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Do we really need Silicon Prairie News?

11178445_692456310949_31352326_nThree months ago I was hired by AIM to be the new managing editor of Silicon Prairie News. Since then, nearly every day, I’ve listened to entrepreneurs across the region.

I’ve met college students with a kickstarter and a dream. I’ve met mid-career professionals who hit the restart button and are risking everything with kids to feed. I’ve met veteran entrepreneurs who are starting another business or investing their money in others.

People talk about Midwestern humility and self-deprecation, but you folks are seriously the most ambitious, opinionated, passionate, stubborn, and restless people I’ve ever met.

Of course, that’s just the kind of people who settled this region in the first place. We call them pioneers.

Surrounding these conversations has been the question of the future of Silicon Prairie News–what its purpose is, what difference it makes, and where it should go from here.

I’ve heard 100 different opinions on that, and I have plenty of my own. But mostly I’ve just tried to be patient, listen closely, and look for patterns.

What you want to see from SPN

Through these conversations I keep hearing the same wish for SPN. You have told me what you want:

  • You want to read about the startups that don’t attend every event.
  • You want to read stories about mistakes and lessons learned, as well as success.
  • You want to read stories about former startups that are now successful (but often forgotten) companies.
  • You want to have conversations about shared challenges across the region.
  • You want us to help you find great talent.
  • You want help seeing the big picture of the region as a whole.
  • Most of all, you want thoughtful, intelligent stories about people in your community that you are proud to share.

Our data and your feedback show that when we do these well, you really like it! That’s what we will strive for in the months to come, to ring that clear bell over and over again.

What makes SPN special?

But aren’t there other people doing this now across the region?

Sites like We Create Here, who tell high-quality stories about Iowa’s Creative Corridor. Or Geoff Wood’s Welch Avenue at Gravitate in Des Moines. Or Fwd/KC in Kansas City.

Aren’t they our competition? Aren’t they going to “fill the void” that SPN left during its hiatus?

First of all, the work these people are doing is vital and truly a labor of love for their local communities. It’s not easy work, and anyone who is doing it as a side project has my respect.

Silicon Prairie News could scale back and be that kind of site for Omaha. And I’ve been told by some to do exactly that. (And others have simply assumed we will.)

But the vision of Silicon Prairie News has always been expansive. It has always been about more than Omaha. We have covered the rise of Hudl in Lincoln, Dwolla in Des Moines, and EyeVerify in Kansas City.

And the Omaha-KC-Des Moines triangle still leaves out the many amazing stories happening outside of the Big 3 and university towns–places like Fremont, Topeka, Sioux City and Wichita.

Silicon Prairie News was founded because Jeff and Dusty discovered incredible stories in unexpected places. When you hear people within our own region say there’s nothing happening in a particular city, who’s going to prove them wrong? Who’s going to find the untold stories and tell them?

We are the connector that lets Lawrence know what Iowa City is doing, and let’s Columbia know what Lincoln is doing. Through seven years of consistent content, SPN won a place in your hearts as the site that brings everything together. That’s why people tweet “@siliconprairie” whenever great news happens anywhere in the region. We aren’t just Omaha or Nebraska. We are you.

As long as we are Silicon Prairie News, we will be for the Silicon Prairie. We have not always done a great job at being that big tent. But our top priority must be improving our coverage of the region in a balanced way and seeking out the stories that we haven’t told yet.

Two visions of the Silicon Prairie

Now there are cynics who see our region very differently.

They say that Des Moines only really cares about Des Moines, that Kansas City only really cares about Kansas City. They see our vast archipelago of communities as rivals competing over a small and shrinking pool of talent, investment, and economic growth.

They are jealous of others’ hype. They are deaf to the success of any community but their own. They covet attention. If someone else has some good news, they use it as a pretense to be bitter about the own lack of coverage.

I know these people exist. I’ve met them the past three months.

But that is not the prairie I know.

I grew up in Elkhorn, Nebraska. Most of my extended family lives near Wichita and Kansas City. I went to college in Iowa and, after a brief time in Chicago, I came back to Iowa for several years. Now I’m back in Nebraska.

In that time I have survived tornadoes in southern Kansas, and I have attended weddings in Ankeny, Cedar Rapids, and Davenport. I have been to the top of the Saint Louis arch, and I have watched wildfires burn in the Nebraska panhandle.

All this land is my home, and my friends and family have no borders.

I am as much a Kansan at heart as a Nebraskan and more of an Iowan than I care to admit. That’s my experience.

A region of digital semi-nomads

What’s more, this prairie of division is not the prairie of the vast majority of those in the tech startup community.

Entrepreneurs tell me how they are now in Lincoln, but they started in Kansas City. Or they are based in Omaha, but they are going through an Iowa accelerator.

Accelerators and incubators attract applicants from anywhere. It is in their interest to let their entrepreneurs go wherever they need to be successful.

Venture capitalists and angel investors are interested in great ideas and great people, from whatever town or city they happen to come from.

And that still doesn’t include the steady stream of talented people coming into the region from places like New York or California (or my wife from Miami), who are simply happy to be here.

We may not be digital nomads, but we are something close. We roam, we settle, we roam again. When you serve clients and customers on a global scale, it can make little difference where you decide to set up camp.

Traditional institutions and governments do not understand this. They see the world in terms of boundaries. They see economic development in terms of buildings. But the regional tech community is made of roamers, who can travel anywhere and who can work in a 100-year-old house as easily as a business park.

When we gather for big events, it’s clear we have so much more in common than our local and state rivalries would suggest. We have the same struggles, the same stories. And with that shared experience, we have the potential to forge a new regional identity.

A future without SPN

In a future without SPN, there will be startups. There will be entrepreneurs and accelerators and incubators. There will be big raises and bootstraps and startup communities.

And the Kansas City folks will wonder what’s going on in Omaha. And the Omaha people will wonder what’s happening in Cedar Rapids. We will still talk about the “silicon prairie”–but not be quite sure what we mean.

Investors will hunt harder. Talented people will be more likely to leave and less likely to arrive.

There will be success, but that success will be muted, isolated, and limited. There will be sporadic good news, but nobody will be connecting all the dots, maintaining continuity, telling the big story.

That’s why SPN matters. That’s the mission that inspired Silicon Prairie News in the first place. It is a work that we’ve begun but have not finished.

It’s also a job too big for any local community builder. It takes a team with a wide lens, an expansive vision, the resources to support it, and the drive to do the hard work.

Our greatest enemy is not each other but geography

Unlike anywhere else in America, the prairie best defines freedom, possibility, and opportunity. Willa Cather called the prairie “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

It’s a place where you don’t have to ask permission to dream, to build, to expand. A place where the startup runways are long, and a place where what you invest in your business goes to growth, not rent. It is native land for the youthful, the dreamers, the empire builders.

And yet geography remains our greatest enemy. Somehow being two hours or even 30 minutes away can feel like we’re each locked in a soundproof room.

That’s why all the great work happening with similar news sites on the local level compliment what SPN does. We are still listening for each other. That’s why Silicon Prairie News isn’t done.

A defining moment

There is a feeling in the regional tech community that we have arrived at a historic crossroads. How we choose to define ourselves in the next few years will echo through the region for decades.

For even though the local newspapers rarely mention us, and the names of our companies often go unrecognized in our own hometowns, we are building the economic engines of the future.

For some of us, we are saving our communities.

We are the dynamos in a region that is all too often paralyzed with worry. We are the growers in a region that all too often defines itself by shrinking.

Many pay lip service to the Silicon Prairie, not because they believe in the vision, but because it papers over an inferiority complex about our place on the national stage.

That’s not interesting to me.

The only meaningful question is this: Who will we choose to become? And how will we define our region for the future?

Are you an SPNer?

If you are like me, and you believe in the Silicon Prairie as an ideal, not just a label, you are an SPNer.

If you are like me, and you believe collaboration is not self-sabotage but rather a force multiplier, you are an SPNer.

If you are like me, and you are inspired when anyone anywhere in the region succeeds, you are an SPNer.

If you are like me, and you believe in the vision of one prairie, interconnected and mutually supporting, a prairie without borders, you are an SPNer.

I know the cynics, but I’ve also met the dreamers. You can tell when you meet them that they get it. The most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met seem to have it, this vision. They don’t see limits.

So this is our challenge: To bridge the geography that divides us and to build a community that is bigger than chambers of commerce and state tax credits, to create a truly regional tech innovation network.

Our mission is not easy or inevitable. In fact, it is crazy to anyone but us.

It’s crazy because the interests of the status quo stop at the city limit sign, because the interests of the powers that be stop at the state line.

But there are no maps with our country on it.

I know not everyone in the startup community will be on board with this, not everyone is an SPNer. The prairie of division sees our regional future as a zero-sum game.

But that is not the prairie I know.

My vision for the Silicon Prairie is one that transcends what divides us. It is a vision of a connected, mutually supporting, regional tech community.

Silicon Prairie News is the one indispensable place where that work begins.

Ryan Pendell is the Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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  • Yes! Awesome! If I have an office in Omaha but work from home out of Denver, can I still be SPNer? I make the 8 hour drive just about every month, so I’m tackling that darn geography thing.

    • If you are like Mark Hennings, and you drive 8 hours every month from Denver to your office in Omaha, you are an SPNer. 🙂

  • If you were a startup founder, I’d tell you that your vision is awesome, but that in order to increase your chances of realizing it, you’re better off focusing on one specific product and one specific market, proving the model and becoming the best at it, and then (and only then) do you expand. Trying to be all things to all people can be a recipe for failure, especially given the limited resources you have to work with. Consider giving yourself the gift of focus. Go deep on one product and one market. Nail it. Then expand.

    • I was just thinking – what if We Create Here, Welch Avenue, Fwd/KC, Built in Chicago, Tech.mn – what if any of these guys, who’ve mostly won their local markets and validated a sustainable model – decided to replicate themselves in another city. Then another. Expanding slowly across the region, understanding the idiosyncrasies in each market, winning, and then moving to the next.

      I’m curious what other readers think. Which approach will win – city by city expansion, or a region-wide blanket attempt?

      • If you create something local (say, promoting Omaha to Omaha), and then duplicate that elsewhere, you don’t actually solve the issue of connecting communities together. You can have a 1MC or a Startup Weekend in every major town, but that doesn’t mean that all those towns are now connected with each other and collaborating together.

        • I guess what I’m saying is, maybe you shouldn’t try to solve so many problems. Is your #1 goal to connect all the cities in the region? or is to put Omaha on the map? or is it to help local startups get PR and grow? or is it something else? Consider picking one. You’re taking on a lot of responsibility to try an solve all those problems you’ve stated above, and you don’t have an unlimited runway.

        • That’s not true at all. Duplicating a local thing does very much solve the issue of connecting communities together.

          Startup Weekend is a closely connected community. I know all the organizers from around the midwest. We help each other. Last week a Startup Weekend organizer from was traveling to Lincoln for an investor meeting and he called me. We went to Brix, I bought his wine, the next day he shipped me a Chicago deep dish pizza as a thank you, and I introduced him to two other investors in the region. I invited the Startup Weekend organizers from Des Moines, Lincoln and Fargo to help run the Omaha event. That kind of connective tissue doesn’t happen because we read the same tech blog.

          I would argue that events do a better job of creating connective tissue between communities because they physically get people to visit their neighbors. Big Omaha, case in point, has done more to unite the region that any single mechanism I can think of. Definitely more than SPN. Startup Weekend, 1MC – all these events that have spread around the region have directly led to cross-community collaboration, and in a big way.

          I think you are making two classic startup mistakes. First, you have a solution looking for a problem. It needs to be the other way around. If you want to solve the cross-community connectivity problem, ditch SPN, research the problem and then design a solution. If the solution to that problem is a blog, I’ll eat my words.

          Second, you are trying to be all things to all people. You’ve listened to all the things people want from SPN, and now you’re declaring that SPN happens to solve all of those problems. You are taking on too much. I think you are in a position to solve bullets 1, 2, 3 and 7 under “What you want to see from SPN” above, but trying to simultaneously tackle 4, 5 and 6 will cause you to do it all mediocrely. And this time around, I think SPN has to be 10x better for it to succeed. Everyone is pessimistic, but more than willing to help. Impress them by making the brave decision to focus.

          • We need SPN to succeed. Just promise me you’ll meditate on the possibility of doing one thing really well, and then building on it from there. People won’t be upset if you say “We’re gonna do just Omaha until our reader engagement is where we want it to be, and then we’ll look at other cities. And we won’t also be distracted by job boards and other things until we get really good at our core competency – storytelling.” In fact, I think more people will respect that and support you.

          • I appreciate the honesty, Shane. If everyone agreed with everything we do, we wouldn’t be doing our job.

            Since I’ve joined SPN, we’ve focused on one thing: telling better stories. As we’ve told better stories, people have responded. Listening to our readers is something we are always improving on, and it’s not something I apologize for.

            We have a big vision, true. That doesn’t mean that we are attempting to solve all problems for everybody. We are adding value where we are strongest. I know we are adding value because of how appreciative our readers are of what we’ve accomplished already. We need to keep focused on that sweet spot and not get distracted by a host of other good things.

            And, to be clear, I am not satisfied with where we are. We have some good results, enough that I feel confident in our direction forward. But we have a long way to go.

            My confidence is also backed by the strong support we’ve received from AIM. AIM has been a great boon to SPN, and their team has flowed resources to us on every level, while giving me the freedom to lead. AIM has a long track record of success in developing products that serve the community in a self-sustaining way. I cannot praise them enough.

          • Maybe it would be helpful if you shared what you aren’t going to do. Right now it feels like you’re trying to be everything. That’s why I’m worried.

            When you talked to people, what are some problems they asked you to solve that you’ve decided NOT to solve?

          • We aren’t going to be everybody’s local events calendar. We aren’t going to be everybody’s local startup news source. We will cover stories with broad regional appeal or relevance.

            Although investors read us regularly (and some very closely), they are not our core audience. We are glad they read us, but what they have told me they would *love* is something very different than SPN.

            Sometimes when we do stories on companies, they get interest from investors. That’s a fantastic benefit, but that’s not something we can promise, deliver, track, or profit from. Some have said that that’s part of our core mission. But if we can’t control those outcomes or even track them, we won’t be focusing our energy there.

          • Just wanted to add that after reading this article from you, I’ve never been more excited about SPN. With a leader like you, who has an awesome vision and a clear ability to write well and with a high level of journalistic integrity, I know you’ll do well. I care a lot about the regional community. The problems you’re trying to solve are the same ones I try to solve in other ways. After watching so many founders fail because they try to do too much at once or start with the product rather than with the problem, I promised myself that I would stop offering empty words of encouragement and instead say the difficult things I believe they need to hear.

      • Greg B

        Built In is in four cities now (LA, Boulder, Austin, Chicago), and each subsequent city has been faster and faster to establish an audience and gain user/business (job board) traction. They’re continuing to perfect the model for future expansion (and full disclosure, we are investors in Built In), and are laser-focused on who their customers are and what their purpose is in each city.

        Part of the allure of SPN, to me, is the vision of aligning and unifying all things startup across the Prairie. It’s idealistic and inspiring. But that is also the difficulty of making it sustainable and a business, to your point, Shane. And Eric’s point. The vision is expansive and requires lots of feet on the street across an enormous region.

    • I get what you’re saying, Shane, but I’ll present the other side of the argument. If they take your approach they may never solve the initial problem that they set out to solve. It sounds to me like they realized a problem with lack of connectivity in the region. Just focusing on Omaha doesn’t address this problem.

      • You could be right. I don’t know. My take is – if they can’t find a sustainable model that works in one city, they won’t succeed in trying to roll it out across many cities – all of which have unique cultures and different needs.

  • Eric Dinger

    @ryanpendell:disqus very enjoyable read. Your vision is well articulated and important. I’d love to read a follow-on piece for how you’re going to make it happen. In the mean time, there is probably something all SPNers can do to help. Who are your customers and how can we help you get more of them?

    • When I tell people I’m with SPN, a common response I hear is “Oh, yeah. I used to read that.” I think we have a fair amount of disengaged fans who are starting to reengage now.

      My wish list is this: If you like what you see, if you enjoy what you read, please share it. If you get what we are doing, if you believe in our vision, please share it.

      I suppose the other thing (and maybe we can figure out a better way to do this) is that often our stories create conversations off site in the invite-only Nebraska/Iowa/KC Facebook groups but that gets hidden. We can get a thousand views of a story, interesting conversation off site, and zero comments on the page. There may be a lot of reasons for that, but I’d love to see more discussion in which all SPNers can take part.

  • As always Ryan… amazing work! They made the right choice in bringing you on board! I am an #SPNer 🙂

  • What I would really like to see in an effort to #UnifythePrairie would be to identify all of the cities in the Prairie that have gained some critical mass with their startup scene and appoint a local startup type to act as the ambassador from that community to SPN. These SPN ambassadors would be naturally aggregating information about the happenings in the smaller surrounding towns which could stifle any coverage gaps. These SPN ambassadors could filter through and submit stories to SPN from which SPN can write and publicized the most worthy stories – which would alleviate the filtering work SPN undertakes. With this approach SPN can have boots on the ground in all corners of the Prairie and the ambassadors would in many cases be delighted to be given the honor of representing their local startup community.

  • Well said Ryan! Looking forward to what’s in store for the next 10 years and well beyond for our community and continuing to build upon the activities over the last several decades…

  • Melissa Roberts

    Great read, @Ryan Pendell:disqus. Great articulation of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

  • Which cities will you be covering?

    • What would you say to someone in Des Moines reading Welch Avenue or in KC reading FWD/KC if they asked why they should switch to SPN or take additional time to also read SPN?

      • We are not attempting to replace the important work that’s going on in cities and states. We want to amplify them to a larger audience. If you wonder what’s happening across the region, you should read SPN.

        • What do you mean by amplify? Will you be syndicating their content?

          • I’m open to that potentially. We want to promote them and recognize them when possible.

          • Imagine I run a tech blog in Ankeny. And you said “hey Shane, we want to promote you and recognize you when possible.” I would say “Great! How will you do that?”

            I wonder if any FWD/KC or Welch Avenue would want their content syndicated on SPN. Wouldn’t that draw page views and comments away from their website?

            It’s an interesting model – a regional media property that syndicates content from smaller niche community properties. Is anyone else doing this successfully in other regions of the US?

          • Also, which cities will you be covering?

          • Lol

          • For reals. How does Silicon Prairie News define Silicon Prairie?

          • Sorry. I thought it was a joke. This is covered on our About page.

          • For those of you that can’t find the about page, it’s in the footer. Here’s a link: http://siliconprairienews.com/about.

            Nebraska – Omaha, Lincoln
            Kansas – Wichita, Overland Park, Topeka, Olathe, Lawrence
            Iowa – Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City
            Missouri – Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia

          • I think the answer to your question is to take a look at how the web works. If I have a blog, why would I guest blog somewhere else? If I have a podcast, why would I go on someone else’s podcast? What would be the benefit to a tech blog in Ankeny if SPN retweeted something from them?

          • Guest blogging and retweeting ≠ syndicating content. I’m curious if you’ll actually syndicate content from local city blogs, and if you’ve talked to them about it?

          • I have talked with many of them, but not about syndication. Audience is important. A local story written for a local audience may not have any appeal to people in a whole other state. A lot depends on how you craft it. Some stories may be a good fit regionally, others not.

  • What you’ve laid out here is interesting, ambitious and covers so much ground that I’m having trouble distilling from it your vision for the new SPN. (Shane’s comments speak to this, too)

    Regardless, I applaud you for starting this conversation and doing so in such a public way.

    If you want the startup community in the cities you mentioned to value SPN—if you want them to identify as “SPNers”—my advice is to start by showing them that SPN values what they’re working on first. Do that by being present in their communities regularly. Do that by publishing quality original content about the people, companies and programs who make up those communities. Do that by having real two-way relationships so that we, the people in those communities, start to see you as a part of *our* community.

    By any measure that I can think of, SPN peaked in late 2012. I wouldn’t say we were successful, necessarily, but we were hitting stride on our vision and goals, we were growing and we were doing so profitably. We were present, we had strong relationships and we were telling engaging stories.

    Many things changed for SPN in mid-2013, notably among them the company’s decision to all but walk away from the Des Moines startup community. I’m not sure if that was the right decision at the time or not but the way it was executed lost a lot of community trust.

    Speaking as a part of that community, the SPN asset sale to AIM gives you a fresh start and the perfect opportunity to rebuild relationships here—which is pretty awesome. It’s not something that can be done passively, though, it’s going to take active participation and hard work.

    Moreover, I’d encourage you to actively engage the ex-SPN staffers who moved on as things unwound the last few years. It’s clear that a lot of the institutional knowledge of the region and the company’s history got lost in the asset sale. That’s expected and it’s also easily rectified, just ask. I’m ready to help as soon you get that trip to Des Moines on the books.

    Relaunching SPN a few months ago is hopefully a sign that its on the rebound and climbing towards a new and even greater peak. That’s exciting for all of us but it’s going to be a tremendous challenge. A strong, engaged, worthwhile SPN is valuable and a very good thing for Welch Avenue/Gravitate, We Create Here, FWD/KC and anyone else actively working on building the startup communities in the region.

    • Thanks, Geoff. It means a lot to have your perspective. As we’ve talked before, I’m looking forward to sitting down with you in Des Moines and attending EntreFEST this year. I am working on multiple fronts to get some writers writing in Iowa, even though that takes some time to build. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • gabek

    When SPN was invaluable to me, and those that I was close to, was when it was focused. That was the time that I was certain each story I read on SPN were the stories others read. There were no filters. If it was on SPN it was worthwhile.

    So what changed in my opinion? The amount of worthwhile stuff grew, while the threshold for what was considered worthwhile didn’t. There’s nothing wrong with growing to other cities, but it isn’t sustainable if you want to post about every tiny thing that happens. That only works when you’re hyper-local. This was a side effect of SPN’s early success. People built companies, people made moves, people did exciting things because of what they read on SPN.

    In this case I feel like the focus should have shifted from quantity of stories from Omaha to quality of stories in the region.

    I’ve since left the area, but my heart is still here. And I want to bring up SPN every day and know that that’s going to be the definitive place for me to read about what matters. But that stopped happening before the AIM sale, and even before I left.

    Good luck to the new SPN. I look forward to seeing how you take advantage of this opportunity to reinvent!