Ryan Downs has worked with several fast-growing startups, lived in nearly a dozen cities, and traveled all over the U.S. but for Downs, returning to live and work in Nebraska is exactly where he wants to be. He’s now president of Omaha-based Proxibid, the world’s largest live auction marketplace. Previously, he worked for law firms and was a part of the PayPal executive team.
Downs grew up on his family farm and ranch outside Hershey, Nebraska and later went on to study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Harvard Law School. After law school, he worked seven years as a trial lawyer for a firm in Denver and Chicago. Some of the clients that he represented, entrepreneurs who were making an impact on the world, were a driving force for his leaving law.
“It’s not that you don’t make an impact as a trial attorney but what I determined early on is I wanted to create something that was a little more lasting and maybe impacted people’s lives in a positive way,” Downs said. “I suppose at the end of the day, I just didn’t love practicing law and wanted to go into business.”
He and a few other individuals began a startup technology company focused on web development and hosting. They focused on small and medium business environments that didn’t necessarily have their own IT departments but were starting to appreciate the power of the web and technology to grow their businesses.
In all, Downs spent eight years with PayPal, most recently serving as senior vice president of Worldwide Operations in San Jose, California. He said his time with the successful e-commerce business taught him lessons that prepared him for working for companies like Proxibid.
As PayPal grew into a multibillion-dollar company, Downs was ready for a change and took a year off to reconnect with his family and travel. He eventually came to Omaha and was approached by businesses for consultations in e-commerce and strategy work when he met Bruce Hoberman of Proxibid.
“I was intoxicated by the Proxibid story,” Downs said. “It’s a very, very exciting place with amazing opportunity so once again I couldn’t say no.”
Downs not only had his ideal job but he was back in Nebraska, which to him is a win-win situation.
“This is my home and I love it here. I always find that this is where I’m most comfortable,” Downs said. “What makes Proxibid so compelling is the chance to be a part of a dynamic internet company that is and can have more global impact and can again help small and medium businesses improve their success, and I get to do it where I want to live.”
Downs said Proxibid is in a unique position to create a large number of jobs for the region and pointed to how he believes the “Midwest work ethic” works as a benefit for businesses in the region.
“There’s not a sense of entitlement here,” he said. “There’s a respect for hard work and an expectation that if you do work hard, you’ll do well. Most people I encounter in this part of the world don’t think that most people don’t owe them anything except maybe an opportunity.”
Downs said one of the challenges the Midwest faces is that there aren’t enough technical people abiding in the area to support the growing technology demand.
“It’s a real weakness in our ecosystem,” he said. “That’s something that will have to be improved within our ecosystem if we really want companies like Proxibid and PayPal and others to continue to locate and grow here.”
Another challenge is the lack of direct flights to cities like Omaha. Travelers have to stop in places like Denver, adding hours onto a trip which he said adds up in loss of productivity and expense.
Whatever strengths and weaknesses exist, Downs is happy with his decision to live in Omaha and work for Proxibid. His experiences have taught him that a successful business should strive to be itself but can always learn from other business examples. Apple’s focus on design, Nordstrom’s focus on customer service, and Google’s bold visions for its company are a few examples Downs cited in successful business strengths.
He’s also learned that to be a great leader is to learn from others while also keeping focus, building culture and developing a successful workforce. “The great leaders look at those around them and they take pieces and take lessons, little slivers of knowledge, and they incorporate that into the mix,” Downs said. “I think the real art is find the best and put it together in a mix that works and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”