Three States, Three Economies & One Person Inspired

I just spent the last six days on the road for work. I do not like business travel. Anything that takes me away from my family is not my first choice. Having said that, I get to do work that I truly love and enjoy so it makes it easer to crank thru the weekend and into the work week from the road. This trip caused me to learn and think a lot about what is going on in business, entrepreneurship, technology and the economy of America.

I’m inspired.

I started the trip in a small town in Southern Utah called Cedar City. Cedar City is a beautiful place. Many of you know it due to the proximity (about an hour away) to world famous Zions National Park and other great natural beauties that this part of the state has to offer. They are also the home of the Shakespearean Festival, a world class Summer celebration of plays, music and art. People come here from around the world to experience all of the above. It is a great rural community.

When I spoke to the group in Cedar City thru my connections to USTAR, I did not know what to expect. Maybe 20 people and very few questions was my guess. Boy was I wrong. I don’t know how many people were there but the room was full. More importantly, the room was full of people that work hard, want to learn more, ask smart questions and are generally trying the best that they can to get ahead. They want to do whatever they can to embrace technology and help Cedar City, themselves, their neighbors, students and businesses thrive. I could feel it and I was impressed.

Takeaway? People in rural communities “want it” just like they do in big cities. They are willing to put the hours in, take the risks, push themselves to learn and try new things, innovate and create opportunity at the highest available level. Just because they aren’t always working on technologies that will change the world doesn’t mean they aren’t any less important. They deserve to be highlighted, shared, supported and cheered for what is arguably harder to do because of their location. This is true for many rural areas across America. I urge you, if you have some sort of shareable talent, to get out to some area near you that is perhaps a bit underserved and do what you can to help. They want to work. They want to learn. They want to be ahead of the curve. As I mentioned in a previous post – make the time. How?

1 – Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Don’t go to a rural community to prospect for customers.

2 – Find somewhere near you so you can do it again. This isn’t a one and done kind of thing.

3 – Spend quality time thinking about and preparing what it is you want to share with them.

4 – Make the time to be accessible and available if they’d like to ask of you again.

BOOM! If this happened across the USA, do you think it might help a bit?

From Cedar City, I went to my first Startup Weekend event in Las Vegas. We are doing one in Utah in February (details soon). Local Utah based technology giants Andy White and Porter Haney made the treck down there, too. If you live in Utah – find these guys. Total studs. Anyway, I wanted to experience it on some level and since I was nearby I decided to check it out. While I wasn’t able to be on a team or participate at the level I plan to in Salt Lake City, I was able to observe at a much deeper level what is happening in this growing new technology community.

Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame has made an enormous commitment to Las Vegas. It’s important to note this is the “old” part of Las Vegas. It’s the home of the original casinos and the old city hall. Groups that work with Tony bought the old city hall, actually. All told, I believe he and his partners have committed some $300m into this area. They have options on enormous amounts of land. Why? Because they are going to build VegasTech (as they call it) into a community of people that live, work, share and create together. Much like the culture they have created at Zappos (which I saw on a previous trip – and WOW – it is worth the time to get a tour), Hsieh and his team are spending significant time and money to develop a technology community in Vegas.

And holy crap is it working.

I’ve been to Las Vegas twice recently. As I noted on Twitter, historically Las Vegas hasn’t had a whole lot to interest a married, old, Mormon, Father of two like myself. Those days are gone. Why? Because I think this is going to be one of the hottest areas for new technology development in the world. Here’s why:

1 – They have real money and real leaders ALL IN (I think they need to adopt that phrase for Vegas Tech by the way). Not only is it Tony, it is fantastically talented and giving people like Jimmy Jacobson (someone I’m proud to call a new friend), Rick Duggan (total stud at Zappos and beyond) and Shavonnah Tiera (wonderfully infectious and so giving of her time/talent). These three people have me and others feel totally welcome there. I can see why people want to live and work around them. It’s infectious. Oh, and they are smart as hell, too (that helps). I’d encourage you to follow them on Twitter – even better, get to know them there and then go out to see them. It’s worth your time.

2 – They are getting the right kind of people to be there. How? They are both handpicking them and controlling the entrance of the community they enter. That takes a total commitment of time and capital and they have both. The quality of the startups I saw, the infrastructure they are building (from a bandwidth and technical standpoint) and the all-in mentality is becoming attractive to people from all over the US. I met companies from Ycombinator, 500 Startups, TechStars, Harvard, Yale – you name it. They left from all parts of the country to be there in Vegas. It’s the Wild West all over again.

3 – Tony & Company will not let it become “typical” Vegas. No strip clubs. No new crap. It’s going to be clean, fresh, full of community and it’ll be a great place to live in work. In fact, one of the most impressive things to me is the fact that Tony Hsieh – perhaps a billionaire (or at least hundreds of millions) – lives in the same building that all kinds of other people will. Apartments will be $1k-3k a month in his building. How many billionaires can you say that about? He is all in (tm – Alex Lawrence).

So what’s going to happen down there? I think in 5-10 years you’ll see A LOT of big technology companies coming out of North Las Vegas. They will sell – and they’ll stay there and do it again = community. It’ll be a whole new industry for Vegas and one they desperately need as their real estate economy crumbles. They can bring it back and I’m super excited to work with them from Utah. I hope we can help both states continue to innovate, grow and support technology across the spectrum.

From Vegas I went to New York City for meetings with friends of Weber State University. I also setup some time to meet with and look into some businesses and places that I’m trying to learn more about for application back in Utah. Specifically, I scheduled some time at GeneralAssembly. Since my primary reason for being in New York was to do work related to Weber State, I did not get as much time at GA as I’d have liked. But thanks to Lauren Leto – a very impressive entrepreneur from NYC that I met at the Las Vegas SUW, I was able to get in and spend a few minutes with Matt Brimer.

This dude made me feel inadequate as an entrepreneur – quickly. And not because he is arrogant, overbearing or the like. Quite the opposite. What a stud. Totally friendly and open. But man, he thinks big. Really big. I’m not the only one that thinks so. Matt and his partners are backed by Howard Shultz, Jeff Bezos, Yuri Milner and others. The dream team for education backed startups, really. Why?

1 – They are focusing on education as their primary differentiator. There are a ton of incubators and startup programs. Many of them are doing really well. I’ve been to some of them and I’ve always been pretty impressed. I’m working on some stuff for Utah in this area, so I’m always looking for something that really connects with me. This was it. They have a robust offering, from practitioners that are subject matter experts, of classes every night of the week on the latest subjects. Want to learn about node, ruby, UX or API’s? They have classes all the time, from practicing experts.

2 – It’s co-working in that companies are formed and start there but it is so much more. They all pay to be there. It’s affordable but they pay. In return they get access to classes at a discount, and can pick and choose what they want to learn about. The stuff they learn about is cutting edge, totally applicable to what they are trying to build, and can be put into play right away. What a great delivery mechanism for education.

3 – This may seem trivial to some – but they don’t have cubicles anywhere. It’s all open. It is divided up by walls in some areas for classrooms and dedicated startups, but the overall layout is open and shared. This includes a communal kitchen, work areas, meeting areas and the like. It feels like a community.

I need to process and read more about what is going on at GA. I’ll be back to visit again for a longer period of time. I can say this for sure though; I love this model of sparking startup activity in a community. In fact, I think it sparks companies that are already established as well. Matt told me that a lot of big companies are asking to send hundreds of their executives to take some of their classes. Big companies want to (and should) learn from these entrepreneurs and startups. Awesome!

So I’m on the plane back to Utah. I’ve never felt like there is more opportunity there. I’m going to spend a ton of time processing this. Hopefully you’ll see some things come of it. If not, I suck because the people in Cedar City, Las Vegas and at GeneralAssembly sure are doing it. In a big, awesome way.

Thanks to all of you for inspiring me.

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About Alex Lawrence

Alex has been a successful entrepreneur for 20+ years. His current venture Lendio ranks #34 on the Inc. 500 list. Alex earned a BS degree at the University of Utah and his MBA at Weber State University, where he is Vice Provost and Director of the Entrepreneurship Program. If you want to talk with Alex about business and entrepreneurship (or other questions), email him (alex AT startupflavor DOT com), or you can find him on Twitter @_AlexLawrence.
  • Love the post, Alex. Good to see how entrepreneurship is growing from rural areas, to downtrodden Vegas and in the Big Apple. Perhaps you could talk about this on one of our podcasts?

    • alex_lawrence

      Thanks for taking the time to comment here, Dan.  I’d love to be on the podcast and will talk about whatever you’d like.  Let’s get it on the calendar, shall we?

  • Great post, thanks! As someone who runs a small business, is a tech nut and lives in rural Southern Utah, it really connected!

  • Crystalee Beck

    My comment on your other post was thoroughly answered here – thanks! Glad you were inspired. Thanks for sharing.

  • Pingback: Startup Weekend – Salt Lake City, Utah | Alex Lawrence()

  • Jhaynam

    Want more inspiration? http://www.entrepreneur-stories.com

    (sorry to be blunt, and plug my site lol)

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