#StartupsEverywhere: Lehi, Utah

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Emily Smith, General Manager, Kiln

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

Creating Opportunities for Startups Across Utah

Utah, known for its picturesque natural beauty and the Great Salt Lake, is also becoming known as a thriving hub of startup activity and innovation. Kiln, a coworking space with two locations in the state--one in Lehi and a second in Salt Lake City--is one of the companies fueling Utah’s ongoing tech goldrush by providing startups with a modern and sleek community-focused environment in which to grow. Emily Smith, Kiln’s general manager, takes us inside the company’s work and explains how the Salt Lake City region has evolved into a leading tech destination for startups.

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Tell us about Kiln. How does the company help local startups thrive?

Kiln is a coworking space based here in Utah, and we’re home to over 200 startups.

We launched last spring and were in beta for about six months before moving into our final locations in Salt Lake City & Lehi last October and November. They’re modern, shared workspaces intentionally designed for small, growing startups. We have floating desks, resident desks, and private offices of 2 to 32 desks. We’re a coworking space meant for every stage of being a startup, equipped to accommodate their growth with fewer growing pains.

Kiln’s Creative Director, Leigh Radford, designed everything within the space, from the desks to the shelves to the interchangeable modular pods that the offices are made of, to the kitchens and phone booths. We have a barber on-site, cafe on-site, nap rooms, yoga room, parenting room, walking desks, and bike desks. It feels very different than any other place because it’s not like anything else--it’s all designed and made specifically for Kiln, specifically for startups.

Why are startups drawn to Lehi?

Lehi is quickly becoming a tech hub in Utah. One of the main reasons people are coming to Lehi is it’s cost of living. The millennial generation in particular is adding to the new housing demand here in Lehi.

Lehi is also this perfect centerpoint between Salt Lake City, which is our biggest city in Utah, and Provo (60 minutes south of Salt Lake) which is another big tech hub in Utah. If you want to pull talent from Provo, home to Brigham Young University, and Salt Lake City, home to the University of Utah, you’re perfectly situated. And if you’re pulling talent from outside of Utah, they will usually want to move to Salt Lake City, so Lehi is this perfect midpoint for your startup.

What is Kiln's role in Utah’s startup community?

We want to be the center of gravity for the tech ecosystem here in Utah. We have wonderful organizations that we partner with, like Silicon Slopes, which has a headquarters office here and hosts a lot of events, including a really large tech summit that has been such a positive force. We’re a great compliment to their work, and we can be a physical home base for the startups working with them. We also host a lot of their events, and they also host a lot of ours. Silicon Slopes focuses on full-time events and community creation, and then we provide a physical location and community for all of that.

We also recently launched an event called Five Minute Demo Day, where one of our startups gives a five minute demo about their company. We’re constantly hosting events like Waffle Wednesday and Après Work, which is kind of like of like après-ski but we’re not a ski lodge. We also host Startup Stories where we have local startups CEOs that are a couple of stages ahead of most of the companies here come in and share stories about the early days of their companies. So we’re constantly doing high-value networking opportunities and culture activities so startup founders  don’t have to worry as much about not having done enough team activities.

What makes Utah’s startup ecosystem unique?  

Utah has become a tech center because of the sheer number of wonderful universities that we’ve got around here. We have the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah Valley University in Orem, and then we’ve also got Utah State a bit north of Salt Lake and Weber State a little north of that in Ogden. So that’s a lot of university students within 60 minutes of both of these locations, and there’s this undeniable tech talent coming out of all of those places.

A lot of recent tech activity has also really put us on the map, including several large IPOs. Qualtrics was acquired by SAP for $8 billion. Adobe recently began construction on a new building next to its current site in Lehi, and Amazon and Facebook are expanding out their presence in the state. And then there are larger companies like Podium and Ancestry.com that have grown up here.  

I think before people thought that once you grew big enough you had to move to Silicon Valley, and that’s just not true. The seeds are there for this to become a really solid startup ecosystem over the next decade. It’s affordable, it’s filled with talent, and people don’t mind moving here.

Are there any policies at the federal, state, or local level that have helped Utah’s startups?

Federally, decreasing tax heaviness on small businesses is important. Lately, that’s been less of a problem for Utah companies. Utah is a very red state that generally strives for business-friendly policies on the state level.

Our governor, Gary Herbert, signed a tuition forgiveness program into law that’s designed to keep recent graduates in tech jobs in Utah. The program would forgive college debt if students stay in Utah’s tech industry for at least the first three years after they graduate. We want them to stay because we’re growing and we’re fostering all of this tech talent.

We also have great lawmakers who understand business. One of our congressional representatives, John Curtis, was a business owner for 20 years and was the mayor of Provo. And Mitt Romney is a fantastic advocate for business in Utah. He has a lot of ties to a lot of people here who have been with him since the Bain Capital days, and have since come back to Utah. So there’s just these great business representatives who only push business-friendly policies that would benefit small businesses.

Do you have any wishlist items for Utah’s startup ecosystem?

Continuing to focus on tax burdens for startups here is important. The small business tax, even when you’re a small business and you don’t make any profit at all, doesn’t go down. There’s a cap for small business tax that doesn’t decrease even if you’re at a point where you’re very small. So focusing on that is important. I think most of the companies here are on somewhat of the same page.

Hiring and expanding our tech workforce is a priority. If you drive down the main freeway from Salt Lake to Provo, their are whole stretches where it’s just billboards with jobs that are hiring. I was counting them the other day, and it’s largely startups that are beginning to hit their growth stage and are advertising for all the jobs they’re looking for. So you can drive down the freeway and see what kind of shape our economy is in right now. Half of the billboards are about homes being built and new neighborhoods, and half of the billboards are about jobs that are open and available.

What is Kiln’s goal for the next year? The next five years?

We hope to target other markets that remind us of Utah’s current situation. We love the secondary markets of the world. I see us targeting maybe not the obvious centers of tech, but the secondary centers of tech that need a hub like Kiln, but don’t necessarily have it yet.

I also hope the company’s inside Kiln are churning so well that in five years none of them are still here. I hope all of the current startups are in buildings with their names on them around us. I hope in five years there’s a completely different set of companies here and that I’ll walk around and I won’t recognize anybody.

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email edward@engine.is.