When Mark Eckō came to Big Omaha 2011, the experience contributed to his decision to invest in both Zaarly and Dwolla.
One of the biggest names at Big Omaha 2012 isn’t anywhere to be found on the speaker list.
At Big Omaha 2011, Marc Eckō took the stage and shared the story of how he built a billion-dollar business, and he injected a bit of the unexpected into the speaker Q&A. But this year he’ll eschew the stage and don an attendee badge like most of the 650-plus people at The KANEKO.
And that’s fine by Eckō. He prefers it, in fact. After all, some of the most important work he did at Big Omaha last year came far away from the spotlight of the main stage.
Eckō is the founder and chief creative officer of Marc Eckō Enterprises, a billion-dollar global fashion and lifestyle company, and the founder of Artists & Instigators, a venture innovation company. He came to Big Omaha 2011 to speak and walked away having made one connection and strengthened another that led him to invest in a pair of startups with Silicon Prairie ties.
The first of those investments was Zaarly, the proximity-based, real-time, buyer-powered market that briefly made its headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. Although Eckō met Zaarly co-founder and CEO Bo Fishback before the two were on the same speaker slate at Big Omaha last May, Eckō’s encounter with Fishback at the conference helped cement his decision to fund the company.
“Seeing him speak and kind of getting his vibe and then seeing him again soon after when I was out in Kansas City kind of is what led and provoked an investment in Zaarly,” Eckō said.
Within the same three-day span last year, Eckō was also introduced to someone that first stood out mostly for his distinctive shaved head and beard. But then, Eckō recalled: “The woman I was speaking with says, ‘This is the smartest f—ing guy you’ll ever meet.’ “
That guy was Ben Milne (left), the founder and CEO of Des Moines-based Dwolla. It wasn’t long before Milne had dazzled Eckō with Dwolla, a cash-inspired electronic payment network. “He started explaining to me what Dwolla was,” Eckō recalled, “and it kind of blew my mind.”
The two men continued their dialogue after Big Omaha, and Eckō’s Artists & Instigators was among the investors in the $5 series B round Dwolla announced in February.
Dwolla’s continued growth has been gratifying for Eckō because, to him, it serves as validation of a belief he holds strongly: “It’s not where you’re from,” Eckō says, borrowing from the wisdom of rapper Rakim, “it’s where you’re at.”
That is to say, in Eckō’s view, location isn’t the impediment to progress that people tend to think it is. Whether in The Valley, The Alley, The Prairie or somewhere in between, true talent and cutting-edge innovation will make their mark, Eckō says.
“There’s kind of this persistent theme for a lot of these efforts that come out of the Midwest or out of the Prairie states that there’s somewhat of an isolatedness from the coasts,” he said. “And I actually think the smart people and the cream kind of rises and is indifferent to where it’s generated.”
With Eckō’s current project, Artists & Instigators, he’s looking to skim some of that cream off the top. Or, put another way, he’s “trying to build the Nike of entrepreneurship.” Just as Nike touts a stable of superstar athletes like LeBron James and Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, Eckō would like A&I to back a collection of top entrepreneurs and innovators: “I always keep my eyes peeled for the next great athletes, if you will — the next great, badass artists, badass hustlers, innovators and instigators.”
Even so, Eckō said he doesn’t come to Big Omaha with any sort of checklist. He’s back in Nebraska more to learn and find inspiration than to scout for entrepreneurial talent. But if his recent history is any indication, there’s a chance the latter may happen anyway.
“There’s no doubt,” Eckō said. “Like I said, I want to be around best-in-class badasses that want to go stir up some s— and, you know, change the way we consume, challenge the way commerce is done and really kind of realize their dreams and create little armies of dream-seekers. That’s who I want to be around. That’s what interests me.”
Credits: Photos by Malone & Company/Big Omaha.
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