INTERVIEW by DANIELLE OLIVER | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of JEFF SLOBOTSKI
When speaking of innovation and entrepreneurs, we often focus on areas of the country that have become renowned hubs of activity, like Silicon Valley or New York City. But what we often forget is that innovation is a product of individuals, not of location. In other words, while it’s been easy in the past to write off lesser-known areas of our country as stagnant, or non-producing, (“hey, if we can’t communicate with them, they don’t exist, right?”) it’s time we catch up the technology and admit that we live in a global community now. These lesser-known areas are expanding, and there’s no excuse to not acknowledge their contribution to our country’s innovation. Say hello to one of the individuals who is not only shedding light on their efforts, but is encouraging the growth of these localized communities.
I have to say, I was excited to conduct this interview because I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska before moving out to Los Angeles for college. And so I understand first hand when you say that there’s a different sort of environment that is perhaps non-conducive to, or at least, unlikely for natural entrepreneurial group-building. What do you believe is the main difference between areas like Silicon Valley and cities like Omaha, Kansas City, and Des Moines? Is there a difference in attitude? Or is just a matter of geographics?
That’s a great question – I believe that a lot of comes down to one’s mentality towards risk. Does an individual who’s not from either of the coasts have an advantage over someone born and raised in the Midwest? Not necessarily. What you have in locations like Silicon Valley, New York and even Boulder, is a tolerance towards risk which is higher than cities like Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City.
You identified this problem and sensed a need for community. Thus, Silicon Prairie News was born. Apart from acting as a fantastic publication highlighting entrepreneurial goings-on, how has SPN worked to foster this community? And do you have a concrete example for me?
Our team at Silicon Prairie News believes that the online component, the site itself, is just one part towards building a community. The other piece to the puzzle is regular offline engagement of the community through events and meetups. My business partner, Dusty Davidson, and I found early on when we started things in 2008 that there was a large number of users in the city who were on Twitter – but few had actually met in person. Once we started bringing these groups together, it was fascinating to watch what conversations and collaboration started to happen among the community.
Fast forward to today, and we are still equally as passionate about bringing the stories and news of the entrepreneurial community – as well as continue to connect the various groups within the ecosystem – students, entrepreneurs, the established business community, investors and more – together through additional events like Big Omaha, the Startup Job Crawls, which are targeted towards students who are interested in staying here and working for a startup or high-growth company here in the region, Thinc Iowa and more.
We’ve had countless numbers of people within the community that have found new job opportunities within companies that are here, all the way to regional startups connecting with investors from outside the area, like in the case of Dwolla, a mobile payment technology startup who met, and now has as investors, Paige Craig, Marc Ecko and more, at a Silicon Prairie News event.
What’s your background, and how did it lead you to your current efforts?
I have always been extremely interested in the building and transformation of communities. Whether that be through the rebuilding of Omaha’s Riverfront and recent downtown redevelopment, to our innovators and creative community, what make communities click and the subsequent work they accomplish is something I am fascinated by.
Roughly four years ago, while I was working for a technology company based in New York, I was able to see firsthand the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystems we are all familiar with including San Francisco, New York, Boulder, Boston and others, and was intrigued by what I saw. There was something unique about each of these city’s culture and way of life that served to brand itself to individuals outside of the area. These communities were filled with individuals armed with an amazing sense of drive and inspiration, and were pushing forward on new ideas and launching new businesses each day.
When I would return home to Omaha, I realized that we had these same individuals in our region, but they were heads down and siloed – working on their own initiatives, unaware of what was going on around them. Additionally, there was no outlet telling the stories of the entrepreneurs and creatives in our own backyard.
Thus the inspiration for Silicon Prairie News – a site which started as simply a way to highlight and start to document the individuals doing unique things in our own backyard each day. Our team’s focus continues to be centered around how do we daily highlight and connect the emerging entrepreneurs and innovators within our communities in the through stories, interviews and events.
Since its official launch in July 2008, the mission has now expanded to include a focus on activity in the greater Des Moines and Kansas City regions as well.
Who/what are two of your favorite Omaha-based entrepreneurs/businesses that we should know about?
It’s hard to limit the list to two, but I’m excited by what Jimmy Winter and team at VoterTide are building. VoterTide is collecting relevant, real-time data across the social and new media spectrums to measure how political candidates are rising or trending online.
Nick Bowden and the team at MindMixer is another startup making moves with their work around developing a virtual townhall service focused on municipal and government projects. The platform generates a broader audience and works to create a more effective level of community participation.
We’re featuring you in the context of our larger #FixYoungAmerica Week. How are you involved with the movement, and how can SPN benefit or focus on the glaring problem of youth unemployment/underemployment?
The whole issue of addressing youth unemployment and/or underemployment is important to tackle as part of a larger picture. As students and college graduates are coming out of college, we are working to raise awareness of what’s possible here. Highlighting the successes of regional startup landscape, and showing tangible job opportunities which exist, starts to provide a solution. There’s no better time than as a youth to start a company, and the hope is for those with a solid idea, we can provide a support landscape for the best chance at success.
We feel we’re just getting started in terms of what we can do to engage the next generation of entrepreneurs in the Silicon Prairie. The Startup Job Crawl, an idea we first launched last year in Des Moines which brought together 80 students with local companies, and the most recent Crawl in Omaha which brought together over 200 students with 25+ companies.
What is the biggest challenge in fostering this Midwest community of entrepreneurs?
I think one of the biggest challenges is knowing what resources are available, and “who’s doing what.” Part of the process is to map and identify the resources, as well as shortfalls, which exist and work to build, as well as address the needs that are identified. And we realize these efforts take time. Brad Feld of Boulder says it best when he suggests that it takes a half dozen or more committed individuals, on a 20-year journey to build an entrepreneurial community. As we believe in that approach, we’re just 10% on the way to creating an ecosystem that can make sustainable, long term changes.
What can we look for in the future of SPN?
Over the course of 2012, we’re working to continue bringing timely and relevant information on a daily basis regarding the activities of the entrepreneurial community in the region, as well as striving to make our events even stronger. With the debut of Thinc Iowa last October, and Big Omaha entering its fourth year, those events, paired with other regular meetups and activities throughout the year keep us busy.
Once we prove the model in the greater Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City regions, we’ll look to see if there are opportunities to take the same model to other similar sized markets within the Midwest where there’s already a strong entrepreneurial community.
What’s one restaurant and one location in Omaha you think every visitor should check out? (Personally, I’m a fan of Ahmad’s Persian restaurant in the Old Market, and the Henry Doorly Zoo.)
Just one? That’s tough… let’s go with The Grey Plume for lunch, and the Boiler Room for dinner when you’re in town. And I’d encourage you to check out the Slowdown / Film Streams complex just north of the Old Market. If you’re interested in catching an independent film, concert or a coffee, it’s the place to go and embrace the city’s culture.
What can readers do to contribute to your success?
Thanks so much for asking! I’d love for folks to follow what’s happening within the region by visiting and subscribing to our site. As we look to continue growing awareness in the Midwest and beyond, it’s always great to sync with other like-minded folks across the country.