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The Silicon Prairie: How Omaha is encouraging unbridled innovation. No coasting allowed.

thesiliconreview greater omaha chamber 17Kimberly Perkins left a mid-six-figure salary in Silicon Valley to spend more time with her children and help grow a relatively new tech startup. She is doing both hundreds of miles from either coast on the burgeoning Silicon Prairie.

“I went from doing business in places like Dubai to doing business at 19th & Harney in downtown Omaha – and it was a choice I am grateful for,” she says.

Perkins and her husband, Lorenzo Staunovo Polacco, moved their family to Omaha from the bay area at the end of 2015. A shorter commute, versus the old five-hour roundtrip, meant more time with their three kids and more time to ideate and build upon the couple’s startup venture, memosnag, an application that lets users quickly save and organize content they find online.

“The choice to come to Omaha was not primarily driven by memosnag, but memosnag was a benefactor,” Perkins says. “When we decided it was time to focus more on family and on our own venture, being in Omaha, with its low cost of living, made it easier to do so.”

Perkins and her husband are not alone. More entrepreneurs are flocking from the coasts to the Midwest to turn their dreams into reality. Over the past five years, the number of entrepreneurs in Greater Omaha has increased by more than six percent. Those entrepreneurs are earning more – $63,000 on average. That is twice the national average and 26 percent more than those in Silicon Valley.

Greater Omaha’s cost of living is more than six percent below the national average and significantly lower than other tech hubs. Comparatively, as Perkins can attest, living in San Francisco costs more than 88 percent above the national average, and homes there are 3.5 times the national average.

“In the Silicon Valley, we couldn’t afford to go down to one income to pursue building our own company. We can do it here – and that’s made all the difference,” Perkins says.

Staunovo Polacco, memosnag’s founder, had lived in Omaha previously. He hatched the idea for the startup while he was working on his MBA and struggling to keep track of content he found online. His classmates seemed to have the same problem so he developed the concept, recruited a technical co-founder from his soccer team, and started building it.

“memosnag attracts all types of users from all around the world, so knowing where to focus our efforts from a marketing perspective is a little difficult. In my previous positions with Yahoo! and Class One Exchange, Inc., I was more experienced on corporate users of large enterprise software products or business partners on the B2B side. I am new to B2C so it’s been helpful working with The Startup Collaborative,” Perkins says.

The Startup Collaborative – a program of the Greater Omaha Chamber

Unique to Omaha, The Startup Collaborative (TSC) is a multi-faceted program of the Greater Omaha Chamber. Since its launch in January of 2017, TSC has supported more than 115 companies in the startup ecosystem. Right now, it serves as a launching pad for memosnag as well as 50-plus other startups crossing fintech, agtech, AR/VR marketing tech and more. It has one driving goal: to radically improve the odds of startup success by attracting startups and tech talent to the region.

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“TSC is an entirely new take on startup growth, working with entrepreneurs to sustain and scale their startups,” says co-founder Erica Wassinger.

Headquartered in downtown Omaha and led by Wassinger and Nathan Preheim, TSC is a partnership of three ecosystem programs – a traditional 90-day accelerator, an incubator and the entrepreneurship and innovation division of the Greater Omaha Chamber – evolved to meet founders on their terms and timelines, while helping them gain leverage and traction.

The program provides a holistic approach to business development. It walks away from the standard 90-day incubator model, incentivizing startups to reach milestones, offering on-demand mentoring and peer learning, and organizing shared pitch sessions and fundraising tips.

“The Startup Collaborative has helped guide us through LEAN processes to nail down our customer segments and provide techniques to better understand our users,” Perkins says.

Startups that join the program have access to nearly 30 adjuncts—entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and high-level community leaders—who help teams reach critical growth milestones, ensuring a better chance of startup success. The collaborative also offers co-working space and events that facilitate community connections.

“TSC has shattered the industry standard models of accelerators, incubators and even community-building organizations to improve the odds of startup success,” Wassinger says. “It puts the power to create a scalable company back into the founders’ hands and on their timelines.”

TSC’s startup acceleration happens in real-time, meaning founders start working against business growth and acceleration at the same time inspiration strikes. From there, teams earn incentives – staff, funding, access to venture networks and more – based on additional market growth.

A tough competitor in the industry

TSC operates in an accelerator and incubator space that has grown increasingly saturated, going from the first accelerator in 2005 to more than 700 in 2016. While many of these startup support programs brought hope to confused and wandering entrepreneurs, they didn’t necessarily bring results.

“Most carry shoddy and commoditized value propositions of accelerating growth, but very few deliver,” Wassinger says. “Most often, entrepreneurs claim their 90-100 day experience yielded questionable results and proved to be a distraction instead of an accelerant.”

In a crowded field, Wassinger says TSC rises above:

“By combining entities and focusing on the real-time traction needed for entrepreneurs to succeed, TSC has proven to improve the odds of startup success by nearly 2x for participating fellows.”

TSC is backed by sponsors at various levels and generates revenue by following a fellowship program model. (Each fellow pays a certain amount to be part of the program.) Additional revenue is created by offering collaborative workspaces open to the community.

“The Startup Collaborative is helping to put Nebraska on the map as a state that supports startups and innovation,” says co-founder Nathan Preheim.

Startup success stories

Whether with assistance from TSC and other endeavors such as Dundee Venture Capital and McCarthy Capital or simply through a founder’s boot-strapping sheer will to succeed, a rapidly growing number of startup success-stories are being written in Omaha every day.

Buildertrend has become one of Omaha’s leading high-growth bootstrapping SaaS companies. Founded in 2006, its project management platform has served more than 495,000 users in over 40 countries around the world. So far, $73.5 billion worth of residential construction projects have flowed through the Buildertrend system.

A few of Omaha’s other startup standouts include:

Flywheel

Flywheel is a premium WordPress hosting company built specifically for design firms, freelancers and creative agencies. It makes it easy for designers to launch and manage very fast, secure websites for their clients.

“When you take someone’s website that was really slow and move it to Flywheel, you see them get excited about what that means – and that’s super cool.” says co-founder Dusty Davidson.

Davidson says he is bullish on the Midwest as a place that is viable and exciting for start-up companies:

“Flywheel continues to look at the Midwest as a place that is filled with phenomenal talent. The cost structure for starting, building and developing companies is incredible. The support network is solid and growing, whether it’s capital, mentors or advisors that can help you grow and scale a company.”

Crumb

At its heart, Crumb is a data science company. From a data infrastructure standpoint, healthcare is between 10-15 years behind other industries. Crumb handles integration and allows healthcare professionals to find data when it’s needed.

“Our whole idea was – let’s create something that advances healthcare, research and clinical grade technology and helps save lives,” says CEO Luis López.

López says that the plan is for Crumb to become the greatest aggregator/integrator of health data in the world:

“Innovation will transcend anything – that’s something that Omaha has been proving. I’ll take our five engineers, and I’ll put them against any 20 engineers from any other part of the country. My guarantee is that no one will work harder than us. I love that attitude about the Midwest. We’re very heads down, and we’re building great companies without the ego.”

Memosnag

Memosnag falls into the category of social bookmarking, but users primarily use it as a research and information organizational tool.

Kimberly Perkins and her husband, Lorenzo, have found their place on the Silicon Prairie and now there is no looking back.

“I believe as with most things in life, whether the Silicon Prairie is the right place for your startup is dependent on timing and fit,” Perkins says. “I think, depending on the product and the vision for the company, Omaha has good soil: numerous colleges and universities (for employment candidates), a low cost of living, and infrastructure and programs to support and grow small businesses.”

The proof is in the statistics, and these numbers are gaining attention of startups and ranking authorities:

  • #6 America’s Top States for Business – Business Friendliness (NE) – CNBC 2017
  • #10 America’s Best Cities to Live (NE) – CNBC 2017
  • #25 Best Places to Live (Omaha) – U.S. News & World Report 2017
  • Home to four Fortune 500 companies and five Fortune 1000 companies
  • 6th highest population growth among millennials (Omaha World-Herald)

Seventeen-hundred miles from Silicon Valley, Omaha is a city looking to the future of where it can lead, relying on its assets and innovation to get there, rolling up its sleeves and encouraging unbridled innovation on its Silicon Prairie – no coasting allowed.

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