For Skullcandy CEO Hoby Darling, others in tech, Park City is where it’s at
As Hoby Darling, CEO of Skullcandy, took his seat at the inaugural Thin Air Innovation Festival earlier this month to lead a panel exploring how technology can improve human performance, he looked around and one overriding thought struck him: Park City is the perfect place, at just the right time, for a festival celebrating the spirit of invention.
Darling, who left Nike in 2013 to join Skullcandy, sees Park City as a burgeoning tech center. Northern Utah, in general, is becoming known as a technology hub as startup companies in Provo have become major players, and the University of Utah has supplied businesses with a stable crop of tech engineers. But, Darling says, Park City is different than Provo and Salt Lake City in one crucial way: Companies here are using the town itself, and the lifestyle it offers, to draw qualified employees.
"The people who have come here have said, ‘We realize that the talent that we get will define the future of the company and the products we can make.’ So instead of being in a place that’s less desirable, they want to come here, one of the most desirable places in the world. I think you’re seeing that over and over."
That approach, Darling said, can change the game for companies hoping to punch above their fighting weight. And it has for Skullcandy, headquartered in Kimball Junction and known for its trendy headphones and other audio equipment. Because of the lifestyle Park City offers, companies here can hire employees they’d otherwise have little chance of landing.
And in the tech world, snagging the right people is everything.
"They go, ‘Gosh, instead of being in New York and working for this company, where you get to be the project leader of a $20 billion company but you’ve got to be in the rat race, I’m just going to live in Park City,’" he said. "We have no business getting that person, but they want to be in Park City."
But as much as Park City’s way of life can be a boon for companies, it’s not without tradeoffs. Having a finger on the pulse of the culture and the zeitgeist is vital, and tech companies nestled in Park City, including Skullcandy, can find that challenging (though the annual Sundance Film Festival and the nearby airport in Salt Lake make it easier to manage).
"You have to make sure you’re connecting to the trend areas of the world, the L.A.s, the New Yorks, the Londons," Darling said. "It’s amazing to be in Park City — or Salt Lake or Provo, for that matter — but you’re in a little bit of an area where you’re not right on trend every single day. You’ve got to go, ‘Hey, that’s something we don’t have, so how are we going to work around that?’"
Darling believes Park City’s tech scene will continue to grow, and he sees it as a place where innovation is possible. That was especially clear earlier this month, when people behind some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world converged for the Thin Air festival. Though many of the companies included in the event aren’t based in Park City, he is hopeful the festival eventually makes the town synonymous on a national scale with an attitude of ingenuity.
"I think that was really cool for Park City," he said.
For Darling’s part, he is pushing Skullcandy to lead the charge. The company is working on how to make virtual reality more immersive through audio, and is also exploring how it can use music to help people perform better — whether athletically or creatively — at its human potential lab. The lab, which Olympic skier Emily Cook is heading up, represents the company’s most stark attempt to fulfill its motto of "inspiring life at full volume," Darling said.
"We wanted to be the first people to study that and go, ‘What’s going on in your brain when you’re listening to music? Why is it that you perform better with certain music, while other music makes you not do quite as well? How do you get in that zone and what’s going on in there?’" he said. "That was really the mission of the lab."
But, even with an eye cast on innovation, it can be difficult these days to stay ahead of a diverse array of competitors, all fighting to come up with the next big idea. All tech companies, whether based in New York, Silicon Valley or Park City, must fight to stay relevant. Even as it sets its ambitions high, Skullcandy is no exception.
"It’s not the big company you worry about coming along and taking your place — it’s the Kickstarter project," he said. "We talk a lot about how you make sure you’re coming up with those new ideas, versus them coming up on Kickstarter. We try to push that boundary. I wouldn’t ever say it’s easy. You’re always looking over your shoulder, and if you’re not looking over your shoulder, you’re probably stupid."
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