Silicon Slopes Summit reveals uncanny parallels of Netflix and Qualtrics founders
Opening day of tech summit features big name speakers, insider takes on tech innovation, pro sports and how to catch ‘lightning in a bottle’
As it turns out, Qualtrics founder and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith has an awful lot in common with Netflix’s founder and newly minted owner of Powder Mountain ski resort, Reed Hastings.
It all came to light in a candid on-stage conversation on the opening day of the tech-focused Silicon Slopes Summit Wednesday at the Delta Center.
For starters, both launched disruptive tech innovation companies that would go on to fundamentally upended their business categories. Smith’s Qualtrics created the new business category of customer experience via innovation that leveraged a simple survey interface with deep analytics systems to remake how businesses evaluate their successes and performance. And Hastings’ Netflix segued from a mail order DVD rental startup to become a streaming behemoth that fundamentally changed how viewers consume film and television content.
Both companies had similar startup dates, Netflix in 1997 and Qualtrics in 2002, and both founders now find themselves fully involved in ventures, funded by their first-act accomplishments, well removed from their high-tech roots. Smith is currently in the midst of building a multifaceted professional sports empire and Hasting is now embarking on a reimagining, and rebuilding, of a sprawling northern Utah ski area.
Smith celebrated Hastings’ new acquisition and predicted the changes he will bring will be a boon to the Utah outdoor recreation scene.
“What I’m most excited about is that Reed bought the mountain,” Smith said. “That’s pretty cool. Everything Reed’s done is about creating new experiences. He’s an innovator and he’s not going to just sit back.
“And we as a community are all going to benefit from that.”
Hastings noted those changes will take time, but said he’s ready to plow new investment into the resort after the previous ownership group stalled out on upgrades due to a lack of capital. He also sees the future of the resort as bigger than just a great ski destination and hinted that future improvements will build on the area’s natural beauty and lead to a “premium place in the world for being and doing.”
“It will be a place to bring people together,” Hastings said. “We’re going to make Powder feel interesting and different.”
Wednesday also marked another pseudo-convergence in the respective entrepreneurial paths of Smith and Hastings.
Their conversation took place just hours after Smith’s management team announced a new streaming service, Jazz+, that will provide direct-to-consumer broadcasts of Utah Jazz games. And that news comes just one day before Netflix officially ends the DVD-by-mail portion of its business and officially becomes a streaming-only service.
University of Utah’s tech roots
University of Utah President Taylor Randall joined Dr. Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Health and dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine, both of whom head operations with long and vibrant innovation histories, to open the event Wednesday by touching on some of their past, and current, technological bonafides.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that there would be no such term as Silicon Slopes if it weren’t for the very early work and tech expertise that came out of the University of Utah. Randall noted U. grads Ed Catmull, the computer graphics pioneer that would go on to help found Pixar, and John Warnock, the recently passed computer scientist who co-founded Adobe, as well as the U.’s distinction as one of only four nodes in the launch of Arpanet, the precursor to today’s internet.
And, U. Health has plenty of its own bragging rights, as Good noted, including launching the first health care IT department in the country and being the first medical institution to perform an artificial heart transplant, back in 1982.
Sports and tech
Professional sports were a recurring theme throughout the summit’s opening day, a venue appropriate vibe that touched on how big a role tech innovation has played, and is playing, in the delivery of sports-related content.
ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro spoke with Larry H. Miller Company CEO Steve Starks about how pandemic conditions wrought major changes at the sports-centric media company.
That included an anecdote about how a decision to allow an ESPN announcer to call a college game from his basement while still recovering from COVID-19 eventually led to the uber-popular Monday Night Football sideshow that features brothers and former NFL quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning. The “Monday Night Football with Eli and Peyton” has become a juggernaut, holding 19 of the 20 spots in ESPN’s top-20 most-watched alternate telecasts, and features the brothers Manning commenting on the game from their home-based studios, Peyton in Denver and Eli in New Jersey.
“We caught lightning in a bottle on that,” Pitaro said. “I can’t say that program would even exist without COVID.”
Rounding out Wednesday’s slate of speakers was self-help guru, business consultant and all-around ubermensch Tony Robbins. Robbins got Wednesday’s Silicon Slopes Summit crowd pumped up with his high-octane guidance on how to recognize our collective worst habits and shared strategies to elevate daily functions and take life by the horns.