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View from the FishBowl: Are we there yet?

About the Author: William Fisher, a partner at Treetop Ventures in Omaha, is a regular guest contributor to Silicon Prairie News. In his series, View from the FishBowl, Fisher calls on his experience as a business executive and technology investor to lend his advice to entrepreneurs in the Silicon Prairie.

Fisher has served as a director for several prominent public companies and private firms, and he currently serves on the boards of Scooter’s Coffeehouse, Prism Technologies, Lodo Software and FTNI. To read his full bio, including a listing of companies he has been involved with, visit treetopventures.com.

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The title page of a May 1991 article in Adweek’s Marketing Computers publication featuring William Fisher, who was with Applied Communication Inc. (better known today as ACI Worldwide) at the time.

I remember when I was a kid and my two sisters and I would load up in the Buick to go to Grandma Fisher’s house or maybe one of my aunts/uncles. Why do I only remember that we loaded up to go to grandma’s or maybe one of our aunts or uncles? Because, for the most part, that is the only place we ever went…to visit family. That’s what you did “back in the day.” We were four years apart and I was the middle child; yikes! It typically didn’t take very long for one of us (usually my little sister provoked by me or my older sister Barbara) to ask the inevitable question: “Are we there yet?” I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to my little sister, Bonnie, for any grief I may have caused with this provocation; we didn’t have car seats back then and you could lean way over in the front seat and ask your question. Clearly, this put her in jeopardy in more ways than one. I am sure most of you had similar experiences. (Barbara, Billy, Bonnie…sorry, you had to have been there…born in the south!)

I chose this for my first article for a good reason. Two decades ago, in 1991, I stood in a cornfield west of Omaha to be interviewed and photographed by a New York magazine who was trying to figure out what this “Silicon Prairie” was all about (Marketing Computers, May 1991: “The Silicon Prairie). At that time, it was sort of a novelty to liken our Prairie to the innovative Silicon Valley and the press thought it was worthwhile of a story. I agreed; I mean, how many times do you get your picture taken for a New York magazine? And Omaha was big time news in my mind. What I didn’t expect was an editorial from our local newspaper explaining the ‘crafty’ title might be a little premature (Omaha World-Herald, May 1991: “Crafty Title Could be Premature). Yowsers! The New Yorkers think we have something but our local people don’t! Who would have thunk?

Now, the reporter did try to give me credit in the article of thinking up the “crafty title” but I wouldn’t have any of it. The main reason why is that I am just not that creative; I must have heard it somewhere. I am good at math; love puzzles and thoroughly enjoy a lively debate but this old left-hander isn’t creative. No way. But, I guess that I was bothered by that article although I clearly realized that we definitely were not in the class of the Silicon Valley. Regardless, I still thought we had something to offer and was more than slightly bothered that locals might not think so.

So…… are we there yet? It has been 20 years!

Unfortunately, we aren’t but I think we are headed in the right direction albeit slowly. It isn’t that it was premature back then; it is just that we didn’t have the proper infrastructure locally to make sure that we nurture what I feel is the future of this country as it relates to jobs. It could have happened; it clearly happened elsewhere.

In the 20 years since the article was written, this country has seen the demise of our once proud manufacturing industries. When I was growing up, that was the backbone of our country. Who knows someone who was at Western Electric in Omaha? They were a huge employer here and a respected place to work. Across the country, the automakers and steel mills have shut down and aren’t being replaced by other manufacturers. My father, his brothers and numerous family friends worked at companies like Chrysler, Servel (predecessor to Whirlpool), Rockwell and others. The great middle class was employed by manufacturers who no longer are in business. (If you have time and like to read, pick up “Great Again” by Henry Nothhaft. His message is easy; manufacturing is no longer the backbone of our economy and startups are the catalyst of job growth in this country. I believe that and believe technology is the backbone of startups).

So… are we there yet? Are we arming our young people with what they need to become entrepreneurs and build businesses and create jobs like is happening in Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, Boston or the Triangle in the Carolinas? Most all of these areas were in their infancy 20 years ago; we still are somewhat in our infancy and they have all prospered. Don’t get me wrong. We have made progress on many fronts. Lots of startups in Omaha are providing jobs. They include but are not limited to Solutionary, Sojern, FTNI, Lodo Software, Perigon Networks, WebEquity Solutions, Hayneedle, Proxibid, Prism Technologies, MeNetwork, Tripleseat, Avantas, Global Netwatch, EPOWERdoc, Xuba, Graffiti Tracker, SkyVu Pictures, Deal Garden and MindMixer. Even more promising, we are seeing investors set up shop like Dundee Venture Capital, Prairie Ventures, Wellspring Capital Fund, Arbor Capital, Charter Hill Partners and more regional investors in Des Moines, Kansas City and even the Dakotas.

In addition, we are seeing commitment from the local chamber and the AIM Institute along with organizations like the Scott Technology Center. We have just recently seen LB389 pass which was created to provide incentive to angel investors to invest in startups in Nebraska.

From what I can tell, the places around the country that have been successful in providing fuel for startups have (1) a strong research based university system, (2) a legislature that is supportive of startups and the methods in which they obtain their capital, (3) strong local support from government and businesses and (4) an infrastructure of investors who are willing to risk capital (and this capital is risky) to take a chance on ideas. Each of you can ask yourself whether we are passing or failing as it relates to these four items. Each of these could be an article on their own; maybe I will do one on each in the future.

So… are we there yet? As my mom or dad used to say………………almost. Unfortunately, they said that whether we were a mile away or 20 miles away but it always seem to pacify us for at least a little while.

I think Omaha has been somewhat successful in raising the visibility for startups and most of the credit recently goes to groups like Silicon Prairie News. We have exceptional local organizations that are willing to help startups with office space and internet connections; this is good. However, the need I see is for experienced people who know how to help startups with their real problems (raising capital, financial engineering, capitalization (types and classes of stock), sales and marketing strategy, and a myriad of other problems to include distribution agreements, business model creation and validation, etc.) This is what they ask for when they show up at my door. Maybe this is something we should look at next; how to fund mentoring organizations, incubators, etc. (Note: the other places are doing it).

We are not there yet…but…almost……almost……almost……I think I can see Grandma…

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