Traveling across America as a sales rep for Truist, a social responsibility-powering tech company, Jeff Slobotski regularly visited the country’s startup hubs. Slobotski, intrigued by his experiences, began chronicling his travels on a personal blog. But in 2008, he took another look his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, and the surrounding Midwestern region. He was impressed by the burgeoning startup scene in his own backyard. "It is this incredible hidden gem," Slobotski says with joy. Inspired, he created a new site to exclusively cover startups in Omaha and the Midwest—Silicon Prairie News was born.
Slobotski wanted people to pay more attention to the region and come to see it as a credible crescent for startups.
"If individuals know who or what is happening in a region there is tremendous power," he says. "Businesses can launch, funding can be found, and networks can be built."
Initially the site published just a few stories each week, usually short profiles of Omaha-based companies. Four years later, Slobotski, now 34, has built the site into a robust platform with constantly updated content, has developed a webcast, hired a team of 8 full-time employees, and opened additional offices in Des Moines and soon to be in Kansas City.
While the real Silicon Valley, of course, continues to dominate startup culture nationally, numerous other centers have begun to increase the size of their dot on the map. The early success of Groupon in Chicago and Living Social in Washington stirred mini-entrepreneurial booms in those cities. Then came a wave of media stories about those cities as "new Silicon Valleys." Such stories, in turn, helped attract even more companies to those cities. Slobotski is betting that that can happen in Omaha, too.
Cities like Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City have long been great places for American business and agricultural and commodities fortunes to be built, but today's entrepreneurs are working with software and digital tech, not cattle and corn.
But you can't create a technology center by wishing or hoping for it—you need at least a great company or two to get started. One of the biggest successes to come out of the Midwest is the Des-Moines based Dwolla, a low-cost online and mobile payment and money transfer system. Late last year Dwolla received major funding from New York-based Union Square Ventures and Ashton Kutcher among others. When Dwolla announced Kutcher’s investment, Silicon Prairie News hosted an exclusive webcast with the celebrity entrepreneur and Dwolla’s CEO Ben Milne. The brand-name investments in Dwolla, winning national recognition for a service produced almost entirely in the Midwest, advanced the Silicon Prairie narrative and created real benefit for a Midwest-based company. The Prairie has also produced companies including: Mindmixer, a local civic problem-solving platform based in Omaha, and Hudl, a software company that provides digital tools for college athletes and coaches, which is based in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Following his online success, in 2009, Slobotski launched the Big Omaha conference with a bold premise: "Let’s bring in entrepreneurs from across the country to share their knowledge, push us to think bigger, and get rid of the excuse that you need to be located in a certain city to push your ideas forward."
Like many of the "big idea" conferences around the country, the event gathers thinkers, entrepreneurs, and changemakers for conversation, mingling, and inspiration. Over the past few years Big Omaha has attracted an impressive roster of entrepreneurs including: Ben Lerer, Scott Harrison, Gary Vaynerchuk, Dennis Crowley, and Tony Hsieh. The event has become a real force in the entrepreneurial push across the prairie. It is consistently sold out, and this year the conference boasted 650 attendees from 27 states.
The Midwest is no stranger to entrepreneurship and business success stories. Omaha is famously home to Warren Buffett, and Berkshire Hathaway. Buffet is noted for his involvement in the local community and Slobotski says it is fairly easy for entrepreneurs in the region to get their pitches in front of top Berkshire executives, if they have a good idea or solid start. Omaha is also home to several Fortune 1000 companies, including ConAgra, First National Bank, Mutual of Omaha, Union Pacific, and Kiewit, one of the largest construction companies in the world.
New skills in the area need to be honed and new networks need to be built. That story is being written right now. And while Slobotski doesn’t view himself as a journalist, he is a storyteller who believes that a big story can change how the world views the cities on the prairie: "People around the country and even in the region don’t realize everything that exists here in Omaha. A lot of people think of beef, steak or Corn Husker football. That’s starting to change."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Slobotski ran sales and marketing for Truist, he was a sales rep at the time. We apologize for the error.
[Image: Malone & Company]