OMAHA–It’s a sunny Saturday morning. The Old Market farmer’s market is in full swing and once again laptop- and iPad-toting creatives, entrepreneurs and VCs are gathering in the grand room at Kaneko for Big Omaha.
Kaneko is a special space and one of the many reasons Big Omaha is already becoming a premier destination for the digerati, in just its second year. The building takes its name and its direction from world-renowned artist, Jun Kaneko. The non-corporate event space also features several of Kaneko’s over-sized works, which reportedly sell for $350,000 a piece.
Andrew Mager of ZDNet, who flew in from the Bay Area, loves the conference.
I learned a lot and had so much fun. I really think this is not your normal conference. Multi-track conferences like SxSW and Wordcamp are great, but they lose a little bit of focus. At Big Omaha, everything is focused. The speakers are all top-notch. Not one of the speakers bored me or irritated me. I was inspired, and captivated.
Despite Mager’s claim, one of this morning’s speakers does manage to irritate many of the people in the room. Melody McCloskey, founder of Style Seat, tells the audience if they want to succeed, they need to move to San Francisco, Boulder or New York City. Given that the whole point of the conference is to build momentum and community for the Silicon Prairie, her advice seems misguided, at best.
Just before the scheduled break, emcee, Rachelle Hruska, counters McCloskey’s argument with the words, “Screw New York.” She happens to live there and run a media business there, but she’s a hometown girl who knows how to bring it.
Tony Hsieh, author of Delivering Happiness and CEO of Zappos, the online shoe retailer with a deep commitment to providing customer service, gets the room back on track. Hsieh is a commanding speaker and he’s clearly coming from a compassionate place. He says Zappos is “a service company that just so happens to sell shoes.”
Hsieh isn’t here to sell shoes, that’s for sure. He’s working on something bigger. Namely, the idea that companies need to develop and commit to their core values early. He says that’s how you accelerate growth.
Big Omaha is big on the little things. Omaha photo studio Malone & Co. has a photo booth set up where a camera on a tripod snaps an image every eight seconds. The images are then sent automagically to Flickr. I’m told the camera card doesn’t send to Flickr when there’s no person in the frame, which is some slick tech in my book.
Another small, but perfect, Big Omaha touch are all the little posters scattered about that feature contextual tweets from Lincoln’s @badbanana, one of the funniest people on Twitter. One says, “Any bigger and, by law, this conference would have to be held in Texas.” Naturally, that’s a reference to South By Southwest, which surely inspired the Silicon Prairie News team to put this conference on.
I’ve been to Austin several times for SXSW Interactive, Film and Music conferences. It’s a great time. But this year I chose to be here instead. I’m glad I did. I’m hanging out with old friends and colleagues past and present like Cathy Solarana, Shawn Hartley, Aaron Martin and Dave Markes. And I’m meeting new people like event organizers Dusty Davidson and Jeff Slobotski, plus Michael Johnson, Kt McBratney, Geoff Johnson, Gary Misner, Matt Secoske, Renee Gabriel, Robert Brown, Scott Henderson and Adam Nielsen.
Yesterday afternoon Gary Vaynerchuk said Omaha is a “sensational city.” He also said he’s driven by gratitude. Vaynerchuk is grateful that his family left Russia when he was three and that his parents instilled in him the need to hustle to get ahead. As a Nebraska native, I know what he means. There are no mountains here, and no ocean. However, there’s plenty of room to think, connect and build things of lasting value. There’s also a willingness to work and hustle, and the city’s solid economy is a testament to that.
Here’s a poem I wrote in 2002 that I hope you don’t mind me sharing, as it explores these very themes:
above all others upon a stream
There’s the pride
out front, even in name.
Omaha. Indian for, “above all others
upon a stream.”
Push past the mouth of the Platte
up the mighty Mo a few more miles
and there you have it,
a hilly splendor in four seasons.
Yet, for some a pushing off place we may always be.
No matter, ambition is well understood here.
Presidents and popstars,
Writers, saints, billionaires, and bums,
They’ve all got a home.
Now, Starbucks wants some.