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Brian Ardinger Talks IO Summit, Nelnet, and Innovation

Last week, SPN caught up with the Director of Innovation at Nelnet, Brian Ardinger.  Brian is also the founder of InsideOutside.io, makers of the IO Podcast and the IO Summit.  The Summit is coming to Lincoln on October 20 as part of the Startup Week festivities. The interview covered a number of topics and includes…

Photo of Brian Ardinger with headphones doing podcast

Last week, SPN caught up with the Director of Innovation at Nelnet, Brian Ardinger.  Brian is also the founder of InsideOutside.io, makers of the IO Podcast and the IO Summit.  The Summit is coming to Lincoln on October 20 as part of the Startup Week festivities.

The interview covered a number of topics and includes a wide variety of insights from Ardinger.  But, first, he described his own journey.

Ardinger graduated from the University of Nebraska – Omaha in 1990, and then from Penn State with an MBA in 1994.  Following his graduation from Penn State, Ardinger joined the Gartner Group in Asia, specifically Hong Kong.  He described how empowering it was to join Gartner at that time.  They did not have a very large position in Asia, and so he was given pretty much free rein to experiment with business development practices. Moreover, this was just as the Asian Tiger economies were exploding globally and the Internet was just beginning to take shape.

Ardinger described the experience, explaining that “companies would call and ask about Asia.  These were big companies – Microsoft, HP – that knew little about Asia, but saw the opportunity there.  The internet existed but not the way it is here, now.  Instead, it was still new, fresh, and unknown.”  In these early experiences, Ardinger discovered that he had a significant amount of autonomy and that freed him to dig into hard problems that needed to be solved.  When he was recalled to the United States and Silicon Valley, he found that it was “not as cool as in Asia”.

As such, he left Gartner and joined a variety of startups over a couple of years where he learned a lot about startup life.  He believes that these early experiences in Asia and with startups shaped his career trajectory and his belief in understanding innovation and telling people’s stories.

Eventually, he returned to Nebraska as the head of the Sarpy Economic Development Council.  He lasted about a year before the call back to consulting drew him.

He was recruited back to Hong Kong to help build a systems integration business.  This was the original china.com which helped build research and tools for global brands.  These brands, such as Cathay Pacific, had global reach but were just discovering that the internet was a necessary component of their business model.  He specifically worked to build a research platform for these companies – but also started to discover the importance of user experience on the internet.

This is where Ardinger found himself as the dot.com bubble burst, and so he traveled back to Lincoln seeking to return home.  He and his wife moved back to Lincoln in 2002 – and he has been there since.

He became the head of marketing for the startup, Nanonation.  Nanonation is a company that builds digital user experiences.  For example, the company recently completed a welcome kiosk at Marian High School in Omaha, Nebraska that allows visitors to see video, learn about the school, and a variety of other experiences while waiting to enter.  Ardinger described Nanonation as liberating because of the ability to build so many different, unique customer experiences from digital signage platforms for Harley-Davidson stores to interactive kiosks for Mazda showrooms.  He described how the company was known for building digital signage and customer flow for Build-a-Bear.  This experience helped shape his belief in innovation and experiences for customers.

In 2012, Ardinger put on his community development hat to create The Big Plate, a member community for entrepreneurs and events like Open Coffee which still meets weekly in Lincoln. As he described it, he wanted to tell stories and share experiences and insights again.  He wanted to focus on community and how communities are built.  This led to NMotion, a Lincoln based accelerator that has been operating since 2014.  While we have profiled NMotion on a number of occasions, few realize how essential Ardinger was to its founding and to its continuation through his personal support and private cajoling of companies, donors, and mentors.

Ultimately his key role in the Lincoln ecosystem created the opportunity with Nelnet. He described getting to know Mike Dunlap and Chuck Norris.  He described meeting with them and working with them on NMotion and FUSE.  The relationship became something special because Ardinger could count on Nelnet to participate both personally with key executives and their time, but also financially.  He said: “They have always been willing and able to put dollars toward innovation – within their four walls and outside in startups.”

On an aside, Nelnet has been a tremendous partner with startups – including being an early investor in Hudl (in which they remain a significant stakeholder).  Moreover, the company is renowned in the region for having invested in tens of startups – deploying, according to their annual report in 2018, more than $100 million into startup activities over the last decade.

But, as part of this, Nelnet was also keen on letting Ardinger continue to build community through his newsletter, podcast, and events.  One of these events is the IO Summit.

When we first started talking about this year’s summit, the first thing that Ardinger state was his excitement about this year’s “cool new venue” – the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Arts.  But, more than just the venue, Ardinger expressed excitement for the changes that the venue and program has wrought at the university.  He is seeing transformation around space which is something that he relishes.

He also relishes the opportunity to bring the IO Summit to the space because he believes that the quality of speakers will rival any in the region.  In fact, when SPN probed about what he loves about the IO Summit, he said his favorite part was the speakers and the exposure that the region gets to these speakers.  He explained that it was special for him to talk to people during the event as they described their own reaction to hearing people with such different perspectives.  Moreover, he talked about how what wakes him up at night was when he bumps into someone that says that they missed out on the summit, that they failed to realize when it was happening.

Brian is really focused on how to help the region understand corporate innovation.  While he learned about innovation and corporate innovation over decades, he said that the field is changing so fast that it feels like sometimes even an annual summit leaves too long a gap in understanding.

He talked about how important it is to make innovation part of the corporation – built into the company’s fabric and culture.  “Innovation cannot be a thing that simply lives outside the organization – or in a special room or team.”  This is something that he has seen both from the outside and the inside at Nelnet.  In the past the company had tried to keep innovation in a separate place, but over time, everyone, including the management, recognized that it was essential that innovation be part of the company – in its very fabric.  Ardinger has helped to shift this cultural awareness in the short time that he has been at Nelnet.

“This was something that was there, but I wondered – ‘how do we create that innovation competency.” Ardinger said. “How do we get employees to value innovation throughout the company and in numerous ways.”  Ardinger explained that the corporate structure is extremely supportive of innovation and his work.  He said it is refreshing not just to have flexibility – but it is great to have “the tools, the power, and sometimes, when you need it, the air cover of the corner office” to provide coaching, consultation, and even execution support.

This has created an environment where Nelnet can be a leader in innovation – even as both their business is changing and the world of innovation is changing.  In many ways this evolution also helps describe some of the changes to the IO Summit.

In the first year, the real “bear” was to execute.  The event was great, but because the facility was large and spacious, it did not quite have the feeling that Ardinger sought.  This is one reason he is excited for the new venue.

But today, Ardinger is looking at how to expose the audience to leaders in innovation – but also to ways that innovation is different.  He specifically identified Fernando Garibay and his conversations about creativity as an example of how things are changing. Moreover, Ardinger is excited to bring more meat to the innovation bone.

He looks forward to the day where the “Lean Startup Method” is not just a buzzword but a business model that is deeper than just talking to customers.  For example, Ardinger cited the work of David Bland and his new book “Testing Business Ideas” which comes out in early November.  He said this sort of work is what the IO Summit is about – getting the word out about evolution within innovation so that local and regional companies can move forward doing their own incredible work.

In conclusion, Ardinger told SPN that innovation is hard.  It is particularly hard to execute.  One of his goals is to increase the overall competency of the attendees and in so doing, he hopes to help take the politics out of innovation – shifting the decision making to market based decisions.

If this all sounds interesting to you, come meet Brian Ardinger at the IO Summit, taking place in Lincoln on October 20-22.  You can register at: https://www.theiosummit.com/tickets.

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