The New York Times recently characterized Utah as “the next Silicon Valley,” noting the state’s unique position as an emerging business hub.
The city of Provo, specifically, has received national attention. For the past four years, it has ranked in the top five of Forbes’ list of “Best Places for Business.” It has also earned top spots in rankings for work-life balance, economic development and entrepreneurship and innovation. Out of 73 private venture-funded companies worldwide valued at more than $2 billion, two are located in Provo. And more than one Provo-grown business has been featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
Provo is one of only a few U.S. cities to have one in-demand business — Google Fiber. Devin Baer, the head of fiber business for Provo, acknowledged the city’s noteworthy attention. “Provo is an amazing place to do business, and what’s interesting to me is that the people that live and work in Provo feel that, and folks in the national scene also see that,” Baer said. “Provo is consistently making those lists. If you live outside of Provo or Utah, you may not know why.”
So what makes Provo such a good place to do business? Provo government and businesses recently discussed what makes up the city’s success, what Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce President Rona Rahlf calls the city’s “secret sauce.”
Provo’s leadership is locally recognized as being a helpful aid to Provo companies. “We’re not only not in the way, we’re actually facilitating and trying to help these businesses be successful,” Provo Mayor John Curtis said.
The mayor frequently spotlights businesses on his blog to garner interest and publicity. The city works to help businesses based on their unique needs by establishing a culture of connecting for new startups and offering streamlined processes for larger companies.
Baer, who worked closely with Curtis and other town governmental leaders in bringing Google Fiber to Provo, said the town has “uniquely amazing city leadership.”
A cult following
Kevin Auernig thought he had no place being in the soda business. His wife and a co-worker had been well known among friends for mixing and flavoring drinks, a hobby they decided to turn into a full-fledged soda business. “None of us knew the success that would come from it. We had no clue,” he said. “We thought we’d have, like, one person in there making drinks. It’s a glorified lemonade stand.”
Despite initial doubts from the shop’s founders, the store known around town as Sodalicious came to fruition. It quickly became a local hit. The key, Auernig said, was the loyal Provo community. “We really tried to tie ourselves into the city,” he said. “I think that’s where a huge part of our success came from in this community that’s just totally embraced Sodalicious as this Provo creation.”
The local word-to-mouth patterns unique to college towns like Provo create a cult loyalty that allows for a business’s popularity to spread rapidly.
Business leaders agree Provo is especially apt for this kind of citizen-fueled marketing. “Provo seems uniquely receptive to virality,” Baer said. “When a local business offers a great product, it’s possible to become a local icon. If you do something well, Provo-ans will get behind you.”
Encompassing the reach of two universities, Provo serves as an incubator for creative talent and educated workforce that thrives on the innovative landscape, Rahlf said. “Business culture in Utah County is fascinating, because it’s a very entrepreneurial-based market where kids grow up wanting to be entrepreneurs instead of doctors and lawyers,” she said. “It’s in their blood. They’re always looking to find that opportunity that they can create a business and make a big difference in the world.”
What the New York Times would attribute to “a certain cultural knack for salesmanship and entrepreneurship among Mormons,” Rahlf would accredit to the pioneer heritage of the Latter-day Saint culture.
Curtis called it a common thread recipe of creativity, hard work, entrepreneurialism and innovation among the city’s labor force that make Provo’s businesses thrive. “All (these things) come together in a perfect storm to help these businesses be extremely successful,” Curtis said.
Greg Arlint, owner of the recently opened Apple Creek Amish Market, considers his local employees to be an asset to his business. “One real benefit to Utah … is the workforce,” Arlint said. “We’ve got great employees. I’m able to rely on them a great deal. (They’re) just good, hard working, honest people, and that just makes a huge difference.”
Another key ingredient to Provo’s notable reputation as a nucleus for prospering business is an extensive network designed to help businesses collaborate. “There is quite a vibrant network through the city of sharing and collaborating,” Curtis said.
Take, for example, Provo Startup Dojo, an organization that allows tech companies 24/7 access to working space to develop their businesses; or 1 Million Cups, the weekly event that hosts presentations by new startups in an attempt to refine their businesses and offer instructive feedback.
Auernig said it’s no wonder that Provo has been nationally recognized as one of the best places for business. “There’s a reason for that,” he said. “It’s because there are amazing people in Provo that are willing to support each other and work together. That has been so cool to be a part of.”
The mayor admits that Provo is better recognized for its success outside of Utah than inside it. “The national recognition validates what we know about ourselves,” he said.
This is one of the city’s challenges, Baer said. In addition to keeping the successful businesses in Provo, false perceptions outside of Utah present perhaps the most formidable foe to further business prosperity for Provo.
“It seems to me that the national scene knows how great Provo is, and it seems that Provo knows how great Provo is, but other Utah cities sometimes do not see it as clearly,” Baer said. “As a local business leader, I think that people should come to Provo and experience it, and they’ll see that this is the place to start a company.”
Provo government and businesses are striving to bring more businesses to the city, drawing upon the advantages offered by the city. “As people think about where they’d like their business to be, (they should) take into account all that Provo has to offer,” Curtis said. “We really offer a unique culture that can’t be duplicated.”