Kearney, Nebraska’s tech community thrives on “rural sourcing”

Central Nebraska is defining the future of small town America with tech startups, dev shops and amenities for young talent. Intellicom, a Kearney-based technology solutions provider, recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary in business. The company has grown from a local startup to a regional company, providing services throughout central Nebraska. Dan Shundoff, CEO and President, thinks the…

Intellicom_featured
Intellicom_featured

Dan Shundoff, CEO and President of Intellicom. Photo courtesy of Open For Business Magazine.

Central Nebraska is defining the future of small town America with tech startups, dev shops and amenities for young talent.

Intellicom, a Kearney-based technology solutions provider, recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary in business. The company has grown from a local startup to a regional company, providing services throughout central Nebraska.

Dan Shundoff, CEO and President, thinks the region provides a solid foundation for startups.

“I believe that central Nebraska is a pro-business region,” Shundoff said. “The business frame of mind in general is that people want to buy and support local.”

Sundoff sees community support as a key to success in rural communities.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing,” Shundoff said. “That is a really, really important, foundational thing. If you don’t have the support environment, a lot of great ideas go by the wayside or leave.”

The true “Silicon Prairie”

Among the communities in the region, Kearney seems to have the lion’s share of technology-based companies. This includes Xpanxion, an Atlanta-based software company that has become an industry leader in “rural sourcing,” a concept where development centers are created in rural communities, typically in proximity to a university.

Xpanxion’s Kearney operation has grown from 5 people 8 years ago to more than 100 today.

“We’re fortunate to have Xpanxion,” said Darren Robinson, President of the Economic Development Council of Buffalo County (EDCBC). “They kicked off one of our most recent startups, Phynd.”

The presence of the University of Nebraska-Kearney (UNK) is cited as a major asset by people in the community as well as in Grand Island and Hastings. Companies like Intellicom, Xpanxion and Hollman Media have strong ties with UNK, creating a pipeline of interns and employees.

“We have to think young”

Recruiting and retaining talent may be the single biggest challenge the community faces. Much of the EDCBC’s focus is on business expansion and workforce development.

“Business expansion is robust,” Robinson said. “But we need skills training. A significant portion of the community’s effort is focused on workforce development.”

One way the community is trying to address the talent issue is through a federal program called the TechHire Initiative. Kearney is one of 21 communities in the nation to be selected for the program, designed to train, hire and place 500 entry-level IT professionals by 2020.

Creating a welcoming environment for young professionals is another way Kearney is working to attract talent.

“We have to think young,” said Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse. “Young professionals, professors, medical people—Kearney’s a young community.”

Clouse mentioned amenities like splash parks in neighborhoods, ball complexes and bike trails.

“We’re doing a lot of the right things for our scale,” he said.

Nathan Philippi, Director of Quality Assurance for Xpanxion, agrees that creating a welcoming environment for young talent is essential.

“From our standpoint, we need to find experience,” he said. “For raising a family, Kearney is great. But making it interesting for young singles is a tougher sell.”

Plans for a student incubator

Shawn Kaskie, Director of UNK’s Center for Rural Research and Development, has been working for several years with entrepreneurs in the region, including both students and adults. The Center recently held their fifth annual Central Nebraska Business Idea Contest that attracted more than 50 entries.

While student participation in the contest has remained steady, Kaskie has noticed a dropoff in the number of adult entries.

“There is no pressure to start businesses,” he said. “Everyone is hiring; you can get a job if you want one.”

A focus on student entrepreneurship is clearly on the minds of community and education leaders.

“Central Community College is involved with incubators in their service area,” Kaskie said. “UNK is also contemplating a student incubator as part of a possible campus expansion. This would be a rigorous program with accountability.”

Space is only one consideration, however.

“It’s easy to spin up space,” Shundoff said. “But that’s not the real issue. It’s more about resources than space. The best resource for someone to start something is to surround them with other people who have started something.”

This story is the third in a 4-part series on the state of startups and entrepreneurship in central Nebraska, beyond the region’s major urban centers.

Rod Armstrong is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for AIM in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is a regular contributor to Silicon Prairie News.

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