific area, RethinkDB creates groups where these people can meet up, share ideas, and build together.

The Provo/Salt Lake expanse is one of these areas, which was one of the main reasons for Glukhovsky’s visit. He met with developers, coders, and entrepreneurs to get a taste of what Utah has to offer.

“The meetup groups in Utah, I saw nothing but optimism, wanting to ask the hard questions, getting the answers, and then seeing what they could build with it,” Glukhovsky said. “I was very impressed with the technical prowess, but also the optimism and energy that I saw at the same time.”

For anyone who has traveled the I-15 corridor, that optimism and energy can be seen in the form of a myriad of tech-concentrated billboards, calling out for the services of developers across the state.

“That’s one of the indicators that I see whenever an area is a burgeoning tech hub,” Glukhovsky said. “It’s when companies realize they have this population that will respond to advertising, they can literally put a billboard on the highway and actually have it have impact. That’s one thing that is very alive in the Utah area, I think it means that a lot of people realize this is an area worth investing in.”

So what makes Utah so unique? What enables Utah to stand alone as tech and startup hub, independent from the success of Silicon Valley? The answer isn’t black and white, but the path starts with the startup/art comparison: you must find what makes you unique and embrace it.

“Whenever I hear people talking about building their own Silicon Valley, that always rings alarm bells in my head,” Glukhovsky said. “If someone says they want to be an artist, everyone says go to art school. People go to art school and learn all the things that artists do. But in order to actually become an artist, you have to figure out the one thing that’s yours and throw everything else out the door.”

RethinkDB isn’t alone in recognizing Utah’s value. Many other companies, publications, and CEOs are starting to realize that Utah’s community isn’t some knock-off Van Gogh, a ratty sketch of the Silicon Valley tech and startup scene. It’s unique, independent, and offers distinct value that no other place can.

“Utah is one of the most interesting and engaging communities we have right now,” Glukhovsky said.

Individuality is the most important part of the human experience. It sounds simple, but sometimes this is hard to accept. When parents raise a child, they have countless hopes and dreams for their offspring, Dad wishing for a football player or Mom longing for beautiful grandchildren. When that child reaches his/her formative years and starts embracing independent thought, many of these hopes and dreams lie shattered in their wake — a chosen religion is shunned, a professional path is rerouted, a wished-upon marriage dissolves into nothingness. This process can be incredibly painful (just ask the nearest parent), but it’s necessary for the creation and progression of unique ideas and more importantly, people.

If you think as the startup scene in terms of a parent/child relationship, Silicon Valley is the father that gave rise to everything. He provided for the family, showered them with love and knowledge, and presented the infinite possibilities of startup adulthood in the palm of his hand.

Utah is one of those children and their formative years are nearing an end. In their infancy, as children are known to do, they patterned thoughts and behaviors after Silicon Valley and couldn’t imagine a world where they grew up to be anything besides a similar entity, built from technology and free thought. Time and progress has taught us differently. You don’t grow up to be your parents because life is individuality — you gather life’s experiences like precious gems, unfold your wings, and fly away.

Separating mentally from your parent isn’t from lack of respect or love. If anything, it’s the exact opposite. Showing the ability to think in a unique and individual manner is the inherent gift of life, whether it’s through the lens of a person, startup, or community. Being afraid to assert independence goes against everything people and startups represent — the creation of something new, the creation of you. That’s why Utah tech and startup community is ready to move on.

We aren’t Silicon Valley. We are Utah.

“There can’t be two Silicon Valleys and that’s 100 percent fine,” Glukhovsky said. “It’s great, it’s wonderful, because it means that Utah gets to be all these other amazing things. You have to figure out what makes you unique and special, then embrace that.”

Published 6/10/2015

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