UB Insider #65: From Nike to Vivint and Silicon Slopes
About this episode:
Vivint is one of four tech unicorns—meaning, businesses worth a billion or more—in Utah’s Silicon Slopes, and a big part of that growth is thanks to sharp innovation and marketing. Helping to lead the charge are Jeff Lyman, SVP of Product Experience, and Nate Randle, CMO of Vivint Smart Home, who have both come to the company from Nike. They talk about the transition between a sportswear brand and a tech company, and how and why Silicon Slopes is coming into its own.
[The following has been edited for grammar and clarity.]
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. Vivint is one of four tech unicorns – meaning businesses worth a billion dollars or more – in Utah’s Silicon Slopes. And a big part of that growth is thanks to sharp innovation and marketing. Helping to lead the charge are Jeff Lyman, senior vice president of product experience and Nate Randall, chief marketing officer at Vivint Smart Home who have both come to the company from Nike. Welcome.
Nate Randall: Thank you.
Jeff Lyman: It’s exciting to be here.
Lisa Christensen: So why don’t you both tell me a little bit about your backgrounds. Nate, can we start with you?
Nate Randall: Sure. I grew up in Utah and went to the University of Utah. My first job was with Hewlett Packard. I then transitioned into sports and was with Callaway Golf for several years. I went from there to Nike and was in Portland for quite a while. Then I had this opportunity with Vivint and moved back to Utah.
Lisa Christensen: And Jeff your background is slightly different.
Jeff Lyman: Yeah, I’m a web-footed Portland native. I spent 28 years there – 18 there, left for ten and then went back for ten. I was at Nike for almost a decade. And I’ve always sort of been a little bit nerdy and at the cross-section of technology and marketing. I used to build web pages for doctors and would tinker with computers. I liked to hack stuff. And then I went to business school and ended up at Nike doing mostly digital technology.
Nike has a custom shoe business called Nike iD that does somewhere between a million and a half to two million unique, custom pairs of shoes. So we built that whole builder experience where consumers could make their perfect digital Nike shoe and then have it shipped to them. Then the last few years there I was able to work on wearables. We built a product called the Nike+ FuelBand. It was kind of an early FitBit. It was kind of right in that 2012, 2013 time period when the IoT space was really taking off.
Lisa Christensen: I think I remember that product actually.
Jeff Lyman: Yep. And then I built video games. We built an Xbox game that used the old Kinect camera as your personal trainer and shoes that told you how high you jumped and how fast your feet move. The lasting legacy of that whole period for Nike was mostly just the mobile apps. So even, I think, the Nike+ running app today has something on the order of 40-50 million global users.
Lisa Christensen: Oh, wow.
Jeff Lyman: It was a really fun time. Nike was really progressive early on in recognizing that the old methodologies of marketing – TV ads and things like that – were going to give way to digital experiences that consumers want to engage in every single day even when you’re not trying to sell them something. Fun times.
Lisa Christensen: So what attracted you both to Vivint?
Jeff Lyman: Well I guess I was sort of the pioneer there. Vivint now must have a half dozen or so ex-Nike folks. I personally got to a point in my career where I was really passionate about building IoT products. It became obvious, I think, about four plus years ago that Nike had sort of moved into that space but was going to concede it to Apple a bit.
And so there was an opportunity here really early on in the lifecycle of smart home. It was just starting to take off around connected locks, lights, cameras, thermostats, artificial intelligence with all of that being built around this sort of IoT experience inside the home.
Vivint was actually one of the pioneering companies that even back in 2009, 2010, started installing smart locks, smart thermostats before it became kind of a cool category. Then Nest happened in 2012 and these other sort of brands got involved. I was intrigued by that. It was a company that wasn’t entirely a startup, it already had a revenue stream. It had already built kind of a legacy business around security but was ready to really make a significant pivot around IoT. So it was a fun convergence that came together. And then it was about this opportunity around potentially building a global brand, a global tech brand right here in Utah which really had never been done.
Lisa Christensen: And then you brought the rest of the five with you? You called back to NIKE and you’re like hey guys, this is a really great place to work, you should come. Is that what happened?
Nate Randall: That’s exactly what happened. Jeff called me. I thought I would be at Nike for the rest of my career. I care about one thing, well two things – my family and sports. And I had made it to the mecca and I thought I’d be there for the rest of my career. And then I got this call about this company, Vivint, that I didn’t know a whole lot about. The more I talked to Jeff and the more I did my own research I realized: I could move back home to my home state and be a part of putting a company on the map that would be the biggest tech player in the state.
I just have a ton of pride in Utah. I love this place. And to be able to come home and work for a company that is now one of the largest employers in the state, the largest tech employer in the state, is something that I’m really proud to be a part of. So that was the draw for me. I got to come back home and I got to work at a place that’s really, I think, giving back to opportunities in Utah for employers and employees.
Jeff Lyman: Nate was easy because he already had a love affair with Utah. So it was easy to kind of bring him back and match him with what was happening at Vivint. But then I went kind of deeper into my network. I started introducing people to Utah who had been here for a layover. Their entire familiarity with the state was what they saw through an airplane. And these are people from Electronic Arts, from Samsung, from Apple, from Sony and what was exciting to me was they would fall in love with this place pretty fast.
There’s a sense here if you’ve ever lived in a compressed environment of wide open spaces. And that is both metaphorical and real. It’s especially true in tech right now. In some of these businesses that we’re in the clay is still really soft. There’s opportunity for people to get in at ground floors with these companies and make a significant impact. They fall in love with the mountains. They move to Sugarhouse or they go up to Park City and they don’t want to leave.
I’ve had people come who have spent time at Vivint and even maybe moved on to other companies and not wanted to leave Utah. That’s not uncommon. So they’re like, I need to stay here because it’s where I want to be. And that’s been fun and has really only reinforced what all of us know about this place which is in some ways it’s a really well kept secret. But I think we need to get to the point where it’s not a secret anymore. And I think that will enable it to kind of reach its full potential as a tech hub.
Lisa Christensen: You mentioned that the clay is still soft here. There’s still a lot of potential. What else have you guys noticed about the atmosphere within the tech industry that’s different from the Pacific Northwest?
Nate Randall: Well for me, everywhere I’ve been I’ve felt like I got there at the peak or at the point where it started to flatten out a bit. So when I went to Callaway Golf they had already launched the Big Bertha Driver. And I had just missed that. So I got to hear about all the stories of how amazing it was to launch that product. And then I went to Nike and there were all these stories about how they sold shoes out of the back of their trunk at a track meet in some random place in Middletown, USA. And I didn’t get to be a part of that.
So there were all these folklore stories everywhere that I’d been that I felt like man, I’d love to be a part of something like that. And that’s what Vivint is to Utah. And so that’s why the clay is so soft in this smart home space. When you say smart home to consumers they don’t really know what that means. It’s everything from a simple, do-it-yourself product to a fully integrated ecosystem in a home that does so many things for you to help manage your time and your energy. So it’s a wide open space. It’s like a wild wild west that’s ready to be molded. We get to tell that story and be the leader in the category which is really exciting.
Jeff Lyman: I think there’s also a healthy chip on the shoulder that we have. If you read Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest, and you look at some of these kind of growing tech centers that are outside of Silicon Valley, and if you spend any time with our CEO Todd Peterson who is driven more by when someone tells him no than by anything else, there is a sense in the community here. Not just at Vivint, but actually across all of this kind of growing tech hub – across Domo, Pluralsight and even kind of smaller firms – that we think there’s no reason why we can’t build not just as good a company but better companies here than anywhere else. There’s a certain collective chip that we have about that.
As these companies start to get really successful recruiters start to call. They’re aware of what you’ve done and what’s happening and when those calls come there’s always this kind of strong sense in the back of my mind of why we’re doing this here. This is still unfinished. And I sense that not just with the people at Vivint but when we get together with different colleagues and friends and certainly at different events that are held here by different groups like the Silicon Slopes etc. You sense that collective movement that it matters not only that we do it, but it matters that we do it here. And I think that’s cool. That’s different than what I felt in Portland, which as a tech hub is not nearly as advanced or cohesive as what we’re seeing here in kind of the greater Utah area.
Lisa Christensen: So there’s a lot of cooperation and collaboration between the companies.
Jeff Lyman: Exactly. As these unicorn stories happen and they become public stories like whatever the New York Times is on, Qualtrics. That benefits and lifts all the boats and that’s kind of the way we look at it.
Nate Randall: I think it’s always been thought that the best tech talent should be in Silicon Valley. And we take that personally. We think that the best tech talent should be in Utah, in Silicon Slopes. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. We’re in a place now at Vivint where, as Jeff mentioned, we’ve got talent from all over the place. So we’re not just pulling from the next company in Utah. We’re pulling from major corporations across the country of people who are wanting to come here to experience this with us. And to go into a meeting and have talent from all different backgrounds is part of what I love about working at Vivint. We just have a vast amount of talent.
Lisa Christensen: So you’ve both come from Nike to Vivint and you’ve kind of mentioned some similarities there. But they’re pretty different companies. On the one hand you’ve got shoes and athletics and consumer products and on the other hand you’ve got a tech company. And there are some consumer aspects there but it’s primarily a tech company. So how have you been able to incorporate the lessons that you learned at this sportswear brand into this tech company?
Jeff Lyman: Yeah, those used to be really disparate things when we sort of grew up. There were these nerdy tech companies: the IBMs and the Compaqs and the Microsofts and the Intels. And then there were these super cool, youthful sportswear companies. So the question is what is Beats by Dre? Is that a tech company or is that a lifestyle brand? And the answer is that it’s both. If you went and asked a teenage kid, an 18-year-old kid, fifteen years ago to name the top five brands that really matter to them, you’re going to get Coke. You’re going to get Nike. You’re going to get Levi’s and classic lifestyle brands. If you go back and ask that kid today, an 18-year-old kid in the year 2017, you’re going to get Instagram. You’re going to get Snap. You’re going to get Apple.
Nate Randall: Twitter.
Jeff Lyman: 18-year-olds are over Twitter, but yeah. Tech is now a lifestyle. I think if you’ve worked in the lifestyle marketing sector you can now take that into tech. It’s not enough to be functional. You’ve got to be cool. And your brand needs to have some swagger about it that makes it special – that makes it unique. Again, you’ve got to win on bits and you’ve got to win on atoms, meaning you have to have great products and services. And that’s really the meritocracy of tech. But how you layer on top of that, the sort of tribal nature of why it’s cool to be associated with your brand is actually why certain tech products win over other ones.
No one can actually look at you and say that Instagram was the best photo sharing app back in the year 2012. They just made some really smart, strategic moves to be the coolest one. No one can put on a pair of Beats headphones and say that these are superior audio. As a matter of fact, most people after spending what it costs, and Beats were at the top of every one of my kids Christmas lists for the last three years, you don’t put them on and say wow, they broke the laws of physics with superior audio. They became the had to have it lifestyle product. And I think it’s that thinking that helps separate brands in this generation. Your tech product has to be superior but it has to have some swagger.
Lisa Christensen: So it’s why VHS won but Betamax didn’t.
Jeff Lyman: Yeah, that’s right. And there are like ten people at Sony right now who are like, Betamax was superior! And they still call it Betamax which, you know, they get some credit for.
Nate Randall: And I think the easiest answer is to say that yes, Nike and Vivint are two completely different companies. The reality is the consumers of each are extremely passionate. At Nike the one takeaway that’s more important to me than any other that I learned there is that the consumer decides. You can’t force the consumer. A consumer has a certain amount of discretionary income and when they walk into a sporting goods store they’re going to look on the wall and they’ve got options. As a marketer at Nike your job is to make sure that that whatever Nike product is on the wall it is their first consideration.
Nike consumers are driven by the passion of that product. Vivint is a tech company. But if you simplify it, Vivint is about home. And home is where you spend your most time and it’s more than likely the largest investment that you will ever make in your life.
When we are connected to our consumers and their homes that they are so passionate about, the opportunity there to connect with a consumer and help them understand that the products you’re providing are simplifying their life. And putting their home in a place where it’s providing a return on time and investment instead of creating issues or problems, you can make or help a consumer be every bit as passionate about Vivint and the home as you can a Nike consumer about footwear or apparel. So that’s why for me, I didn’t feel like oh if I leave Nike and the passion of that consumer I’ll never experience that at Vivint. People are every bit as passionate about their home and the experiences that they have there. We get to be a part of that.
Jeff Lyman: It’s a deep well. I mean, do a search on iTunes for songs with the word home in the lyrics. It is an emotional wellspring of people. They come from there. They want to die there. Their most important memories are there. The people and things that matter the most are there. So you can build not just a logical and rational relationship with the consumer around saving them time and money, but you can build a really emotional relationship with that consumer.
People are going to trust brands like Vivint that actually understand what this place means to them. It’s more than just four walls and a roof. And that’s where that emotional connection can be built. That is the same formula that we had at Nike. You build a deep emotional connection with the soul of the athlete. It’s more than just rubber and traction and laces and mesh. It’s spiritual almost. And I think there’s a real opportunity there with home as well.
Lisa Christensen: So how do you build that? How do you convey that to the consumer?
Nate Randall: I think Nike is this massive brand that tells these amazing stories. Everybody has their favorite Nike commercial. Everybody can go back to that one where they say, “That’s the commercial that connected me to the brand.” The Bo Jackson commercial or the Michael Jordan commercial or the Tiger Woods commercial. But the reality is that Nike was built on word of mouth. Nike was built selling shoes out of the trunk of a car and an athlete would put it on and run in it and say, “That product made me better.” We’re in the exact same place with Vivint.
We can do national campaigns and we can go to trade shows and we can do all the things you expect marketing to do. But the reality is that the strength of word of mouth from one customer to the next is really our most important asset. I can tell you, not just because I work at Vivint, but just in casual conversation at a barbecue my neighbor will say, “Hey, my daughter was telling me about the doorbell camera you have where she was able to talk to you when you guys weren’t home.” It’s easy. I can talk to my kids when they come home from school through my doorbell camera. When a package is dropped off from Amazon Prime, which happens every day because my wife is a frequenter of…
Jeff Lyman: Careful. Careful.
Nate Randall: Hello, Mrs. Randall. I can open up my door for the UPS or the FedEx guy and they can drop off the package. I can shut the door right behind them. So word of mouth is a really powerful part of marketing. As we build followers or create influencers that use our product it’s really consumers that love our product that bring more people into our brand.
Lisa Christensen: And then from a company standpoint, how do you build the culture? How do you contribute to a culture that understands that? How do you contribute to an atmosphere within the company where everyone gets that?
Jeff Lyman: Yeah, what you have to do is break down all the barriers between the employee and the consumer. There’s lots of different ways that you can do that. With every one of our executive team we go out and do installs in consumer homes. Nate and I take frontline customer service calls. Sometimes they’re loyalty calls where the customer has an issue that they’re working through. So we’re out with our sales groups meeting with our channels. We do a fair amount of qualitative ethnography work where we have our people, our partners in American homes, identifying the key insights and trends that are driving what’s happening inside those homes.
Then you have to build the artifacts. You’ve got to build the material. It’s like an interior marketing campaign that can sort of brings the truths of that customer, those real life experiences into every lobby in the company.
In our Innovation Center in Lehi there are around four 4′ by 3′ portraits all over the place. They’re really huge and they’re really tight shots. They’re of real people, not actors. Most of them are just customers that we shot. But they’re candid and they’re rich. And they say something as simple as, Jimmy doesn’t get scolded for leaving the lights on anymore. Or now the Ocadas can rest easy because they know that they have an eye on their aging parent who lives an hour away. They’re just personal anecdotes about why the consumer is coming to us and what it is that they’re trusting us with. We try and permeate every conference room conversation with these stories. It’s really easy to manage a company on a spreadsheet but there’s nothing in those cells, those rows, those columns that tells you the true plight of the consumer.
Great brands are those ones that are more insightful both in what they make and how they communicate it to those consumers. And I think that’s an edge that any startup that succeeds usually has. They usually start from the problem. Someone is really passionate about something and they think, “I’m going to build a company to solve this.” And at 12, 24, 48, 150 and 200 employees they still have that. Then you get to what Vivint has. We have 12,000 employees.
How do you make sure that at that scale you don’t lose that deep, insightful connection with that original consumer that started the entire thing? The bigger you get, the harder that comes and the more, frankly, you have to invest in it. It doesn’t come free anymore. And you have to have dedicated people that do it. You have to spend money on artifacts whether it’s video or imagery, it’s newsletters, it’s speakers, it’s entire company events where you bring customers in and they tell you about the story or experience that they had that keeps that grounding.
We have an annual event called My Story and we bring in half a dozen of our customers. They have usually had something interesting happen. We had a guy who had a burglar get caught in his chimney while he was gone. It’s all on our YouTube channel. It’s a fascinating story. We brought him in and he told us the entire story. He shared why he got Vivint in the first place and the role that our system played in both alerting him to the incident and saving the life of that burglar, who actually probably would have died otherwise. It’s a really fascinating story. Those are the types of things that you have to continue to invest in so you don’t lose the soul of that consumer.
Lisa Christensen: We’ll have the link to that video on our website, by the way. But is that something that you found was there at Nike and that you helped instill or found again at Vivint?
Nate Randall: I think if I were to compare Vivint to the other places that I’ve been, the group that founded Vivint and so many of them are still there are more passionate about the consumer and the opportunity to establish the smart home as a true consumer category than anywhere else I’ve been. What makes Vivint so amazing is that people have dedicated their careers to get it to where it’s at. It hasn’t been this door cycling people through and constant change.
The core group of men and women who put Vivint on the map are still there. Because of their dedication and their effort to move the business forward, and they’ve brought additional talent on, the culture that was established by Todd Peterson and Alex Dunn and others is still there. We still have it, we’re not two or three removed from our founder. We still see our founder every day. And we’re not three or four presidents into our company. Our original president is still there. They set the direction of the company and we’ve now brought on all of these different talented people from all of these different backgrounds. We’re moving forward not resetting and restarting constantly.
Jeff Lyman: I’ve never worked at a company where the founder wasn’t there. Even at Nike, Phil was there the entire time. When I started he was the CEO and when I finished he was a very active chairman. That’s the hard part when you lose that founder and the passion and the soul that started the entire thing. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done but it’s certainly harder. I definitely feel blessed in that respect.
Lisa Christensen: And it seems like that’s something that a lot of Silicon Slopes companies take to heart. It seems that a lot of the founding teams stay with the company throughout their career.
Jeff Lyman: Yeah, I think it’s because there is so much risk that they’ve taken on upfront to sort of get there. And when you are founding a company, the sacrifice that has gone into that, it is literally like a child. It’s like a family member that you worry about. And like any parent it’s hard to let go. I think generally it’s a good thing. I think as long as that spirit and that soul of those original founders can continue to evolve with the needs, with that business, it’s always going to have a heartbeat. That’s key. And there are companies who have done it other ways.
If you look at the transition to Adobe with Josh James it hasn’t been without its bumps. But it was pretty marvelous. The stewardship was kind of handed over to this larger group that saw the vision for what it could become and not lose what it had. There are really great success stories there and I think we’ll see that.
As these unicorns start to grow up and grow out, they’re acquisition targets for sure. We’re seeing a ton of consolidation in tech right now. You’ll see cases of these companies getting soaked up by Google or Microsoft XY and they’ll kind of fade into that thing. They might lose a little bit of what made them magical. Then you’ll see other cases where the stewardship of the larger companies is marvelous and you see them only amplify the things that made that smaller company great in the first place. They help them achieve their full potential. I think Adobe is a classic example of the latter case.
Lisa Christensen: So what do you think the future looks like for not only Silicon Slopes, but its place within the larger tech industry? And to bring it in even tighter, what do you think Vivint’s future looks like?
Jeff Lyman: Well maybe I’ll start on the broad and you sort of take the Vivint piece, but I think that the secret is going to no longer be a secret. The marvelous opportunities around cost of living and lifestyle, which is pulling people here already, is only going to accelerate. I think overall that’s going to be crappy for house prices and for traffic, but awesome for the technology community. You’re already seeing it.
Snap is now opening an office out here and you’re getting more and more of that. They’ll start a 70 person office and you’ll blink and they’ll be a 700 person office. You’ll start seeing some of the things that we’re starting to see around eBay, etc. And especially if you’re coming from places like Seattle or from Portland, Portland has 110 days of sunshine per year. Salt Lake has 270. You know, you can be active 12 months out of the year whether you’re on a mountain in the summer or you’re on a mountain in the middle of the winter. I think that’s actually only going to accelerate and grow.
And you can tell from Governor Herbert’s point of view on all this stuff that he’s laying the groundwork for that to just continue to accelerate. He shares that vision. That makes it really attractive to these companies who are looking for these next hub and sectors to sort of build secondary headquarters etc. We have a very pro-business and pretty pro-employee environment here.
Nate Randall: When it comes specifically to Vivint, I think you have a group of employees who truly want to win. And we want to be the company to work for in Utah. We want to be the company to work for in the West, and ultimately the company to work for in North America. And we really believe that. That’s why people have left Nike and have left EA Sports and left some of these other amazing companies, because there’s only so many times in your career where you get to be a part of defining something.
Then you look at our vision for the state of Utah and what it really means to us. I think each employee cares so much about our backyard. We are heavily invested with several of the universities. We go and several of the executives and managers and employees of the company will go back to the schools that they went to in the state and give seminars and workshops, not paid, just going to give back to the places where we went to school. And we’re invested in partnerships with those schools.
We’re the naming rights partner for the Utah Jazz. You could call that a sponsorship deal. We did that because we want to be Utah’s tech company and the Jazz are Utah’s team. So we really care about our backyard to the point where we don’t just want to be a company that thrives here, we want to be a company that gives back to the state of Utah and is a major player from an employment perspective.
Vivint Gives Back which is the charitable part of our company is something that I don’t think gets enough recognition. We focus on autistic children and families with autistic children. The work that goes into giving back to those families is just one more way to let our state know that we care about the individuals that live here. It’s more than just revenue and driving a business. It’s staying connected to our state and to the community that we all really care about.
Lisa Christensen: Okay, well again we’ll have a link to that video that Jeff mentioned. Thank you guys so much for coming in today. I really appreciate that.
Nate Randall: Absolutely, thanks for the time.
Jeff Lyman: It’s been our pleasure.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help today. You can learn more about Vivint on their website and Nate, we can have a link to Vivint Gives Back as well. Also, you can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on social media at @utahbusiness. Thanks for listening.