On entrepreneur tour, IdeaMensch finds variety, passion in Omaha

Four guys in a Honda Element rolled into Omaha on Friday afternoon, 31 days into a four-month, 48-state entrepreneur tour across the country. In some ways, their eastern Nebraska excursion was exactly like any of the 50 stops they're making throughout the U.S. between early July and late October. In other ways, it had a

Mario Schulzke is the founder of IdeaMensch and part of the four-man team on a 48-state barnstorming tour.

Four guys in a Honda Element rolled into Omaha on Friday afternoon, 31 days into a four-month, 48-state entrepreneur tour across the country. In some ways, their eastern Nebraska excursion was exactly like any of the 50 stops they’re making throughout the U.S. between early July and late October. In other ways, it had a flavor all its own. 

One of those four men was Mario Schulzke, the founder of IdeaMensch, a Los Angeles-based blog and events company. IdeaMensch was born out of Schulzke’s fascination with entrepreneurs. “I’ve always been obsessed,” he says, “with ideas and the people who actually bring them to life.”

Which is where the crowded car and cross-country roadtrip come into play. After working in advertising for 10 years and pursuing IdeaMensch as a side project for the last couple, Schulzke walked away from his job earlier this summer to satiate that immense appetite for ideas. Along with three colleagues, he embarked on a journey through the 48 contiguous states (and Washington, D.C.) to meet and shed light on entrepreneurs.

Goodbye, first-class flights and climbing the corporate ladder. Hello, budget motels and being your own boss.

The team’s routine throughout the tour, called #IM48, is simple enough: Stop in a new city. Bring together entrepreneurs. Let each entrepreneur take 20 minutes to share stories and answer questions from the audience.

But it’s in those stories that each stop along the way takes on its own identity. After the Omaha stop, Schulzke pointed out the entrepreneurs’ “incredible diversity.” 

The lineup Friday featured six speakers: Brian Ardinger, co-founder of The Big PlateMark Carson, owner of Fat Brain ToysChristian Gray, executive director of inCOMMON Community DevelopmentChris Hughes, founder and manager of Artifact Bag Co.; Joe Petsick, co-founder and CFO of Proxibid; and Laurie Wolford, owner of Spirit World

“They were … very smart, and they were running their businesses in a very 2.0 way, and I love that,” Schulzke said. “So it wasn’t just a highly diverse set of speakers, but from each of them I also learned something — something really forward-looking.”

Mark Carson addressed a crowd of about 80 at IdeaMensch’s Omaha stop on Friday.

Entrepreneurial insights

Among a group of people with such varied businesses, contrasts were inevitable. Petsick, for instance, preached the importance of having a sound business plan when pitching investors.

Hughes, meanwhile, runs a self-funded, one-man shop and often makes decisions based on feel. “I don’t have any ingenious strategies,” he said. “Admittedly this has been just a lot of me going by gut.”

Many of the entrepreneurs touched on developing a tolerance for risk. “The more you get used to pushing those boundaries and jumping off the cliff, so to speak, the more comfortable you’re going to be,” Ardinger said. 

Petsick said the nature of business in Proxibid’s early years taught him to function with little margin for error. “There were many days that if something didn’t happen right tomorrow, there was no day after,” he said.

In the high-stakes game of running a business, Wolford said, having a good team behind you is crucial.

“It’s a team effort,” she said. “You can’t do these things by yourself.” 

Said Ardinger: “Make sure that you always have that support network around you. It’s so important.”

Gray and Carson both emphasized that defining and maintaining an identity has been essential to their organizations. When Gray took over at inCOMMON, he helped define the organization’s current focus on neighborhoods.

“They’re the context of life,” he said. “They’re foundational in forming who we are and what we become.”

Carson, meanwhile, built Fat Brain with a strict focus on non-licensed, educational toys. That approach has caused Fat Brain to miss out on making an easy buck at times, but the company has stood by its identity. “We’re going to focus on the quality educational toys that you just cant find anywhere else,” Carson said.

The #IM48 journey

Schulzke can now count himself among the entrepreneurial ranks. But he avoided the spotlight on Friday, playing the role of facilitator for others rather than focusing on the tale of his own trek.

“It’s not like the drama of four guys in a Honda Element,” he said when asked what people should take from the IdeaMensch tour. “It’s more like, ‘Hey we met this really interesting person in Des Moines, and here’s what they’re about.’ “

Schulzke said the tour stops are designed to help other people progress from idea to action. “If at any event we can get one person to go, ‘Hey, you know what? This was really inspiring listening to the story of Speaker A, who talked about this. I’m going to just get started with my business, because that’s how they got started.’ … That’s the primary goal.”

Friday’s stop in Omaha came one night after an event in Kansas City. IdeaMensch hits Des Moines on Tuesday and Sioux Falls on Wednesday. Schulze said he senses a strong regional pride from entrepreneurs in the Midwest.

“People in Omaha are more excited about what’s going on in Omaha than people in San Francisco are excited about what’s going on in San Francisco,” he said. “And we felt that.”

He said the impact of entrepreneurs and companies conscious of and engaged in the community around them cannot be overstated. 

“Some places really have a lot of forward momentum, and there’s a ton of stuff going on, and some places don’t,” he said. “We really only can succeed in the places that have forward momentum, you know?”

More details on IdeaMensch’s tour stops in Des Moines and Sioux Falls are below.

IdeaMensch Des Moines – 6-9 p.m. Tuesday

Jasper Winery (2400 George Flagg Parkway)

Speakers: Carl Blake of Swabian HallTej Dhawan of StartupCity Des MoinesBen Milne of DwollaAndy Stoll of SeedHere and Jason Lampe of Capitol View Elementary

Tickets: Earlybird $10, Full Price $15. Register at ideamensch.com

IdeaMensch Sioux Falls – 6-9 p.m. Wednesday

Sioux Falls Design Center (108 West 11th Street)

Speakers: Karla Santi of Blend InteractiveHugh Weber of OTA, Ted Heeren of Fresh Produce and Jim Beddow

Tickets: Earlybird $10, Full Price $15. Register at ideamensch.com


Credits: Photos by Danny Schreiber.


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