"It's hidden, but like a ninja," he says. "You know it has impact, you know it's doing some things, but it's hidden a lot of times. You don't know it's there until you actually see it."
He adds, in a somewhat lamenting tone, "It's secretive—but we don't want to be secretive anymore."
Skeptics point to the lack of talented programmers and capital markets, but those stigmas are generally unfounded and limited to the people living on the coasts, according to the people actually starting businesses in Omaha. Back at the conference, which is being held at The Kaneko, a sprawling dairy processing plant-turned-art-and-event space named for named for Jun Kaneko, the Japanese-born sculptor, I meet up with Gorden Whitten, a two-time entrepreneur and angel investor based in Omaha.
Whitten's current Omaha project is VoterTide, a social media intelligence company for political campaigns. "The money people perceive that you can't build a company in Nebraska. It's not true," he says. Whitten has made angel investments in about seven companies, all based in Nebraska. The one investment Whitten made in a California start-up failed.
But there is one undeniable hurdle: Nebraska is low on the venture capital food chain. In 2007, the state was ranked worst in the country for capital markets.
"There's something unsettling about the Cornhusker State ranking last in capital markets (dead last, behind pseudo-state Puerto Rico), but it's not difficult to see the underlying opportunity for Nebraska Global to make an immediate impact and improve that statistic," Nebraska Global, the investment fund, notes on its site.
Recently, several investors have set up shop in and around Omaha, including Capricorn investment, a multi-billion-dollar investment firm founded by eBay's first employee, Jeff Skoll. One of the firm's partners, Stephen George, grew up in Nebraska and moved back to invest in companies based in Omaha. His business card reads: "Palo Alto, Omaha, New York." In February, Capricorn led a $5.4 million Series A investment in Bloom.com, an e-commerce beauty start-up with more than 100,000 members, which was founded by Julie Mahloch, serial entrepreneur.
"People are realizing there are good opportunities here," Mahloch tells me over coffee. "There may not be as many deals, but the deals are good."
Mark Hasebroock, cofounder of Hayneedle, the Nebraska-based ecommerce company, launched Dundee Venture Capital in 2011 to invest in local start-ups. The Nebraska Angels, a group of successful business professionals formed in the spring of 2006 to make seed and early-stage capital investment in the range of $150,000 to $750,000.
Recently, Omaha was ranked eighth among the nation's 50 largest cities in both per-capita billionaires and Fortune 500 companies, according to USA Today. Sure, San Francisco leads the amount of billionaires per million people, and Atlanta leads in the number of Fortune 500 companies per 1 million people. "But no city, not even the major coastal giants, can claim a ranking as high as Omaha on both lists," the paper concluded.
While they may be wearing Levis and driving Camry's , the residents of Omaha are wealthier than average. The city also has a host of billionaires, including Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts ($1.5 billion), Walter Scott ($1.2 billion) of Peter Kiewit Sons, and Berkshire Hathaway founder and CEO Buffett, who estimated wealth is more than $40 billion.
As the corporate baby-boomers from companies like Berkshire Hathaway slide into retirement, they're looking for ways to invest. When it comes to angel investments in start-ups, the problem is not lack of supply or demand on either end of the equation; the problem is, there's no marketplace.
Getting Founders to C'Mon Home
Sensing the growing start-up community and opportunity, some founders-to-be are already coming home. Paul Jarrett and his wife, Stephanie, are both originally from Nebraska, and lived in New York and San Francisco, where they worked in marketing and advertising. Last year, they moved to Silicon Valley to be part of the start-up culture and to be close to investors, but decided to move back home in April in order to launch their own start-up, Bulu Box, a monthly subscription service for vitamins. I ask them why they left the Valley.
"When you really sit back and look at it, the enthusiasm around here is why we came back," says Paul. "We were very conscious and aware in choosing the right investors. People here have a real friendliness, and they're easy to work with. There's a kind of support and collaboration."
There are also logistical factors. Commercial office space is about a third of the price that it is in San Francisco, and residential prices, too, are more affordable.
"We fought with it hard, but after talking with investors we realized moving here gave Bulu Box the best chance of survival," Paul said.
Slobotski's hope is that with the promotion of Silicon Prairie News and Big Omaha, entrepreneurs will be more willing to launch companies in the Midwest—and not leave for the coasts.
Silicon Prairie News hopes to bridge that gap, and promote the message of start-ups nationally, but more importantly, create awareness internally in the region to foster the investment in start-ups.
"I definitely think that people take a look around and kick the tires at least and realize there's a lot of emerging potential," says Slobotski. "People aren't hopping on the first flight to San Francisco anymore. There's a renewed sense of pride in our community."