Skip to Content
HOME-COURSE ADVANTAGE: Ryan Smith, a two-handicap golfer, takes a practice swing outside Qualtrics’s new headquarters, in Provo, Utah.HOME-COURSE ADVANTAGE: Ryan Smith, a two-handicap golfer, takes a practice swing outside Qualtrics’s new headquarters, in Provo, Utah.
HOME-COURSE ADVANTAGE: Ryan Smith, a two-handicap golfer, takes a practice swing outside Qualtrics’s new headquarters, in Provo, Utah.Photograph by Michael Friberg for Fortune

A Unicorn Founder’s Big Life Hack

Ryan Smith of Qualtrics juggles five kids and a rocket-fueled tech startup.

Ryan Smith’s Big Life Hack

How do you juggle a growing family and a rocket-fueled tech company? If you’re Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith, it takes detailed self-analysis—and a whole lot of Mountain Dew.

It’s seven o’clock on a recent Wednesday evening, and Ryan Smith is somewhere few chief executives would be at that hour—at home with his family.

Smith, 38, is the cofounder and CEO of Qualtrics, an online survey company with 1,200 employees and a valuation of more than $1 billion. But he’s quick to remind almost everyone he meets that he’s more than that. “I have five kids,” he recently told a roomful of new hires. “That’s crazy, right?”

Still, tonight’s dinner feels as uncrazy as any situation can be when it involves five kids ranging from 4 months to 8 years old. Smith comes to the table in tech-CEO wear: an untucked, plaid button-down shirt, pleather-looking dark pants, sneakers, and one of his omnipresent Qualtrics trucker caps. It takes a while for him and his wife, Ashley, who owns a nearby dance studio, to get everyone together. It’s a massive house, and all the kids are scattered in different directions, except for the baby on Ashley’s hip. But once everyone is herded to the dining room, it is surprisingly quiet. Smith’s oldest daughter says a blessing. Grilled chicken, shrimp, rice, and salad are on the menu—and, thanks to the vigorous digging of Smith’s youngest son, they’re soon on the floor too. The minute the dinner is over, some of the older kids return to the living room to show off their dance moves.

HOME-COURSE ADVANTAGE: Ryan Smith, a two-handicap golfer, takes a practice swing outside Qualtrics’s new headquarters, in Provo, Utah.Photograph by Michael Friberg for Fortune

Later that evening Smith relaxes by the backyard pool, eating ice cream from a plastic cup while two of his older children splash each other and play games as the sky darkens. After a while, Smith tells them it’s bedtime. But his night is just starting. At 11 p.m., he’ll take a meeting from his living room. He’ll go to sleep at 12:45 a.m. and wake up by five o’clock—basketball starts at six. Then it’s back home to help get the kids ready for school—and after that, a five-minute drive to his office.

Just another scene from the eternal, nationwide corporate juggle? Well, yes and no. Plenty of executives, especially parents, are hyper-prescriptive with their time as they organize their nonstop days. But few if any engineer their hours with Smith’s attention to detail. The Wednesday dinner routine is the fruit of regular, repeated meetings and think sessions in which Smith tracks and analyzes everything he can think of that could make him love better and work better. The dinner table? It’s circular, chosen by Ryan to make sure dinner facilitates as much conversation as possible. His poolside time and crack-of-dawn workout? Designed so he’s present for what he and Ashley think are the “nine most important minutes” of a kid’s day. And if it’s calm, it’s partly because it’s routine: Smith eats dinner at home almost every night that he’s in town.

Ryan Smith is number 12 on our 2016 40 Under 40 list. See the full list here.

It’s all part of the faith in constant analysis and self-improvement that shapes Smith’s fast-growing company. Qualtrics, which calls itself a customer-service experience management company, is built around the idea that immediate feedback makes for a better product. It’s one of the companies that enables seemingly every airline, retailer, and fast-food joint you patronize to send you an email afterward to ask how you liked your experience. But Smith applies that same faith to what other people call work-life balance and what he calls “hacking the integration.”

In Smith’s case, that often means choosing not to integrate with the round-the-clock culture of mainstream tech. Qualtrics is based in Provo, Utah, where Smith grew up. Rather than jumping ship to Silicon Valley, Smith started and scaled his company here, nestled below the craggy Wasatch Range. It’s the aorta of Mormon Country—Salt Lake City, 45 miles to the north, being the heart. Provo is home to “the largest missionary training center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Like about 60% of Utah’s population, Smith is a Mormon.) Working here, where costs are lower and the pace is slower, makes “hacking the integration” easier.

UNDERGROUND ROOTS: Ryan Smith (right) in Qualtrics’s home-basement offices in 2005, with his brother Jared (standing); his father, Scott; and Jeff Whiting (in blue). Ryan, Scott, and Jared were cofounders.Photo: Courtesy of Qualtrics

Qualtrics and Smith have also enjoyed independence that some startups can only envy. The company says it has had a positive cash flow every year since its inception, in 2002; it didn’t raise outside funding until 2012. So Smith’s first few years weren’t spent worrying about a big exit or catering to potential acquirers. Nor was he worried, initially, about corporate clients: Qualtrics first developed its product as a tool for academic research. Smith had time to refine and tweak the product and to refine and tweak himself—as a leader and family man—without the burden of someone else’s best practices. “He built the company on ‘first principles,’ not business books,” says Bryan Schreier, a partner at Sequoia Capital, one of Qualtrics’s investors.

Qualtrics now sells its software to a growing list of Fortune 500 companies—Home Depot (HD), Gap (GPS), and CarMax (KMX) are among those that use it to collect and analyze customer feedback—and an IPO is likely in the next two years. But Smith still relies on his first principles. At the top of his list is transparency, especially in talking with his staff about the challenges of aligning work and family. “If employees aren’t good in that part of their life, they’re going to have a tough time being ‘all in,’ ” says the CEO. Qualtrics encourages employees to bring their kids to work, and staff don’t pay premiums for health insurance—for themselves or their spouses and kids.

GETTING ON BOARD: Business leaders credit Smith with energizing Utah’s tech scene. In August, Gov. Gary Herbert presided at the opening of Qualtrics’s new headquarters (including its “boardroom,” behind Smith).Photograph by Michael Friberg for Fortune

Meanwhile, Smith continually uses data to inform and guide the way he allocates his time. With the aid of an executive assistant who’s a former statistician, Smith tracks everything from the number of hours he devotes to interviews to how much one-on-one time he spends with each of his children. Ask him how many nights he spent away from home last year, and all he has to do is consult a spreadsheet. The answer: 68. “That’s better than 99,” he says, referring to the previous year’s tally.

Hardly a day goes by without check-ins and calculations of what he can do better. It’s an obsessive quest for optimization, fueled by an ever-flowing stream of data. And also a hell of a lot of Mountain Dew.

One late-summer afternoon, Smith takes me on a tour of Provo. Our first stop is Swig, a flavored-soda chain that’s big in Utah. He steers his metallic Mercedes G-Class SUV—it’s got a plush, red-leather interior—to the drive-through window and orders a 32-ounce crushed-ice Mountain Dew drink.

Sipping his slushy, Smith drives through downtown, pointing out the corner where, when he was 12, his mother dropped him and his four siblings off and said, “Don’t come back until you have a job.” Holding a Ph.D. in information systems, Smith’s mother worked in academia before starting a paper-craft company, which she later sold to a private equity firm. After her nudge, Ryan got a part-time gig picking up golf balls at a nearby course. (He also got good at golf, recently playing the PGA Utah Open.)

Smith, a big fan of Mountain Dew, keeps a rack full of sodas on his desk at Qualtrics headquarters.Photograph by Michael Friberg

Provo is too big to be quaint, but it’s quiet compared with the line-around-the-block-for-gelato congestion of, say, Palo Alto. We continue through wide streets to a house on a sleepy cul-de-sac. This is where Smith started Qualtrics in 2002 with his cofounders: his father, a former BYU marketing professor; his brother Jared, an early Google employee (GOOG) ; and Stuart Orgill, a BYU schoolmate. “We had so many cars parked here that the garbage trucks wouldn’t turn into this street,” says Smith.

In August, Qualtrics moved into a glitzy 151,000-square-foot building whose amenities include a ground-floor basketball court and a 1950s-style ice cream parlor. And it’s far from the only startup game in town. By the beginning of this decade (as Fortune wrote at the time), tech executives were calling the area “Silicon Slopes.” Qualtrics’s new home sits on “Unicorn Alley.” Vivint and are just down the street: Both were unicorns—startups valued at $1 billion or more—before being acquired by private equity firms. Three other current unicorns call Utah home (see the chart below). Still, office space is ample and far cheaper than in Silicon Valley. So are median home prices: about $300,000, compared with the Valley’s $1.25 million.

QUA.10.01.16.Utah Unicors.sidebar

Oh, yeah, there’s also a ski resort just 12 minutes away. “It sounds sort of loosey-goosey, but when I first went there and saw those mountains, there was something so inspiring about the physical landscape,” says Kim Scott, a former Google exec who joined Qualtrics’s board this year. “It’s helped them attract some great talent.”

At first Smith’s recruits came from BYU, where he was a business student until he dropped out to work on Qualtrics full-time. (He recently completed his credits for his management bachelor’s degree.) Early on there wasn’t much competition for talent, and with not only BYU but also the University of Utah nearby, there were plenty of candidates to choose from. More recently, Smith has been able to recruit from other universities and regions—even from the Bay Area. That hasn’t gone unnoticed in Utah. “He’s pioneering a new way of doing tech outside of Silicon Valley,” Gov. Gary Herbert tells Fortune. “He has been key to expanding these businesses here.”

Outsiders have also noticed the “Utah Way.” “There is much less arrogance out there,” says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and an early Qualtrics customer. “Rather than saying, ‘We’re here to conquer the world,’ it feels like they’re just there to do good work.”

Smith travels a fair share and visits the Valley to meet customers and investors and for occasional industry events. But Qualtrics doesn’t have an office there, and Smith has a personal rule: He never spends more than 36 hours in a row in those genius-heavy zip codes. “It’s not like I’m anti-Silicon Valley,” he says. “I’m just pro-Utah.”

There’s plenty to keep Smith busy in the Beehive State. In 2008, Qualtrics moved beyond academia, selling its software to companies as a tool for surveys of customers and employees. Today, Qualtrics has more than 9,000 customers, including 65% of the Fortune 500, federal agencies, and more than 1,800 universities. The company claimed $125 million in revenue in 2015, and it says it’s approaching the $200 million mark.

Qualtrics prides itself on making software that’s easy to use: Once customers buy it, they can tweak and adapt it without having to ask Qualtrics to do it for them. And the tool became more appealing as the company added features that made the data it collected easier to aggregate and analyze.

QUA. Life Hacks.sidebar

The sports-apparel maker Under Armour, for example, uses Qualtrics to power a field-testing portal where fans of the brand sign up to try out products. Under Armour gets continual feedback from these testers. It can see how products fare with a particular ­demographic—say, women who wear size 6 and run 20 miles a week. It also gets input about a product’s performance: How do running shorts hold up if users wear them five times a week? Is the material sturdy enough? How is the fit? All this data, collected and packaged by Qualtrics, shapes the final product before Under Armour brings it to market.

Palo Alto–based Survey­Monkey is the other 800-pound gorilla in online surveys. But Survey­Monkey focuses more heavily on the consumer market; it didn’t release an enterprise version of its software until 2013. Smith insists that the two don’t overlap much: “No one’s going to roll out an enterprise survey with SurveyMonkey.” (SurveyMonkey declined to comment.) In any case, competition hasn’t stopped Qualtrics from expanding. Over the past few years its employee base has grown sixfold, and the company now has nine offices worldwide. (Its locations include Dublin, Sydney, London, and Seattle—but not Silicon Valley.)

Running a breakneck-growth company, of course, means even more demands on Smith’s time. One day as the morning sun pours through the windows of a conference room at headquarters, Smith leans back in an office chair and swivels the empty one to his right with a free hand as he talks. His Qualtrics hat du jour sits so low that you can barely make out his hazel eyes beneath its rim. (“Five dollar cap and $5,000 high-tops,” is how his friend Mike Cannon-Brookes, CEO of software maker Atlassian, describes Smith’s couture.) “As a CEO it’s really easy to feel like you’re not doing anything well enough because you’re just spread too thin,” Smith says.

That’s why Smith has imposed a method on the madness. His executive assistant assembles quarterly reports showing how Smith allocates his time—how he really spent his time, not how he thinks he spent his time. Every few months the two pore over the color-coded data, a process that enables Smith to set realistic new goals and rules. No meetings before midafternoon, for example. “I’m most productive and creative in the morning through early afternoon,” Smith explains, “so I’ve gotten rid of lunch meetings to keep my productive time going.” Or capping the number of nights he spends away from home. And he supplements this data with more qualitative information, constantly querying those around him to make sure he is living up to expectations.

THE OPTIMIZED FAMILY: Ashley and Ryan Smith with four of their children in 2015. (They’ve since had a fifth child.) Smith carefully tracks the time he spends one-on-one with each child, reviewing it quarterly.Photo: Lizzy Jean Photography

Smith doesn’t—yet—use Qualtrics to manage family relationships. But his most frequent check-ins are with Ashley. Every Sunday they sit down and ask each other, “What bugs you?” Sometimes it’s just about having another hour or two together at night. At one recent session, they came up with a new principle, borrowed from a speaker Ashley had heard at a BYU event: There are nine important minutes in a day. “Three minutes when the kids wake up, three minutes when they get home from school, and three minutes before they go to bed,” explains Ryan. “If you just think about what you’re doing in those times, how can you improve?”

Does all the analysis mean Smith works fewer hours than the typical CEO? Asked how much Ryan works, Ashley laughs. “The window is always open,” she says. “Unless I close it.” But Smith has let everyone know there’s a line he won’t cross. “He would get rid of the company in a second if it was between him and his family,” says his brother Jared, the ex-Googler.

Many CEOs undoubtedly feel that way. But not many make it so publicly known. Smith has made “the integration” part of Qualtrics’s DNA, and he thinks other companies could learn from that. “I want to bottle what we’ve got going here,” he says, “and show the world.”

A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Data-Driven Life Hack.”