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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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