Earlier this month, we were excited to receive coverage in Metro Magazine, a monthly publication covering Omaha’s philanthropic scene. We asked for permission to reprint the article because we think it cleary communicates our story and mission. So, if you haven’t heard about us before, or you’ve been with us since day one (thank you!), we hope you enjoy the article and get a better sense of how we began, what we do, and where we hope to go next.
Also, we recommend you check out Metro Magazine’s “YP Connections.” Each issue they’ll be posing a question to a group of young professionals. Here’s their first: “If it’s up to you to shape the future of Omaha, what kind of community do you want?”
The following article was published in the May 2009 issue of Metro Magazine. They’ve given us permission to reprint here for you to enjoy.
Omaha-based Silicon Prairie News (SPN) may not be the next big thing on the Web but that’s OK with founder Jeff Slobotski. The Omaha native envisions his less-than-year-old startup as part social mission and part social networking portal. SPN’s public face is www.siliconprairienews.com, a sleek blog, news and events site devoted to nurturing and linking the area’s entrepreneurial minded creative class.
Site postings include original published stories, video interviews and listings filed by him and partner Dusty Davidson, owner of the boutique software applications firm, Bright Mix, which hosts SPN. “If you’re looking for news and information around the creative class,” Slobotski said, “that’s what we work to cover and provide for folks on a daily basis.”
Slobotski, 31, came to admire his hometown as an entrepreneurial hot bed while working with political campaigns in Nebraska and as a capital consultant with the Steier Group. He’s further staked-out cutting-edge Omaha in his current sales role with a New York based software company.
His travels allow him to compare the climate for startups here with that of centers of innovation such as Silicon Valley and Austin. What he sees is that, yes, things are hopping as you’d expect in these progressive hubs but there’s also no shortage of enterprising intellectual capital and commerce in Omaha.
“I knew that we had a lot of the same entrepreneurial, innovative spirit and creative talent here,” said Slobotski, who makes it SPN’s business to track and engage this lively community of Generation X-Y-Z go-getters.
He maintained a personal blog that predated SPN, Midwest to Manhattan, where he commented on what he saw while traveling through New York, San Francisco and everywhere in between. “My office was in Manhattan at that time.” After a while though Slobotski decided to turn his attention from what was happening elsewhere to what was happening in his own backyard.
“I thought, nobody wants to read about me traveling around and writing, ‘Look what I’ve seen’ or ‘Look who I met.’ I wanted to site to highlight others’ stories rather than my own. I wanted to turn it around and say take a look at the talented individuals doing it right here.”
That’s when he began formulating the SPN model that features individuals living the dream as entrepreneurs, innovators, mavericks, venture capitalists and more. “I said, ‘Wait, I’m talking about what I’ve seen in NY when we already had it here.” Examples are abundant.
“To me Rachel Jacobsen is an innovator. She may not clock in at 8 and out at 5, but what she and others are doing really pushes the spirit and energy in our city right now,” said Slobotski. “Secret Penguin and What Cheer are other examples of radically talented designers doing work for the NFL, MTV and more and are right in our backyard.”
On his SPN site Slobotski’s sung the praises of both Jacobson and Secret Penguin owner Dave Nelson, a pro skateboarder whose youth branding business is built around skateboarding, music and youth cultures. Both Film Streams and Secret Penguin, along with bar/live music venue Slowdown, are part of the Saddle Creek Records complex that anchors the NoDo district’s developing cultural-commercial scene and exemplifies the creative class community Slobotski celebrates.
In his self-described role as “citizen reporter” Slobotski, not a trained journalist but a University of Nebraska at Omaha finance and banking graduate, does a form of advocacy journalism through Silicon Prairie News posts. SPN really is his forum to serve as Omaha’s creative class evangelist and facilitator.
“I see the resources, the talent we have here in town, and again it goes back to those connections or those networks,” he said. “What good is it if you know a bunch of people, but aren’t helping to develop their skills and build their businesses. Our goal is to build the community, while highlighting individuals, businesses and ideas to show others that you’re not alone. If you’re moonlighting on ideas after leaving your 8-5 job, we want that person to know that you’re not on an island. There’s a number of other folks in the same stage as yourself.”
Slobotski and Davidson moonlight themselves, doing SPN as a “labor of love” around regular careers. They do more than report on entrepreneurs. They also stage events where innovators across a wide spectrum – from techies to artists – meet and share what they do. The idea is to foster matches, links, collaborations that result in business needs being met or new ventures being sparked. An incubator for entrepreneurial startups is in the works. Anything arising from this mix of socialbusiness engagements add to the vibrant creative class which SPN champions.
Soon after launching the SPN Web site July 25th, Slobotski said it became apparent bringing people together in a virtual environment needed a corollary physical gathering. “We said, ‘Let’s get people together face to face rather than just trading emails, text messages or voice mails back and forth. Let’s meet and learn people’s stories.” Thus, SPN organized Omaha’s inaugural BarCamp and Tweetup and a talk by the noted Silicon Valley business author/reporter Sarah Lacy.
He said the free events draw 100 people or more on average. SPN’s next event, the May 7th-8th BigOmaha conference at Kaneko, will present forward-thinking creatives, innovators and entrepreneurs telling their national and local success stories, including Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library, (a hot wine news, tastings and review site), and Rachel Jacobson of Film Streams. BigOmaha is a by-registration-only event. Slobotski said registrants are signed up from across the county.
As Slobotski and Davidson are entrepreneurs in their own right, they, along with peers profiled online or in person, offer insider perspectives on the startup experience and creative class milieu. Slobotski hopes these stories inspire others to follow their own passion and do what they love. It’s all part of the synergy he aspires to promote, one where people with varied skill sets meet through events to launch new ideas or collaborate on projects. One connection may lead to another, and so on. It’s all about being plugged-in or linked-in.
Cross-mingling groups that don’t ordinarily connect, he said, can mean win-win situations. “I think each one can respect what the other’s doing and then help each other out.
It’s fun, I love meeting with people. But the key is what you do with those relationships to motivate others to get involved, help others and really make a lasting change.” Beyond a fondness for social media, there’s a social consciousness aspect to Slobotski, who’s founded a charitable organization, Packs of Promise, that provides new backpacks filled with supplies to the homeless through Siena/Francis House.
SPN is a-work-in-progress. At first he thought it would be tough to find stories outside of his circle of friends. But as the word has gone out and SPN’s network has increased, he said, “we’ve now got a slate of folks to interview probably 15 to 20 long. Guys are coming out of the woodwork. We’re doing about a story or two a day” as opposed to a couple a week before. “We just met a guy who works at CSG Systems by day but he’s launched two or three small startup businesses on the side. We want more stories like that.”
He said the site is at 10,000 to 12,000 hits a month and increasing. Content drives it, which means expanding beyond the local marketplace to do more regional/national coverage. He reported from Austin’s recent South by Southwest festival. Published stories remain the core, but Slobotski said video pieces get the most feedback.
“I still think print is relevant and helpful but to be able to see the face of the woman who owns the bakery or the guy that owns the web design shop telling their own stories for 5 minutes – I just think people connect with that a little more.”
He’s also aware SPN treads a fine line with its advocacy, citizen-level reporting. “We’re definitely tweaking and making changes, figuring ways to keep it not too stuffy but also not too weak, or too casual without enough structure,” he said. His long-term goal “is to turn this into a sustainable business – with the right balance, where it’s not ad heavy, and still provides a valuable resources to its readers.”