Silicon Prairie News

Culture of risk in Omaha

Omaha November 10, 2009 by Dusty Davidson


Yesterday, Gabe Kangas (@gabek) officially gave notice that he's leaving his job and will be pursuing other opportunities. For a bit of context, its probably worth reading his entire writeup on his blog.

Normally, this wouldn't be a huge deal -- people leave their jobs all the time. However, this one is different for me. Why? Because the display of support for Gabe's decision to me is an indicator that the needle is starting to move with regards to "risk taking" in the region. Let me explain...

We spend a LOT of time talking about "how to build a culture of risk taking." In fact, if we look all the way back to things that Sarah Lacy said well over a year ago, it's a critical component:

Every center of innovation needs a cocktail of things:

  • wild, almost naive ambition
  • money
  • a culture of risk taking
  • a social scene where Valley-like serendipitous moments can happen. (You know, stuff like: Oh, hey! I haven't seen you in forever! You're starting a company? OMG I know an angel investor who's really into that space! etc)
  • big companies techies can spin off from
  • universities

Anyone from Omaha or the Midwest would undoubtedly agree that we're not exactly a culture that actively embraces risk-taking of any degree. As we at Silicon Prairie News look at how we can best influence and affect change in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the idea of shifting this mindset is right at the forefront. Our core premise of promoting and highlighting the area's success stories and great individuals serves as a means to show people that there are others out there like them -- that they CAN do their own thing -- they CAN be successful.

I'm blown away by the overwhelmingly positive words of praise and encouragement that people are sending Gabe's way...

KT -- "excited for you to push your skills and potential to the limit. you shouldn’t be scared, you’re awesome and my favorite."

Eric Downs -- "I know you will do great! I quit my full time job 1 year ago to run DownsDesign full time and was in the exact same position. Funny thing about Omaha is it has a way of helping its peeps out."

SkidVis -- "You are a man of unlimited potential. You will not fail. At worst, you’ll experience. Congratulations on leaving the pack."

The list goes on and on... This visible display of support for such a "risky" thing is EXACTLY what builds strong entrepreneurial ecosystems. So again, kudos to Gabe, you know you have a strong community of people backing you. And congrats to Omaha, I think tides are starting to change, and I'm more excited than ever for the potential.

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I really appreciate this piece as it speaks to the entire region. I wonder what Omaha's "center of innovation" grades would be on the "cocktail of things" report card noted in the piece.
- wild, almost naive ambition (A, B, C, D, or F)
- money (A, B, C, D, or F)
- a culture of risk taking (A, B, C, D, or F)
- a social scene where Valley-like serendipitous moments can happen. (You know, stuff like: Oh, hey! I haven’t seen you in forever! You’re starting a company? OMG I know an angel investor who’s really into that space! etc) (A, B, C, D, or F)
- big companies techies can spin off from (A, B, C, D, or F)
- universities (A, B, C, D, or F)

Nov 11, 2009 at 01:13 AM

It absolutely speaks to the entire region. I moved to Omaha almost exactly one year ago and if you were to ask me then if I'd ever even slightly think I'd be where I am I'd say it was crazy talk.

I don't think that it's an overstatement when I say I'm not sure there's many other places in the world where the support, talent and opportunity thrives like it does here.

SPN is owed a huge thanks for incubating this culture by bringing the stories to the forefront. Jeff, Dusty, Danny and crew: thank you.

Nov 11, 2009 at 01:27 AM

No question SPN has done a great job of getting visibility locally, regionally and sometimes nationally. Fundamental questions exist around the "cocktail of things" ...
What grades to we currently have? (in each, is a relationship to risk taking)
What does it take to improve the grade(s)?
Do we have the infrastructure (human, financial, business/technological innovation, education, awareness (critical mass awareness)) to improve the grade(s)?

Nov 11, 2009 at 02:35 AM

Now, more than ever, our country, our state, and our city desperately need entrepreneurs and a big dose of the entrepreneurial spirit. We need more Gabes.

Gabe shows this spirit is alive and well. Good luck and kick some butt, Gabe!

Nov 11, 2009 at 02:50 AM

Great post! And I think this is so true! I have been so inspired by all the exciting things that have been going on in Omaha in the last few years. I'm so proud of Gabe and excited to see how he rocks this decision! I loved seeing all of the support for him yesterday.
And I agree with Gabe - SPN deserves a huge thanks for helping to build this culture of support here!

Nov 11, 2009 at 03:09 AM

In response to KMJ - (although perhaps this warrants an entire post)

wild, almost naive ambition - C - There's *pockets* of this. SPN embodies this in many ways, with the attitude of "why not Omaha". There's lots of people saying we can't make it happen, we're saying that we CAN (and WILL).

money - D - Little or no institutional dollars, very low visibility for angel/seed dollars. This is trending upwards though, and thats encouraging.

a culture of risk taking - C - see above.

a social scene where Valley-like serendipitous moments can happen - B - Between Cornstalks, Startup Drinks, Big Omaha, Invest Nebraska events and others, we're slowly but surely getting there. Continued involvement at all levels of events is required to push this forward.

big companies techies can spin off from - C - We have a few.. ACI, Gallup, Mutual, West & others that are *actively* producing people capable of spinning off other companies (both financially and are capable of). I think this is a huge place for improvement.

universities - B - Between UNL/UNO/Creighton and others, I think we have a very vibrant mix of young talent. The challenge becomes enticing those students to stay, and to do innovative/entrepreneurial things.

Perhaps I'm being harsh. I think that overall we are *trending* in a very positive direction. Bottom line is, we will have been successful when our GPA is > 3.0.

I gave a talk on this exact subject a while back, and I'll post a followup story with that video and some additional commentary.

Nov 11, 2009 at 08:57 AM

– big companies techies can spin off from – C – We have a few.. ACI, Gallup, Mutual, West & others that are *actively* producing people capable of spinning off other companies (both financially and are capable of). I think this is a huge place for improvement.

What do you mean, specifically, when you say "are capable of"? Are you suggesting that companies like Gallup actively develop their employees and thus grow into entrepreneurs? In what ways, if I'm reading you correctly, do Gallup et al contribute to the growth of their employees?

(I'm curious, since ConAgra Foods recently found time to endeavor upon the creation of "ConAgra University")

On a totally separate note, how do we measure a healthy dose of risk taking? I wonder if risk-taking isn't but an equation, drawn up in part by the other measures on your report card. That is to say, if we had a better university system, would we see more intrepid individuals coming from them?

Dec 7, 2009 at 07:25 AM

@Peder -

Great question. I'm not exactly sure that companies like Gallup et. al. are indeed *actively* spinning off entrepreneurs, despite my comment. At least not in the same way that companies like Google, Microsoft, 3m, etc are. For me it requires 2 things -- First, the companies must live and breath innovation. That is, they must have an environment that fosters innovative people, from which they grow and leave to do other amazing things. Second, they must create wealth. Companies like Microsoft created many millionaires, which then leave to go on and use their new-found wealth to create exciting new companies.

Also, I agree with you that risk-taking is possibly just a measure (or perception) of other factors. However, I think that your university example doesn't work. Having a "better" university system doesn't necessary create more startups, unless the students that are coming from there are sufficiently aligned with the perceived risks of doing so. Just because they're more educated, doesn't do much for the large societal issue. Great "startup" univeristies like Stanford and MIT are surrounded by cultures that live and breath this stuff.

Dec 7, 2009 at 02:06 PM

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