SALT LAKE CITY — He innovated a product category that did not exist 16 years ago and quietly built one of Utah's most valuable companies, opening offices around the world and amassing a corporate client list that numbers near 9,000 and includes most of the Fortune 100 and 99 of the top 100 business schools.
He also launched an effort to find a cure for cancer — a disease his father successfully battled — setting a goal of raising $50 million and using a unique opportunity to sponsor a Jazz jersey patch to support that effort, instead of plugging his own company.
And he's helping lead the fight in building diversity in Utah's tech industry, an issue he says could, if ignored, undermine the state's most powerful economic engine.
But when Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith took the stage Friday ahead of receiving Mountain West Capital Network's Entrepreneur of the Year Award, he spent his time on the mic giving credit to others and celebrating an effort, he said, that has been about a bunch of people "grinding" toward a common goal.
"This company's success is a reflection … of an entire group of people," Smith said. "(This award) is not for me, it's for the entire Qualtrics family."
While Smith, whose Provo-based company innovated the "experience management" platform, using simple surveys backed up by high-caliber analytics to provide insights to clients about their customers and employees, is loathe to take sole credit for Qualtrics soaring success, some of those closest to him highlighted why he's the leader of a company with a net worth north of $2.5 billion and earnings that exceeded $250 million last year.
Smith's brother, Jared Smith, helped co-found Qualtrics but left shortly after to work for search giant Google. He would eventually come back to the company, but he noted things had changed in the intervening six years.
"I left and all the hard, entrepreneurial work was done by Ryan," Smith said. "He drove the company to achieve more than anyone thought was possible … and he did it all from here in Utah. He disrupted entire industries and outperformed some of the best and brightest in Silicon Valley."
That disruption earned the attention of Silicon Valley venture capitalists with deep pockets and an eye to put their money behind the next big thing in tech. But Smith and his team stayed out of that game for their first decade of business, choosing instead to "bootstrap", or self-finance, their operation for as long as possible. When the company eventually opted to open the doors to outside financing, the biggest names in the business were ready to get on board. Representatives from two of the top Bay area investment companies who eventually struck deals with Qualtrics — Sequoia Capital and Accel Partners — were on hand to celebrate Smith's award Friday.
Sequoia partner Brian Schreier said Smith had joined a small and select group of entrepreneurs by creating an entirely new product category, an accomplishment with impacts that have spread further and wider than just its investors, employees and customers.
"The true opportunity of category creators is that they lift entire communities, entire regions, states together with those businesses they create," Schreier said. "That is clearly the case with Qualtrics."
Schreier said, after years of working with Smith and his team, the Qualtrics CEO had shown his grit in how he's managed both the ups, and downs, of the company.
"The sign of a great leader is someone who encourages their team and motivates them to greatness in times of triumph, but who takes care of his team like they're family in times of struggle," Schreier said.
Smith's wife, Ashley Smith, noted her husband's love of sports and particularly for the teams of his alma mater, BYU. Any visitor to Qualtrics' Provo headquarters is greeted with the hoop-and-hardwood of a half-court basketball set up in the company's lobby. Ashley said her husband's embedded sense of fairness, and never-say-die attitude, is the engine that drives his success, both as an entrepreneur and a father.
"Ryan’s scrappiness is, hands-down, one of his most incredible qualities," Ashley Smith said. "I used to think he lived under an umbrella of good luck but now I know it's because he’s so scrappy.
"And, he has a very innate sense of what a right choice is and I’m so glad our kids are being taught that."
As for Smith, he noted to the several hundred in attendance for the awards event that he has no intention of walking away from the company he helped found, anytime soon or anytime, for that matter.
"We’ve been super fortunate that something we were working on, and people didn’t believe in, would be at the forefront of technology 16 years later," Smith said. "This is my last job. I’m not going to invest, I don’t want to be a venture capitalist and there is no reason to think this can’t go on for the next 20 or 30 years."