Sundance business and technology conference encourages failure
Ryan Summerlin January 24, 2014
While the Sundance Film Festival is a place for filmmakers to congregate and display their work, it is also a place for business people to meet and network. Zions Bank helped celebrate that connection with the "Free Fail" conference held at The Shop on Monday, Jan. 20.
Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert was a co-host of the event and said he is happy to be able to give businessmen and women a chance to get together and talk about business opportunities.
"We see a lot of actors, actresses, producers, directors and filmmakers who come here to learn, be seen, network and see if there is an opportunity for them," he said. "So I hope that people understand and appreciate what a great state Utah is on so many different levels, including great people and also great business opportunities."
The CEO of Zions Bank, Scott Anderson, welcomed entrepreneurs and businesses to participate in a panel discussion with three different business-owners whose failures have led to success.
"We shouldn’t be afraid of failure. So today we are going to use that theme and give it a business perspective, that we can learn a lot from failing," he said. "Out of [failure], we can create a better company or a better idea and have great success."
The panel was moderated by actor Kevin Rahm ("Desperate Housewives," "Mad Men"), and the three panelists were Dr. John Warnock, founder of Adobe, Priyanka Bakaya, co-founder of PK Clean, and Amy Rees Anderson, founder of Rees Capital.
"I stand before you a product of 20 years of failure. There is no better person to ask to talk about failure than an actor," Rahm said, among laughs.
He asked all three panelists about failures early on in their careers which led to success. "The biggest opportunities often come from failure when you’re an entrepreneur," said Bakaya.
Warnock recounted the days before he and his business partner started Adobe. He said they were working on a standard for computer printing with professionals at Xerox. They worked on it for two-and-a-half years, but when they took it to the corporation, it decided it was good work but would not be published.
"That was probably the worst decision that the corporation ever made," Warnock said. "We decided at that time that Xerox was never going to be successful, so we left to form Adobe."
He said the computer software company started with about $2 million in venture capital, and they never had an unprofitable year. In fact, he said the very first year "out of the gate," they were profitable. He retired as CEO in 2000, but is now chairman of the board for Adobe.
Bakaya’s PK Clean aims to transform waste into energy. For example, its commercial facility in Salt Lake City has the capacity to convert 20,000 pounds of plastic into 2,500 gallons of oil per day. Bakaya said she and her co-founder decided to start their first pilot plant in India.
They figured it would be cheaper, easier to operate in a more cost-effective manner and Bakaya was looking forward to giving back to the country her parents were from. Once the pilot plant was built, they faced challenges she said they would never have encountered in the United States.
"Simple things like ordering machinery was a headache, because it was supposed to be stainless steel and it wouldn’t be stainless steel," Bakaya said. "We had to make a decision. ‘Do we try to fix this?’ or ‘Okay, let’s cut our losses and start from scratch.’"
Bakaya’s co-founder grew up in Utah, so they decided to uproot the India plant and relocate in Salt Lake City. She said they networked, began working with the University of Utah and met with Rocky Mountain Recycling. She credits success in Utah to the failure in India that caused them to relocate.
Rees’ first company, before Rees Capital, faced failure very early on. It was a re-sale company that was focusing on a software product. The company they were re-selling for was not putting enough focus on the product, and she proposed the company grant her company money to develop it themselves. It took about a year to negotiate a contract, and when they finally flew into San Francisco for a meeting, the FBI had just raided the company’s offices. The people she had negotiated a contract with were all being indicted.
Rees had hired on about 30 software developers for the project and found herself unable to pay when their client folded. Rather than giving up, she said they decided to raise the money for the project somewhere else.
"That is what led me to raise my first share in venture capital, which led us to the process of dropping that re-sale company and developing our own product. That is how we got our start," she said. "That failure gave me the courage to try something new."
The panelists, while successful now, all began with failure. Anderson said focusing on failure and the lack of fear of it made sense in Sundance’s 30th anniversary. "Out of failure comes great success," he said.