With cities like Boston and San Francisco jam packed with entrepreneurs and investors, there are plenty of networking events to connect upstarts with deep-pocketed investors. But what if you're trying to innovate in, say, Omaha, Neb.? Or Des Moines, Iowa?
Physically far from the financial and start-up hubs on the East and West coasts, entrepreneurs in between the two regions have to work harder to create the vital connections that often lead to funding, say regional start-up experts including Nick Bowden. He's co-founder of Omaha-based start-up MindMixer, which promotes online communities and engagement on topics ranging from better schools to improving local parks.
Despite the distance from California's Silicon Valley and New York's Silicon Alley, a small start-up scene is emerging in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. Welcome to Silicon Prairie.
Silicon Prairie: A Tight-Knit Startup Scene
A key conference for Midwest entrepreneurs—"Big Omaha"—is now entering its fifth year. The next conference there is scheduled for May. Instead of heading to San Francisco or New York City, entrepreneurs from across the U.S. will fly into Omaha's Eppley Airfield and head to the Old Market neighborhood downtown to mingle with other upstarts and network.
The Midwest has been slowly gaining momentum as a start-up region, said Jeff Slobotski, co-founder of Silicon Prairie—a news source, and also event producer for the "Big Omaha" conference and its sister conferences in Des Moines and Kansas City, Mo. About 700 attended 2012's "Big Omaha" event compared to 430 during the conference's debuted in 2009.
While start-up scenes are common among larger cities, a community devoted to upstarts and creative innovators remains something of a novelty in the Midwest. Most people don't expect it, Silicon Prairie's Slobotski said. And in an area far better known for old-school industries such as agriculture and insurance, local entrepreneurs have something to prove.
The Midwest offers a tight-knit start-up scene, and its small, manageable size makes it easier to participate in a meaningful way—instead of being swallowed up by the much larger companies and crowded ranks of upstarts, as is the case on both coasts.
"There's a unique sense of pride and ownership to what we're doing," Slobotski said. "You can make a mark and make a change, on a bigger scale," he said.
Because local entrepreneur groups are smaller and the pool of investors is relatively fewer compared to bigger cities, conferences such as "Big Omaha" offer a unique opportunity to make a splash with potential investors.
And as recent success stories show, networking and bootstrapping small operations in the Midwest can work. Slobotski cites several successful start-ups, whose origins can be traced to connections made at prior "Big Omaha" conferences.
Examples include Iowa's online payment system Dwolla, which snagged attention from investor Mark Ecko of EckoUnlimited/Artists & Instigators, a youth-focused lifestyle company that includes its flagship clothing brand Ecko Unltd. The conference also helped spark Bulu Box, a mail-order vitamin service.
Bowdon of Omaha-based start-up MindMixer connected with a key investor, Omaha-based Dundee Capital Ventures, and got a boost for their online platform, and is now in its second round of funding. MindMixer is tapping more distant investors for this round, he said, and savvy start-ups will do the work to create a broader web all year—not just at annual events.