Guest column: Why this tech firm moved to Las Vegas and hasn’t looked back

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Monday, Sept. 2, 2019 | 2 a.m.

Editor’s note: As he does every August, Brian Greenspun is taking some time off and is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. Today’s guest columnist is businessman David Knight, who has founded or co-founded companies in such areas as digital audio, electronic messaging, immersive entertainment, advanced sensing and private spaceflight. He supports STEM education through active and philanthropic efforts, and is a trustee of the nonprofit science foundation that owns the last space shuttle.

San Francisco, when the weather is good, is a truly beautiful city. And just below it, along the area called the Peninsula, sits Silicon Valley. Over the past decade or so, these formerly distinct regions have blended together, owing to a combination of limited land resources and the spread of millennial-run companies populated by young employees who want to live in the city. It’s become one contiguous strip of tech firms situated along a 50-mile swath that starts just below San Jose, Calif., and goes all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

While the prosperity of the region is unquestionable, it now suffers from issues that make it less attractive to startups than it was: outrageous living costs (higher in San Francisco now than Manhattan), crowding on the roads, a suite of governmental policies that make it hard to build a business, and among the highest tax rates in the country. But there’s an insidious problem that’s grown with all of these factors, and it is rarely talked about. That problem is a lack of loyalty among tech workers — engineers in particular. A recent study showed that computer programmers average only 19 months in a job with one of the major companies (think Facebook and Google).

Click to enlarge photo

Terbine CEO David Knight poses for a photo on Friday, June 21, 2019.

When you can walk into a coffee place, raise your hand as a software developer and have offers thrown at you instantly, why be loyal? Of course, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.

Having started a company that some industry gurus believe may just come to dominate an entirely new sector, you would think that the only place for us to grow would be San Francisco. After all, isn’t it “the place to be” for tech? But the sheer costs of operating there, and flagging loyalty issues pervading the white collar workforce, warranted a search for another place to plant our flag.

Why we chose Las Vegas

This one isn’t nearly as easy, nor as obvious, as explaining why we pulled out of the Bay Area. We considered multiple cities across the nation. Adjacency to California made sense, since we would eventually want to entice talent over the state line. But here are the other factors that made Las Vegas the winner:

• Access to university talent. We have found an ample supply of computer and data science candidates, and since moving here in January have hired many. I had been conditioned by Silicon Valley to believe that their schools were the main reasons to be up there. Incredible companies have spun out of Stanford and Berkeley, without a doubt. But I can tell you that the young men and women we find at UNLV and CSN are the kind we want. Plus, the schools want to help, which goes a long way. Good luck getting interns out of Stanford, for example — and I say that having been on the Stanford Venture Lab committee.

• A real international airport. When looking at other cities as possible venues, we discovered that in most cases, they didn’t offer nonstops to many parts of the country, or the world. I have to say that the investment made in building McCarran into a true international airport had a big role in our decision. I’ve already flown directly to four European cities. Having the airport situated in the heart of the valley is a nice bonus.

• Ready to do business. I love the attitude that the government representatives, business owners and educators have here. It’s much more like the Midwest than the West Coast in that regard. People earnestly want to make things happen here, which isn’t quantifiable but it comes across readily.

• The personal and business tax environment. ’Nuff said.

• “Big fish.” I don’t have a better way to express this. Owing to the preceding factors, and provided that you evidence a commitment to the region commensurate with the others who have walked their talk here, you’ll get treated in a manner that I cannot ever recall experiencing in California. We’ve had many great and influential people come to visit us in the newly minted International Innovation Center downtown, all wanting to help. Truly, we feel welcomed and Las Vegas has become our home.

Overcoming our downsides

No place is free from foibles. The idea of building a thriving technology community in the Las Vegas area has taken years to foment.

Switch, Zappos and other “tentpole” companies have proven that it’s possible to grow a valuable tech-based venture here. The challenges in attracting others include further investment in upgrading and improving the downtown area, pumping up the education system with more STEM initiatives and getting the rest of the world to acknowledge that Las Vegas isn’t just about gaming anymore.

This last one will be the toughest to overcome, since the city did such a great job of burning it into people’s minds for many decades. Not that gaming will go away, but expanding the economic mix with fast-evolving enterprises in autonomous vehicles, e-sports, immersive entertainment, the next generation of convention experiences and renewable energy are strong candidates as core growth drivers going forward.

I guess I’ve become an evangelist for Las Vegas, and Nevada in general. Let’s do this thing.

David Knight is CEO of Terbine, a data company headquartered in downtown Las Vegas.