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Four years in, reflecting on the Big Omaha community

The speakers of the inaugural Big Omaha, a one-day event in May 2009.

It’s hard to believe that we’re days away from the fourth year of Big Omaha. It seems like just yesterday we were debating about hosting an event, fondly something similar to an “Omaha Web 2.0 / Social Media” conference. 

I for one am glad that we decided on the name “Big Omaha” instead of the “Web 2.0 Conference in Omaha” as the event is so much more than just the latest trends or predictions, rather it’s about encouraging people to think bigger, bolder and on a much grander scale than what’s been possible in the middle of America. The Silicon Prairie. Omaha.

The impact of Big Omaha has metrics that we can track year after year, but on the other hand, many of the event’s important results aren’t easily quantifiable. For example, there’s been a recorded increase in the number of attendees each year – 400 at the inaugural event in 2009, and more than 650 are expected this year – but what’s gone unreported is the exact number of relationships created, ideas churned or business strategies changed.

Most of the “benefits” and results are hard to spot, yet they can be discovered by looking closely enough and talking with people in the Big Omaha community.

A “kick in the pants”

charity: water founder Scott Harrison speaks at Big Omaha 2010.

When we set out in the summer of 2008 to launch Big Omaha, we did so with a sense and spirit of creating something new. Something that would allow us to bring in some of the people that inspired us. The people that we knew would give a “kick in the pants” to the community we had seen here.

It’s stories like the formation of The New BLK, a local art gallery and creative think tank that came to fruition shortly after the first Big Omaha, that are a testament to the success of that kick-in-the-pants goal. The team of Shane and Shawn Bainbridge, Eric Gautschi, Matt Linder and John Hustead worked behind the scenes for a few months to make the space in the Old Market a reality.

The story of Wendy Townley who began the adventure of writing her first book, “Nerdy Thirty,” after being inspired by the relationships and new friendships she had developed as a result of Big Omaha.

Another truly magical moment was when we challenged the communities around Big Omaha and Silicon Prairie News to raise money for charity: water, whose founder, Scott Harrison, was speaking at Big Omaha 2010. I issued a challenge to the community to try to raise $5,000 before Harrison arrived for the event. The challenge, issued just six weeks out, would allow charity: water to provide clean, safe drinking water for more than 250 people who had gone without for years.

Something amazing happened and by the time all was said and done, our community had raised more than $15,000. Instead of raising enough money for one well, the community had raised enough money for three wells, for three villages that would serve over 750 people!

More inspiring was the number of people from within the community who decided to give up their birthdays or start their own efforts, such as Nathan Hidajat, a second grader in Ames, Iowa, who raised more than $1,000 in one week.

The Silicon Prairie

Fast forward to today and the great things happening and the anticipation of activity just around the corner. Omaha has startups experiencing growth and expansion like we’ve never seen before, including some of the community’s established tech companies like Hayneedle, Proxibid and Sojern. And there’s a group of emerging startups, as well, such as Mindmixer, VoterTide and SkyVu Entertainment.

It’s fascinating to see the attention these startups are getting, too, from local and national media outlets. I still remember the first time a Nebraska company was included in Inc’s “30 Under 30” list in 2010 (left), to today seeing startups that are mentioned just about every month in national publications, such as Kansas City’s AgLocal in Fast Company and Des Moines’ Dwolla in Forbes.

The extent to which capital is flowing in the community is extremely promising. From the work of veteran entrepreneur Mark Hasebroock, who launched Dundee Venture Capital in 2010, to Steve Kiene and his team, who announced a $37 million fund in 2011 that they would deploy within the state.

Not only are we seeing an increase in the level of investment and funding from within the community, but also outside capital being deployed here, and we’re humbled to see Big Omaha play a role. For example, Dwolla’s Ben Milne met Marc Eckō at Big Omaha 2011 and Paige Craig at Thinc Iowa, our other premier event, and in February announced a $5 million round with their participation.

Capricorn Investment Group – the investment arm of eBay Founder Jeff Skoll – who under chief investment officer and Nebraska native Stephen George’s advisement deployed put $5 million into Omaha-based startup Bloom.com earlier this year. Another pivotal move to continue raising the awareness and interest from outside investors as to some of the dynamic emerging companies being built in the Silicon Prairie.


The community is changing through the amazing support from the Big Omaha sponsors, as well. Each year, they continually support our events, not only financially, but also by sending their employees who are eager to take on an “intrapreneurial” mindset.

The artists we collaborate with each year, as well as our DJs who put so much of their heart and soul into the event is just a piece of the ways I see the various communities – from artists to musicians, to entrepreneurs and  innovators – starting to collaborate and support each other’s projects is encouraging.

A huge gratitude of thanks goes to each and every one of you for what you’re doing to make this an amazing community. With our efforts combined, we’ll continue inching closer to a cluster of cities, a region that’s firing on all cylinders.

The full impact of what is taking place will be more evident several years from now, as what we are seeing take place today are small, yet vital, pieces of a much larger jigsaw puzzle that continues to be developed.


Credits: Photo by Malone & Company / Big Omaha. Screenshot from fastcompany.com

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