More entrepreneurs are chasing their dreams in Park City — but they must overcome obstacles to do it (w/video)
May 26, 2018
Bassam Salem hit a crossroads one day. He could either continue in his executive position at a job that he felt secure in or throw it to the wayside in order to pursue a new dream.
He chose the latter.
The company that Salem started, Atlas RTX, is unique, but his story is not unheard of. There is more entrepreneurial work occurring in Park City and Summit County than ever before, and many entrepreneurs have comparable backgrounds to that of Salem. They face challenges in Park City as they turn their ideas into a thriving business, such as finding skilled employees or an affordable retail or office space. But they push past barriers to see their dreams become a reality.
Ted McAleer, former executive director of the entrepreneurial nonprofit PandoLabs, said the entrepreneurs striking out on their own in Park City are often highly motivated by a desire to change their life paths.
"They are dissatisfied with their day job and they want to find a way to work hard and play hard in Park City," he said.
Salem, whose company creates artificial intelligence messaging platforms, worked in executive roles in the technology field until 2015, when he set an ultimatum for himself. He would quit his job and do more meaningful work for one year. At the end of the year, he would reassess his career.
He decided that being a consultant to startups was a way that he could give back to the industry, but he quickly realized the challenge of advising individuals about something that he had never done himself.
He launched Atlas RTX as a mini-experiment to see if he could get to revenue quickly. After a successful first year, he decided to commit to building the company. Today, he has about 14 employees.
"They are dissatisfied with their day job and they want to find a way to work hard and play hard in Park City." — Ted McAleer, former executive director of PandoLabs
Salem, McAleer and the majority of those in the entrepreneurial world have seen startup after startup launch in Park City and the surrounding area over the course of the last few years. According to Jeff Jones, the economic development director for Summit County, people in the county who reported that a "significant part of their income or time spent working" comes from self-employment increased from 1,646 individuals to 2,175 between 2012 and 2017. The numbers hovered between 1,600 and 1,800 since 2002 before spiking in recent years. While not all those who consider themselves "self-employed" are entrepreneurs, Jones said the data is a good measure of rising entrepreneurship.
Those who reported being extended proprietors, which means they have miscellaneous labor income that is not from their primary jobs, increased in the county from 10,486 to 12,086 in the same five-year span. Many of these people are also entrepreneurs in some fashion, Jones said.
Many of those taking a shot at entrepreneurship are independent-minded people who came to Park City for another job — whether seasonal or full-time — and do not want to leave the area but cannot or do not want to remain at their jobs, McAleer said. They might start by busing tables at a local restaurant, then launch a business on the side to help pay the bills.
Juliana Duran is the incoming director of PandoLabs, a nonprofit that provides mentors, resources and peer-to-peer programs for entrepreneurs. She said that there have been many people starting entrepreneurial projects or freelance work at PandoLabs. A lot of the people seeking PandoLabs' services, like Salem, are executives from big brands who moved to Park City for the lifestyle then started consulting firms or their own businesses.
Jonathan Weidenhamer, economic development manager for Park City, discusses City Hall’s role in fostering entrepreneurship. (Kira Hoffelmeyer/Park Record)
Laying the groundwork
On the afternoon of May 22, 2013, 34 business and nonprofit owners and other prominent community leaders met at the Treasure Mountain Inn to discuss the entrepreneurial future of Park City and the Snyderville Basin. The meeting was called by Andy Beerman, who owned Treasure Mountain Inn at the time and is now Park City's mayor, and Myles Rademan, a former City Hall staffer and a significant presence in the business community.
"The purpose of the meeting was just to get together and talk about what is working, what isn't and what our community needs are," Beerman said. "What came out of that meeting was an agreement that we needed more diversity in our economy in Park City."
Economic diversification is a phrase that has been tossed around in conversations in Park City for several years. Duran said that when dry, slow winters like the most recent 2017-2018 ski season happen, people are reminded that Park City cannot depend entirely on its skiing to maintain a thriving economy.
Many point to startups launching and growing in the Park City area as a way to steer the mountain town toward diversification.
After the meeting in 2013 about entrepreneurship, business and government leaders took steps to push for increased entrepreneurship in the region.
The investment group Park City Angels formed PandoLabs, and the city and county created a task force on economic development and diversification. There was also talk among the Park City Council about creating a business incubator.
The city also has contributed financially to startups for more than a decade through a grant program. Since 2006, it has provided more than 10 local businesses with grants ranging between $7,000 to $30,000. Some examples of recipients include Ritual Chocolate in 2015 and Mountain Hub, formerly known as Avatech, in 2016.
The grants are meant to help remove barriers that many businesses have when starting, such as the cost of equipment or materials. Jonathan Weidenhamer, economic development manager for Park City, said that the city particularly likes to help young adults who have grown up in Park City and want to start a business in order to stay here.
This year, the recipient of the city's grant was Red Flower Studios, a glass-blowing studio that was co-founded by a Park City High School graduate.
Business and government leaders say that the educational programs that PandoLabs offers and the assistance from the city have contributed to the rise of entrepreneurship. McAleer said there is also a "pay-it-forward" mentality that helps expand the entrepreneurial network. It is common for those who started a company to turn around and help others, thus adding more entrepreneurs to the mix.
Barriers to Entry
Despite the increase of entrepreneurship in Summit County, many startups struggle after their inception. Once they overcome the obstacles of launching, they run into more barriers as they expand.
Park City has unique challenges that all business owners here face, but they can be especially tough for entrepreneurs. Namely, it is difficult to find skilled employees who live in the region as well affordable real estate to house their companies.
"Talent is the toughest resource to find in Utah, by far," Salem said. "It's really, really hard to find talent that is willing to drive up here."
Jonathan Weidenhamer, economic development manager for Park City, on the potential of creating an incubator space for outdoor companies. (Kira Hoffelmeyer/Park Record)
Duran said that one of the major issues is that many of the area's youth move out of state after they graduate from high school and do not return. People moving to Park City, on the other hand, often have so much experience that startups are not able to afford to pay for their salaries.
Labor is something that businesses all over Park City struggle with partly because the state's job market is doing so well. There are enough jobs available in the Wasatch Front that many people do not need to seek work up the mountain. Salem does not anticipate the search for labor to improve any time soon, since the cost of living only continues to increase.
He said that hiring challenges are not only problematic for businesses, but for Park City's community overall.
"We don't want Park City to be the kind of place where you are either really wealthy or you work for the really wealthy," he said. "That is not a community. You need to have a place where there are opportunities for servers and retail."
He has found that Parkites in the "middle layer" often work in Salt Lake City.
Beerman has seen similar problems with the types of jobs that exist in Park City.
"It's a resort economy and we've got more jobs than we can fill, but a lot of those jobs are poor paying and don't have a lot of opportunity for career advancement," he said.
The solution that many business leaders and city officials often contemplate is to support home-grown businesses so they can grow organically and hire local workers.
But businesses starting in the Park City area also face the hurdle of finding office or retail space that is beyond the price range of a typical startup.
Weidenhamer said it is common for businesses to want to open in or move to Park City but be unable to because of the high cost.
"The cost of entry is such a high barrier that most people look at it and they don't want to do it," he said. "It takes a special person to want to be in town."
"Entrepreneurs have the most perseverance of any other person I've met, so they make it happen." Juliana Duran, executive director of PandoLabs
Duran has seen entrepreneurs use co-working space to get around the problem of high real estate costs, another service that PandoLabs offers. People can rent private office spaces or a space on an open desk at the PandoLabs office. But there are some businesses that require more creative solutions.
Emily Burney, founder of Auntie Em's Baked Goods, utilizes the kitchen at Park City Bread and Bagel at night to make the food she sells. Artists sometimes work out of the basement of a home, Duran said.
"Entrepreneurs have the most perseverance of any other person I've met, so they make it happen," she said.
Jonathan Weidenhamer, economic development manager for Park City, discusses how the community’s goals intersect with City Hall’s limited role in diversifying the economy. (Kira Hoffelmeyer/Park Record)
Competing for resources
The city and county have taken steps to provide support for small home-grown companies. But each time entrepreneurship and economic diversification are discussed at the city level, Weidenhamer said that there is always one thing holding them back from taking more action.
"We ended up getting back to the core, which is, 'Do nothing to harm the resort economy,'" he said. "And we never end up drifting too far from that, because when you start to take resources from the things that you are doing, you are competing."
When the city tries to diversify the economy, he said that there is often pushback from community members who want Park City to remain as is.
Beerman agreed that the city is not focused on expanding entrepreneurship because the ski industry is what people want to hold on to.
"It is not necessarily a priority," he said.
Entrepreneur Paul Kirwin said that Park City has nonetheless come a long way in diversifying. He started his first business, Kirwin Productions, in 1985, and he has seen Park City transform from a quiet ski town to an international destination in just a few decades.
Kirwin Productions made clinic videos for the ski industry because embracing skiing was the only way that his business would survive in Park City, Kirwin said. Back then, skiing was all that Park City was.
While skiing is still the largest contributor to Park City's economy, things have changed since the 1980s — though not overnight.
Kirwin decided to start a retail platform called 3point5 in 2004, which today is known as Experticity. He said that he had to travel to Salt Lake City to start the company because the infrastructure in Park City was not available yet.
"We didn't have good high-speed internet and we didn't have the people," he said.
Recently, though, Kirwin launched another company. He was able to start this one, a product review analytics program called Channel Signal, in Park City. And he's committed to keeping it here.
"I can find the people here, I have the infrastructure here and I can build this here," he said. "There is great young people moving into this space and, as we grow, they are technology savvy."
His employees come from both the Salt Lake Valley and Summit County. He has less than 10 people on his staff, but he hopes to expand. Still, he said that Park City can only typically handle businesses that have up to 100 employees. For companies larger than that to thrive, he said there needs to be further improvements to the infrastructure, such as buildings that could hold that many people.
Jonathan Weidenhamer, economic development manager for Park City, discusses what type of companies City Hall seeks to aid with its grant program. (Kira Hoffelmeyer/Park Record)
But, after living here since the late 1970s, he does not want to see Park City change too much either, particularly in its lifestyle. When businesses start in Park City and grow here, he said that the work/play balance that Park City has achieved is able to stay.
He hopes to see economic growth, but wants to see it managed in a way that does not have too much of an impact on open space or the quality of life in Park City.
"(We need to) understand that you have an ecosystem here that can only support so much," Kirwin said.
"Can we economically grow and attract businesses and continue to be a hybrid of lifestyle and business? You bet."
There are changes set for the future that could continue to help grow entrepreneurship in the Park City
area. For example, the city is planning to create an arts and culture district in Bonanza Park, a development that would be used by artists, small businesses and nonprofits. Weidenhamer said that there has also been talk in the city for years of creating a shared building for outdoor businesses located in Park City, such as the trade association Snowsports Industries America and the outdoor sports gear company POC.
Salem said that the Park City Tech Center in Kimball Junction also has potential as a space businesses can go to expand. As someone who was able to chase his own dreams, he is hopeful that entrepreneurs will continue to push through roadblocks, seek new projects and remain in Park City. He admits that starting a business has been the hardest thing he has ever done in his professional career, but it has also paid off.
"I have never done anything in my life as fulfilling as this," he said.
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