Well−versed in what’s now,
ever–ready for what’s next.
NOW & NEXT
Big Omaha: Sunrise on the Silicon Prairie
Posted by John Kreicbergs on Tuesday | May 22nd, 2012
Entrepreneurialism comes in many forms and flavors in the wild. Not too far from where the San Francisco Bay meets the waters of the Pacific there is Silicon Valley. On our right coast, just east of the Hudson, is Silicon Alley. But that vast expanse in the very middle? That’s the Silicon Prairie.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to attend quite a few conferences and educational events over the course of my career but few have thwarted my attempts at synthesis like Big Omaha. Billed as “the nation’s most interconnected conference on innovation and entrepreneurship,” the popular shorthand in more recent years has been to dub it the Midwest’s answer to SXSWi.
Ultimately, I think that’s a comparison that does little to actually describe what opportunities Big Omaha offers attendees. And yes, if you detect a bit of Midwestern pride coming through in that statement, then so be it; isn’t it about time we started taking credit for our homegrown brand of innovation when it comes to this current digital revolution?
Now in its fourth year, I’ve had the privilege of attending for the last three. Each event has been unique and each one has improved based on the learnings from the previous year as well as the collective evolution of the local scene. While Big Omaha has grown its national rep and has come to draw attendees from across the country as well as internationally, the vast majority still seem to come from the Omaha/Des Moines/Kansas City area. It’s a scene that has been focused and nurtured through the determined effort of Big Omaha’s masterminds, Dusty Davidson and Jeff Slobotski of SiliconPrairie.com.
Personally, I don’t have any pressing plans to run out and create my own startup. My entrepreneurial spirit runs more towards intrapreneurial pursuits, and I’m ok with that. “Intrapreneurialism” is a term, by the way, that I’ve heard referred to with sneers and snark on more than one occasion in this setting.
Rather, as someone that’s staked their career on the agency side of marketing and advertising, Big Omaha has come to be a fascinating ethnographic study of the modern marketing mindset with respect to digital business innovation. After a while, it can become a bit like a drinking game. Did someone just say “VC?” Take a drink. “Angels?” That’s worth two. How about “exit strategy?” Buy a round. Yet if you really want to know what’s happening on the bleeding edge of business and digital, this is the place to be and be seen.
And, for me, it’s become the best environment to simply listen and soak it all in.
This year featured an incredible lineup of speakers. While there was plenty of theory to be had, each presenter in their own way is an experienced practitioner, speaking of failures and successes in equally reverent tones. While it was said in many different ways, Jim McKelvey, co-founder of the mobile payment platform Square, summed it up best: “Seek problems.”
Many variations on this theme were offered, each providing a different flavor.
- “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” ~ Seth Goldstein
- “Learning how NOT to do something is just as valuable as learning how to do it.” ~ Brian Wong
- “If you don’t drink your own Kool-Aid, no one else will. ~ Yael Cohen
For many, the takeaway was the same: create, innovate, iterate. Don’t get hung up on the standard approaches to problem-solving, to business development, to customer engagement, to anything. Blaze a new trail and the rest will simply happen if your passion is strong enough, your plans are amendable and you don’t mind falling flat on your face every once in a while. In many ways, two days at Big Omaha carries the same brand of zeal and passion as a roadside revival, where Tweets and Instagrams are substituted for the standard sort of epiphanic outbursts. While some might postulate (and criticize) the “get rich quick” undertones of these sorts of events, Big Omaha actually does quite a good job at blowing past those notions.
These days, ad agencies are finding themselves being approached by more and more startups and entrepreneurs and there has always been an unwritten rule to “never be a client’s first agency.” Yet these are new times and a brave new world. My time at Big Omaha, beyond the speakers and the incredibly open and inviting environment, was spent trying to understand how an agency can add value for these budding businesses. It’s obvious that at a certain point, startups can truly benefit from an established relationship/partnership with an agency.
What’s required to make that value exchange work? I don’t think there’s a pat answer or “one size fits all” approach. So as circumstances and opportunities arise, it’s important to find ways to abandon the right elements of the old agency model, whether that comes down to how to engage for services, access to agency resources and experience, or simply a matter of compensation structure. In the end, entrepreneurs are looking for guides, gurus and honest advice. Once upon a time, that was the perfect time to engage with an agency.
Funny…the new school of digital startups and entrepreneurial innovation could actually spell a triumphant return for ad agencies to a place of regard and trust. It will come down to whether or not they can remember to listen intently and act with intent, to move past racing to the next job and instead truly deliver on the one that’s right in front of them.