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Inside SPN: Why Big Des Moines?

Inside SPN is a series that aims to provide insight into the work we do and how we do it.

About the author: Geoff Wood is the COO and main connection point in Iowa for Silicon Prairie News.

In our November announcement naming our full-time Kansas City staff and new event, Big Kansas City, we casually mentioned that Thinc Iowa, our two-year-old event in Des Moines, would now be called Big Des Moines.

I’ve heard lots of good feedback from the community, but I wanted to use our new behind-the-scenes series to share the reasons for the change. 

The “Big”

As we first sought to name the new Kansas City event we had an important decision to make: do we play off one of the established brands of our other two events, Big Omaha and Thinc Iowa, or do we create an entirely new brand?

If we go the latter route, we’d be adding a fifth brand – SPN, Big Omaha, Thinc Iowa, our new Kansas City event and the Silicon Prairie Series – that we’re working to establish and manage.

One factor that we took into account was that more than once when talking to a potential speaker about Thinc Iowa, they were surprised to learn that it and Big Omaha were both Silicon Prairie News events. “Is this your event? You’re behind it, etc?” One potential speaker asked us in an email last September.

We decided to go with the former and to not only play off the name of our most established brand, but to extend it to all three events. Each now starts with “Big” and together they make up The Big Series.

Rather than have five unique brands working independently, we have two – one for the event series and one for the news blog – that will, hopefully, work together. While the association is not as clean as say TechCrunch Disrupt or The Next Web Conference we’re optimistic that “Big” will become synonymous with the Silicon Prairie very soon. After all, this region is increasingly becoming a place where big things happen, where big innovations emerge and where big ideas become reality.

On “Des Moines” instead of “Iowa”

After we decided on The Big Series the next discussion was whether the event should be “Big Des Moines” or “Big Iowa.”  While there are certainly pros and cons with either choice, we ultimately decided that the more strategic decision was to emphasize the city over the state.

In planning the inaugural Thinc Iowa in 2011, we faced the same discussion. At that time, we were thinking local and thought that using “Iowa” in the name would help attract attendees from all across the state. Unlike Nebraska, Iowa has distinct, relatively heavy population centers in both the central and eastern parts of the state that we wanted to pull from (as well as the less populated west). We were concerned that an event named for “Des Moines” wouldn’t draw statewide.

What we learned, however, is that if you hold a quality event with a quality reputation, you can draw from anywhere. Thinc Iowa not only drew from all parts of this state but also 19 others.

With that in mind, the addition of Big Kansas City gave us a chance to reset this event’s name and we shifted our thinking to how we highlight this community nationally.

First, Des Moines – as the capital and largest city – is the national reference point for urban Iowa. That doesn’t diminish the cool things happening in Cedar Rapids or Sioux City, it’s just the first place one thinks of. There’s a school of thought that in modern American society cities are our reference points for urban places and that the states are references for rural communities. How often do you refer to Illinois when you’re talking about something happening in Chicago? If you’re connecting on a Delta flight, do you refer to it as flying into Georgia? Not likely. The cities are our reference point and what reflects positively on the them reflects positively on the whole state.

The same is true in Des Moines and Iowa. For example, I talked with all of the Thinc Iowa speakers after the event and asked them about their experience. Several mentioned specifically how much they enjoyed their time in Des Moines but none mentioned Iowa – even though it was in the name of the conference. For example, Brian Spaly of Trunk Club said in an email: “Thinc Iowa was one of my favorite speaking engagements of 2012. Extremely well run, great staff, and a ton of positive energy. A few great days in Des Moines – awesome city.”

Second, it makes sense to think nationally with The Big Series since they’ve truly become “national events.” In the case of Thinc Iowa 2012, nearly 50 percent of attendees came from 19 states outside of Iowa. More than 40 percent of Big Omaha 2012 attendees hailed from 26 states other than Nebraska. In both cases, this geographic diversity is an increase over past years.

One of our main drivers in producing The Big Series is to raise the profile of each Silicon Prairie city’s startup community. Thinc Iowa was doing that on an ad hoc basis but didn’t do as much as it could. For example, a CNN.com feature in November titled “Cities where startups are thriving” included both Omaha and Des Moines. The Omaha criteria for inclusion stated: “Much of that is thanks to Big Omaha, a conference on innovation and entrepreneurship that aims to be as big as SXSW or TED.”

The Des Moines section noted many of the awesome assets of our startup community like Dwolla and StartupCity, but no mention of Thinc Iowa. We think that an event called Big Des Moines will help Des Moines’ profile far more than “Thinc Iowa” has thus far.

The decision to change the name of an annual event in its third year wasn’t an easy one or one that we took lightly. However, we’re really excited for The Big Series and Big Des Moines’ part in it. We hope that you are, too.

The Big Season Pass, a discounted ticket to all three events, goes on sale Wednesday.


Credits: Graphic designed by Performance Marketing for Big Des Moines.

About the author: Geoff Wood is the COO and main connection point in Iowa for Silicon Prairie News, an organization working to increase the notability of the Silicon Prairie region – Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City and surrounding area – as an innovation center and startup hub. In addition to a daily news blog, the Silicon Prairie News team also produces events like Big Des Moines (formerly Thinc Iowa), Big Omaha and Big Kansas CityWood helps organize Barcamp Des Moines and DSM Startup Drinks.

You can contact Geoff at geoff@siliconprairienews.com or find him on Twitter, @geoffwood.

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