Omaha, Nebraska is a dynamic city that is really embracing its startup community. So, I was looking forward to Big Omaha, the first major social media conference held in the heart of the midwest. Organized by Jeff Slobotski and Dusty Davidson, the one and a half day conference would feature some of the most popular names in social media and technology today.
The drive from Kansas City to Omaha is a short one and three hours and one hail storm later, we arrived at the lovely Magnolia Hotel in time to check in and freshen up before heading out for the evening. The first event was a mixer hosted by What Cheer and Secret Penguin in their upstairs spot on Webster street in the rehabbed warehouse district. It was a great way to catch up with StartUp Weekend KC friends, Omaha entrepreneurs and social media-ites. We munched on raw vegan appetizers and quaffed beer from the Lucky Bucket brewery as the sun set over the city.
A few hours and many introductions later, everyone began to drift around the corner to Slowdown. Esquire Magazine’s “Club of the Year” for 2008 was a neat rock club and bar that is a favorite of those who are into the local independent music scene. There we had a chance to sip some of the wines that Gary Vaynerchuk rated later that evening for his broadcast of Wine Library TV. The place was jammed with people and it was fun seeing Gary and the other tech luminaries there.
Day two of Big Omaha was packed with insightful speakers and all of the sessions were held at KANEKO, a terrific, creative space in the Old Market area of Omaha. Envisioned and created by internationally acclaimed Omaha artist Jun Kaneko, the building was perfect for a high tech meeting. The wide open spaces were tagged with clever signs like “I’m a Bathroom” and ones that directed people to the various services that were available, including the lounge, where the wifi coverage seemed to be the best. Catering to the crowd, the cylindrical ice chests that were scattered about were continuously stocked with three flavors of Redbull and soda.
We were a little disappointed to learn that WordPress developer Matt Mullenweg had missed his flight and would not be there. But that quickly dissipated when 37Signals founder Jason Fried began to speak. Some of the notable comments he made:
“‘Collaboration’ is another word for ‘interrruption.’ Work days have become ‘work moments with interruptions.’”
“Don’t see each other. Have a ‘don’t talk Thursday’” [to be more productive]
On learning from old business: “Everything produces byproducts…knowledge is a byproduct…figure out how to sell the stuff you are making each day as you make things while you work.”
Fried very much advocated learning while doing, and leveraging those things that are produced to achieve greater value for the business. He spoke of 37Signals’ decision to compile the company’s blog entries into a book and then of their surprised as sales reached half a million dollars in just 6 months. The company has also had great success in the marketplace with Basecamp, a product that was originally developed for internal use.
Adriana Gascoigne highlighted the problem of the lack of women in the technology industry. Only a handful of women are Chief Executives of technology companies despite the fact that almost half of the population are women. She asked for a show of hands of all of the women in the room who had studied computer science in college and discovered that no one had pursued that major.
Micah Baldwin of Lijit Networks offered a counterpoint to Jason Fried’s talk when he said that “failure is a process, not a destination.” And offered up one of his favorite mottoes: “Sometimes the best way to learn to duck is to get punched in the face.”
Jeffrey Kalmikoff of skinnyCorp, known for the Threadless t-shirt design site, moderated a very funny panel session that featured all of the day’s speakers and also spent some time riffing on the value of transparency and having fun at work. Key takeaway? “Transparency and accessibility are not the same thing.”
Gary Vaynerchuk’s keynote was a madcap, furious, 45 minutes of pure energy, laden with exclamations like this one on competing: “I want to crush everyone, I want to beat everyone’s face in, in a positive, business way.” And his evening message could be summed up: Do the one thing that you are most passionate about and you will be more successful than you can ever imagine while having the greatest time of your life.
The early evening wine tasting sponsored by Girls in Tech was held at the very cool Urban Wine Company right across the street from Kaneko Center. After a very nice dinner with fellow Kansas City Social Media experts Jenn Bailey and Christina Maki and security expert Jim Nemer at Ahmad’s, a Persian restaurant recommended by locals, we headed to the Nomad Lounge, a contemporary dance club also in Old Town Omaha. This was a great time to catch up with other Big Omaha attendees, mingle and chat with the speakers and generally relax over a cold microbrew after an exciting day of presentations. A live twitter feed kept everyone current on events.
On Saturday weary participants met for a Tweet Up at Aroma’s Coffeehouse and Bakery to share weekend stories and to talk about upcoming meetings and meetups.
Big Omaha was a great event. It really highlighted the strong community of technology entrepreneurs and compelling companies in the Omaha area and the partnership between the city and it’s tech businesses. It also reinforced that the social media community, though growing, still predominantly comprises companies that are full of friendly, familiar faces and that all seem to be connected to each other by common tools, philosophies and great events like this one. We’ll definitely be at next year’s meeting!