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He Sold His Firm for $8 Billion, Then Teed Off at Pebble Beach

Gillian Tan

(Bloomberg) -- It’s been a good year for Qualtrics International Inc.’s Ryan Smith. In January, he completed the sale of his company to SAP SE for $8 billion, then three weeks later teamed up with pro golfer Josh Teater to finish third at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

For his efforts, the three-handicapper picked up the Jack Lemmon Award as the amateur who most helped their pro in the tournament. While his social set now includes top golfers like Tony Finau, who posted this photo from Smith’s Pebble Beach home ahead of June’s U.S. Open, Smith still dedicates the bulk of his time to ventures off the course.

He and older brother Jared continue to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Provo, Utah-based software company they founded in their parent’s basement. He’s also branching out into real estate, while backing a crowdfunding charity that supports cancer research. Ryan, 41, recently spoke with Bloomberg about his investing priorities, as well as philanthropic efforts spurred by events close to home. Comments have been edited and condensed.

Which sports are you most passionate about?

I play basketball almost every morning I’m in town, and I am an avid golfer. I don’t play golf as often as I would like, but I love everything about the game: respect, integrity and the challenge that you can never beat it entirely. I also love that golf is a way to unplug without your phone or technology. Some of the greatest relationship and bonds I have in this life have been created on the golf course.

Is there a sports team you’d love to own?

I love the NBA. Qualtrics sponsors the jersey patch of the Utah Jazz and donates it to our cancer charity, 5 For The Fight, which invites everyone to give $5 to the fight against cancer. It’s crowdfunding for cancer research. It’s been incredible to work with the players, the Jazz organization and the NBA as a whole. As far as team ownership, I have a hard time not seeing myself more involved with teams in the future.

What’s your approach to investing?

One of our principles at Qualtrics is being “All In.” So until recently, I have been very focused on only investing in Qualtrics and putting 100% of my energy and time into that. While I’m still all in on Qualtrics, I am also looking at where and how to invest going forward. My current thoughts are threefold. One, I know tech. I’m good at tech. Tech will be a big part of all my investing. Two, I want to back the funds that backed us. Three, real estate. 

As for what I look for, it’s 100% founders. It’s absolutely simple. I want to back people who know how to win and who use sheer force of will to carry their ideas forward.

Tell me more about real estate investing.

I have always been passionate about real estate. It’s how I was able to survive while bootstrapping Qualtrics. I stayed afloat in college because I owned the apartment I lived in and rented out the other rooms. I got free rent and didn’t require much of a paycheck from Qualtrics to live on. We’ve now opened more than 20 Qualtrics offices around the world, including designing a new headquarters in Utah. I love that process. Real estate is something I understand and always want to be involved in. Plus, good real estate projects can have a really positive impact on local communities and that’s important to me. 

Are projects in particular?

I recently founded 50 East Capital with an investment manager who relocated from New York City to Provo. We’re pursuing commercial real estate investing in two areas. The first is opportunity zones, focusing primarily on multifamily and student housing. The second is more opportunistic, with a strategy to purchase existing, positive cash-flow commercial real estate properties in primary and secondary markets.  

How did you celebrate the sale of Qualtrics?

I don’t know that I’ve really celebrated the sale. I think “sale” is often referred to as a finish line. It’s not. I view the acquisition a lot like the various funding rounds we had at Qualtrics. People would always congratulate us as if the goal was to get funding. The goal isn’t to get funding, it’s to build a great company. I have always said that congratulating someone on getting funding was like congratulating someone on getting a mortgage. It shouldn’t be “congratulations,” it should be “good luck.” That said, I just bought a truck -- a black Ford Raptor. My kids are pretty excited about hauling stuff and put things in the back. So maybe that’s how I celebrated.

What about philanthropy?

When we started Qualtrics, my dad was fighting cancer. Because of some incredible research being done, he survived. We decided that if our then-little tech project ever became anything, cancer research could be the cause we supported. There are so many amazing causes out there, but we have always believed that if we focus on one area, we can have the biggest impact. For years, we donated to great cancer research hospitals like the Huntsman Cancer Institute. A few years ago, I co-founded 5 for the Fight. At Qualtrics, we know the power of researchers and the impact they can have.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gillian Tan in New York at gtan129@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Goldstein at agoldstein5@bloomberg.net, Steven Crabill, Pierre Paulden

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