San Francisco, Boulder, Boston, Austin are all well-known start-up hubs. Why shouldn’t Omaha, Nebraska, be on that list?
That’s the question that nagged Jeff Slobotski, an Omaha native who spent years working in a sales position that brought him to these hubs across the country. He was always impressed by the concentration and recognition of creativity and talent in these other towns. "I get back home and I realized, well wait a minute we have those individuals here," Slobotski says. "But nobody was really telling their story."
Not even the entrepreneurs themselves, who might have venture capital-backed software development companies or successful web design firms working for global brands.
"Lots of people here are just super humble, heads-down working on their own projects," he says. "[But] there’s this balance of being prideful and just being proud of what we’re doing."
While all this single-minded determination may be a good work ethic, it’s bad for building the business community Slobotski wanted to foster. So he teamed up with Dusty Davidson, a friend who co-founded a tech start-up, to blog about the entrepreneurs, creative talents, and investors they could find around Omaha. They named their blog — somewhat optimistically — Silicon Prairie News.
"I felt like we kind of mapped who was in the scene or the space," Slobotski says, noting that one connection always helped uncover another. "I knew there was some sort of entrepreneurial or creative community, but I didn’t realize the depths."
The website consumed Slobotski and Davidson, but it also filled a niche in the community. What started as a hobby in 2008 quickly grew into a full-time job. The initial blog about a few local talents became a full-fledged news and networking organization for entrepreneurs in the region. Within months, Silicon Prairie News began organizing small meet-ups, then larger ones. Then covering other cities. Today, the website has staff in three states writing about entrepreneurs and investors throughout the region, hosts conferences, and works to build community. The company also hosts job fairs and awards ceremonies. The website that saw 40,000 visitors in its first year got 600,000 last year.
The site met an untapped need: entrepreneurs craved community to collaborate, share ideas, and build business. But in a town and region where self-promotion was rare and often read as brash, nobody was championing their projects.
"We often say our job at Silicon Prairie News is to shout from the rooftops about what people are working on because of their modesty," Davidson says. "We spend a lot of time trying to tell people it’s not a bad thing or an immodest thing to talk about what you’re working on."
Dusty Davidson (left) and Jeff Slobotski, co-founders of Silicon Prairie News. Photo by Malone & Company.
While Omaha natives struggle to talk about themselves and nobody does their own so-called elevator pitch, everyone seems enthusiastic about promoting each other. As local venture capitalist Mark Hasebroock puts it, if someone asks directly about a person's business, they will just as often deflect the question and talk about someone else's successes.
"It’s just, 'How you guys doing?' 'Oh I’m fine but boy how about ABC company. Those guys are just knocking it out!' " Hasebroock says.
While this may seem counter-intuitive, praising others is actually one of the behaviors common to the most innovative cultures, says professor Jack McGourty, the director of global and community entrepreneurship at the Columbia Business School. "It’s not just that you come up with new ideas but that you’re willing to advocate for the ideas of others," he says. "You become almost like a selfless champion. And when you see really innovative places, you see that behavior."
And that’s what’s happened in Omaha and the surrounding region: greater connectivity is helping entrepreneurs overcome their reticence at self-promotion, and helping them work together and promote each other. While the connections start with Silicon Prairie News, they also go further.
Take MindMixer, the interactive software platform developed by a couple of Omaha natives, which found the funding it needed by tapping into connections through Silicon Prairie News. In 2010, the blog highlighted Nick Bowden, the chief engagement officer and co-founder of MindMixer. Months before, the website had profiled a then-new venture capitalist, Hasebroock.
When Bowden was looking for funding, he knew to call Hasebroock, who already knew about Bowden and MindMixer. The two got together. Hasebroock’s firm, Dundee Venture Capital, helped raise $2.2 million for the company and Hasebroock became a co-founder. The software, an online civic engagement platform, is profitable as of March 2012, and is now used by more than 275 organizations, including the city governments of San Francisco and Omaha, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, and the Republican National Committee.
While Bowden recognizes — and praises — the role Slobotski and Silicon Prairie News played in helping build his success, he also believes his success stems from a larger community of mutual support and promotion beyond the news website. And that community is part of what led him and his co-founders to decide to keep their company based in Omaha, rather than relocate their headquarters to a more established hub where capital flows more freely and there is a broader talent pool.
"I think there’s a collective 'We' about building the community here and feeling like you’re part of something that’s a little bigger than you but its early enough that you can have a tangible impact," he says.