November 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The emerging startup accelerator scene supports creative-minded risk-takers looking for an edge to follow their passion and bring their ideas to fruition.

Sebastian Hunt, 25, is passionate about giving entrepreneurs like himself a nurturing space to test out their concepts. The University of Nebraska at Omaha economics graduate interned with various local employers and surveyed the area startup community when an idea struck him for a by-application, curriculum-based residency program serving new entrepreneurs. That inspiration turned into Year of the Startup.

Launched in 2014, the program operates out of a humble house at 4036 Burt Street in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood. Hunt and co-founder Jason Feldman, 28, room there with young residency fellows whose startup ventures range from making bio-fuels to providing night owl shuttle services. They are a millennial bunch who favor sneakers and sandals. They take informal meetings to nearby CaliCommons and Lisa’s Radial Cafe. They variously hunch over laptops or tablets and carry smartphones as appendages.

This communal work-live space model for business mavericks is new to Omaha. The usual startup accelerator is a concentrated, 90-day, off-site program. Omaha has a few of these, notably Straight Shot. Hunt saw a need for a program that invites a broader range of people into the accelerator fold and supports them much nearer to the start of their dream than other programs.

“We feel like we can take people at very early stages because we are four times as long as the average program,” says Hunt, who adds that Year of the Startup is also not tech-centric like many programs tend to be. “In our model we substitute intensity for duration. I think a lot of the learning here comes through unstructured, serendipitous interactions we have that is not curriculum-based, it’s just happenstance.

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“With a house there are so many different ways you can bring ideas and people together. I think that’s maybe that critical binding agent and sense of place that helps accomplish things.”

He says in this intimate environment “there’s no other choice but to immerse yourself in the setting,” adding, “We’re always hanging out in the living room or out back talking about startup stuff—monetization strategies, capitalization tables, vested equity entity structures.”

“It’s this immersive experience of camaraderie, of these natural flows and idea generation,” Feldman says.

Hunt says, “This is very difficult to get bored with because there’s always somebody whose business is either in crisis or growth stage or some interesting part of the curve.”

“How could we get bored when we’re creating a platform with four startups and all we get to do is ideation,” Feldman says. “It’s a constant buzz we get from interacting with these startup founders and helping them build their ideas.”

Built into the program are activities that encourage fellows to break out of their comfort zone and to offer honest criticism of each other’s ideas.

Hunt compiles multiple data points on the startups.

“We’re developing really deep insight about how do people start successful businesses.”

The program utilizes mentors from the entrepreneurial community.

“We bring in people who are experts in specific areas to talk on those topics,” Feldman says.

“They get ideas flowing,” Hunt says of the mentors.

Feldman says he regularly covers with fellows “the major components of what you need to look at to start your business,” and then mentors like Mike Kolker, owner of graphic design firm Simplify, teach lessons about operational efficiency and “how to simplify running a business.”

Hunt is a newcomer to all this and goes by instinct as much as research to support his vision.

“I just had an irrational confidence, market insights, and a great theoretical background thanks to primary research I completed and to lessons I learned from Phillip Phillips, Michael O’Hara, and Art Diamond in UNO’s economics department. I read constantly about who the players were in the startup world, so I was fairly prepared.”

Even though he directs a startup program, he only started participating in one himself (Venture School). He acknowledges Year of the Startup is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiment.

“Coming out of college I had student loans and not a ton of money. I’ve held two jobs to finance the project. Now the project is financed by a combination of me working and renting out one room. One-hundred percent of the money our entrepreneurs pay in rent will be returned in full and so everybody has a strong incentive to follow through with the program. That may be what makes us sustainable.”

He’s working on securing corporate sponsorship for the program. Meanwhile, he wants to help get participating startups to the next level.

“We’re functioning like a pre-accelerator at this point. We want to get our startups profitable and then refer them to the Straight Shots, so they can focus on growth in a pure accelerator program.”

As Year of the Startup moved into a larger house in Omaha’s Little Italy district on July 1 and a new class of fellows arrives, Hunt says there are “interesting talks happening right now to bring this to other cities.” He and Feldman say economic development agencies are willing to pay a license fee for them to do startup houses in other cities. The partners are having proprietary software developed that will enable new startup houses to replicate their branded Omaha model.

They look forward to engaging with the emerging 10th Street cultural district but may keep the midtown house to accommodate growth.

Hunt and Feldman believe they’re catching the wave, or tipping point, of a big new startup rush and they’re betting their model is poised to be a niche player in this wild frontier of entrepreneurial prospecting.

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