lessons from Silicon Valley
n the blizzard of Colorado tech companies that came out for an exhaustive series of entrepreneurial celebrations these past two weeks, it’s hard to find a starting point to tell their stories.
Between the Colorado Technology Association’s APEX Conference and Denver Startup Week, hundreds of local personalities and businesses contributed to the discussion of what the future holds for the Colorado tech industry.
If there is any sensible place to begin the debrief, it is probably with the company that the CTA crowned as the Technology Company of the Year — Ping Identity — and its Chairman and CEO, Andre Durand.
Based in Denver, Ping Identity is credited with creating its own industry: identity management. As businesses turned increasingly to cloud-hosted applications, managing employee log-ons quickly became a nightmare. Durand recognized the need for a secure way for users to log in to an assortment of cloud-based applications with a single sign-on. Ping Identity was born.
A little more than a decade later, the CTA this month declared Ping the company of the year “for its overall performance, which set it apart as a leader in its market segment.”
That’s almost an understatement. In just over 10 years, Ping has become the largest IT security firm in the country, with more than $50 million in revenues, 300 employees and 900 customers.
You can learn more about Ping and its products on the company website. But equally interesting are the insights the firm’s founder recently shared with the local tech community.
The day after he received the award, Durand discussed his company and his views of the Colorado tech industry landscape at the CTA’s Annual APEX Conference. While he has enjoyed success with his Denver born and bred company, he had a lot to say about what the city faces in its quest to reach elite status as a tech center.
Durand created Ping Identity in 2002 after he moved to Denver to marry the assistant of the CEO of a company that bought his previous venture. His heart has been in Denver ever since. But earlier this year he moved his family to Burlingame, CA, in what can best be described as a pilgrimage to discover the mystique of Silicon Valley. He returned six months later with some sobering observations for the hometown crowd.
“I wanted to raise the profile of the company and I couldn’t do it from Denver,” he told Michael Marcotte, Chief Digital Officer at EchoStar, in a one-on-one onstage interview. “Really, I was looking for what the magic was.”
Apparently he found it.
“You can drive from San Jose to San Francisco — 45 minutes to an hour on the freeway,” he said. “On both sides of the highway it’s all tech. It’s absolutely massive.”
One of the reasons for the success of “the valley,” he said, is talent. In fact, he calls the area a “self-perpetuating black hole of talent.”
“It [Silicon Valley] doesn’t just cultivate the talent that’s [already] there,” he said. “Its magic is that it has attracted the brightest, most ambitious people from around the world. They make the valley their destination.”
Great companies are built on smart, ambitious talent, he said. “At the end of the day it’s an all-out talent war. It's a combination of youth and ambition. We need the ambitious, big thinkers here in Denver.”
Another ingredient of valley magic, he said, is an ecosystem in which big companies support smaller companies.
“I got the feeling when I was in the valley that they very much knew they were the center of the tech universe,” Durand said. “Big companies are consciously doing business with smaller companies to bring them up.
“It’s very much inbred. Companies don’t need to look beyond the valley for customers,” he said. “It’s an attitude: I can do all the business I need right here in the valley for the first two or three years of my existence. For both big and small companies, everything we need is right here.”
According to Durand, that nurturing mindset is something that Denver lacks, at least for now.
“I don’t feel that we are at that stage here. I don’t feel there is a recognition and knowledge of fostering the young companies here in Denver with the larger companies that could use their products and services,” he said. He was quick to add, however, “Events like this are beginning to change that.”
So how does Denver reach the next level?
For one thing, Durand believes Denver must convey an image of risk-free relocation. Migrating workers need to know that there are sufficient employment alternatives if things go awry at the job they moved for. More abundant job opportunities make the coasts a less risky destination for relocation.
“We need to do the things to attract the smart and ambitious individuals to Denver,” Durand said. “It needs to not be a risky place for people to decide to uproot their families and come to Ping [for example] for one job, worried that if that doesn’t work out there is not another company for them to go to ... and they end up having to move back to the Coast.”