Tag Archives: entrepreneur

Around the Table

July 22, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and contributed

In this new department, the B2B editors are asking key questions of three executives in the same, or a similar, field. In this inaugural article, for the design issue, we spoke with three executives of ad agencies/PR firms: Robin Donovan, president of Bozell, which has nearly 50 employees; Wendy Wiseman, president and COO of Zaiss & Co., which has nearly 20 employees; and Dave Nelson, founder of Secret Penguin, which has nearly 10 employees.

Talent retention is a big worry for many ad agencies. How do you retain talented people? 

Donovan: Our culture is what keeps our people. The entrepreneurial environment, the family atmosphere (kids and pets are in and out), and the obsession with giving back to the community (paying rent for the space we occupy on this earth). Those who do leave for a time often come back. 

Wiseman: All [our employees] are empowered and expected to bring their “A” game. When people are motivated by meeting marketing challenges, they thrive here, because that’s what we do.

Nelson: We’re in a very fortunate position to have talented people, and even more fortunate to have thoughtful people. Our mission is to make communities better…and more fun. We hire, take on work, and have created a work environment based on that. Because of this mission being very authentic, and not something we just say to feel good, everyone here feels a sense of purpose. We don’t report to one another, we support one another.

Robin Donovan

What question are you often asked that drives you crazy?

Donovan: “Even though I’m an engineer, I created this brochure for my company. Everyone tells me it’s great. Do you think it’s great?”

Wiseman: “Do you do websites?” As a marketing partner we do what needs to be done to reach marketing goals. We say we are medium agnostic—we don’t favor one over the other and in fact, integrated media is what works, but planning, building, and maintaining websites is something we’ve done since companies could have websites.

Nelson: We can’t expect other people to know the right questions to ask about our industry. I’d rather have a conversation than not. I love questions. When I used to get upset about questions, it was more because I couldn’t just give a simple and clear answer—meaning I didn’t know enough to be able to talk about it. Furthermore, if anyone asks a question, that could mean we didn’t communicate clearly what we can offer—so every question is a potential learning opportunity.

What practices or resources help you stay ahead of the curve?  

Donovan: We go out of our way to recruit folks with an insatiable curiosity. That makes it a lot easier to keep up with what’s coming next, because as end users change, so must the methods of communicating with them change. These incredible folks are our best resources.

Wiseman: Belonging to the current conversation via forums, associations, certifications in the social sphere, being in the marketing culture. We observe and absorb what is working for brands out there, and frankly, we’re creating strategies that work and lead—all to get to goal.

Nelson: Caring. Caring about our clients, our clients’ communities they serve, our team, the work we put out—caring is the only reason to stay ahead of the curve and it pushes us to do whatever we each personally need to do to do so. That being said, each member of the team cares and they do their own thing to stay ahead of the curve with whatever their role is.

Wendy Wiseman

How are you working to create an enduring organization?  

Donovan: We don’t just do what is asked; we dive deeper and do what is needed to take our clients to the top or keep them there. And we are intent on helping them drive success to their bottom line.

Wiseman: Zaiss & Company just celebrated our 29-year anniversary. Our organization endures because we have an enduring mission to help our partners grow profitably through our dedication to making marketing strategies and marketing communication as effective as they can be. We stay up on our industry and those [industries] of our clients.

Nelson: One of our main goals has been to create a sustainable business. We prioritize everything we do at SecretPenguin with personal health (physical, mental, spiritual—whatever any of that means to the individual); relationships (family and friends); work; and community. We only take on work if we will create or refine the brand. And we are focused on a slow and steady growth plan to create a solid team and a solid group of clients.

What keeps you up at night?  

Donovan: Envisioning how we can possibly top our last success so that we can keep our clients enthralled and our staff engaged.

Wiseman: As entrepreneurs at heart, we relate to the responsibilities our clients carry. From marketing directors to presidents/CEOs of all sizes of businesses, we empathize with what keeps them up at night—leads, sales, earnings, competition, innovation, staffing. When we commit to helping grow our clients’ businesses with marketing, meeting their goals and strategic solutions play through our brains throughout the night.

Nelson: The only time I have a concern is when there is miscommunication. If there’s anything that keeps me up, it’s how to resolve any miscommunication that could hurt the team’s relationship or our client’s relationship.

Dave Nelson

How has your industry changed since you entered the field?

Donovan: Way back then it was about helping clients meet and exceed their challenges—and that’s what it’s about now. [But], when I entered the industry we used desk phones, typewriters, Western Union, and faxes. And we had mechanicals for every ad. Do you know what any of those things are?

Wiseman: Exponentially and not at all. Digital media and digital natives have turned a lot on its head; however, in the end, this is marketing—the art and science of changing attitudes/stimulating action. The age-old practices of knowing who you are targeting and what you want them to know, think, and feel about your brand is primary no matter the medium. It’s about a focus on benefit and understanding that content is king.

Nelson: Technology, mainly. But, at the root of it all—our industry has always been about clearly communicating what a brand offers to their community, then building relationships between the brand and their community. So, no matter what comes along, I can have peace knowing that will never change.


This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Supporting Work

May 15, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

It’s easy for Dave Thrasher to walk a mile in the work boots of contractors his flourishing company helps.

The president of Omaha-based Supportworks only needs to remember his childhood.

“I grew up seeing how hard it is for an entrepreneur with everything on his shoulders,” says Thrasher, whose parents Greg and Nancy started Thrasher Basement Systems in 1975. “My dad worked all the time to keep it all going.

“He was that guy laying awake at night wondering how to make payroll next month.”

Thrasher and his growing team of 90 employees are building a company out of its Papillion headquarters that serves more than 120 contractor-dealers who are just like his dad back in the day. Supportworks develops and outsources the manufacturing of foundation, basement, and concrete repair products that contractor-dealers buy into exclusively. One of Supportworks’ biggest hitters has been a concrete-leveling product and process—PolyLevel—that took off almost by accident.

Supportworks created an instructional video on the product that was “so poorly produced, we think that’s why it went viral,” Thrasher says. The YouTube video got more than 100 million views in five weeks, and Supportworks was flooded every day with hundreds of dealer applications.

PolyLevel has supported massive reconstruction projects across the U.S. and Canada. Supportworks dealers worked with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority to secure tracks that were in danger of derailing trains, and with the Delaware Department of Transportation to lift miles of Interstate Highway. PolyLevel was even used to repair every sidewalk around the New York Mets’ Citi Field.

“We got a ton of brand recognition, and millions of people coast to coast wanted the product to fix their cracking driveways,” Thrasher says.

But the driver of Supportworks’ business model is the consulting services it offers for free in exchange for a contractor’s purchasing loyalty.

The 10-year-old company shows contractors the ropes on core business services such as answering prospect calls, closing a sale, and giving customers a “wow” experience. Dealers can also get assistance with brand strategy, inventory management, accounting, and human resources.

Supportworks has even invested in an in-house creative team of 25 web developers, graphic designers, videographers, and copywriters who produce anything from a business card to a television ad.

“Many of our dealers are grinding it out and great at their trade, but they don’t have business training,” says Thrasher, who learned the ins-and-outs as his parents’ company outgrew the family basement. “We want to stretch the bandwidth of that business owner and help them grow their $1 million business to $30 million.”

It’s working. Supportworks has grown by more than 10 percent every year since launching in 2008 and hit a high of more than $120 million in revenue in 2017. As its largest dealer-customer, sister company Thrasher—run by Thrasher’s brother, Dan—serves as perfect proving ground for Supportworks’ products and services.

“We know the challenges our customers face because we see it in our own backyard,” Thrasher says. “When you help someone grow their business and help them solve their most complex business problems, they are eternally grateful and reward you with deep loyalty.”

Supportworks is now exploring other home construction verticals, such as guttering or fencing, where it can apply its successful dealer consultant business model.

“We think there are hundreds more contractors out there that we can help solve their biggest problems,” Thrasher says.


Visit supportworks.com for more information.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Dave Thrasher

Strumming Up Some Business

January 19, 2018 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Editor’s note: This profile on a local Omaha entrepreneur is not an endorsement by B2B Magazine or Omaha Magazine. Disgruntled customers, employees, and/or suppliers should address any complaints directly to Gear Supply Co.


Omaha World-Herald cartoonist Jeff Koterba is the guitarist, principal songwriter, and lead vocalist—in other words, the catalyst—behind the popular local band the Prairie Cats.

He also isn’t the only musician in the family. Son Joshua Koterba started playing guitar as soon as he could pick one up, and he began playing the trumpet in third grade. He kept playing until he became a teenager.

“Son, you can’t write a love song on a trumpet,” Jeff told him.

So Joshua hung up his trumpet, picked up the guitar again, and wrote love songs. The guitar became a spiritual connection for him, a deep draw to a place of elation and completion.

“It’s magic, you know,” Koterba, now 31, explains.

Koterba took the plunge into the music retail business two years ago with his start-up, Gear Supply Co. As a musician and a freelance audio engineer, Koterba developed a set of unique skills. He knew how to make his low wages work in creative ways. He has a scrappy, lean mentality that translates perfectly into the world of entrepreneurship. It takes blood, sweat, tears, and soul.

Koterba, though, did not run full tilt into the fire. It started with Koterba’s own adventure seeking strings for his 15-year-old Fender guitar. The stores he visited didn’t have what he needed, so he bought it all online.

The purchase left him feeling disconnected. A musician’s guitar is like an artist’s brush. The tools matter and artists have emotional attachments to their instruments.

Not having customized supplies turned into a problem Koterba itched to solve. He spent months researching his client base. He knew other artists in the industry felt the same way and needed a buyer bond. Could he start a business from his garage in Florida with little income? The risk, in his eyes, seemed worth it. Koterba didn’t have a business degree, just a dream.

“It doesn’t matter how hard it gets if you know you are helping people,” Koterba says.

He used a couple thousand dollars from his tax return to buy products. Specifically, three different types of guitar strings. He knocked over the dominoes on his marketing plan: an e-mail with an opportunity to win free items if someone brought in more sign-ups. Koterba’s gamble paid off and he collected 5,000 e-mail addresses, along with 100 paying customers.

Eight months or so later, his company drew interest from an angel investor from Nebraska. The hard- working mentality of Midwesterners and the central location seemed ideal for his idea. He moved back to Omaha and was accepted to NMotion, a 90-day accelerator in Lincoln. The final project was to pitch his ideas in front of thousands of people to draw in capital investors. Eight more came on board. The money gained from the investors went towards testing and determining growth strategies, investing in customer acquisition, and employee wages.

Koterba retains more than 51 percent of the company, and Gear Supply Co. is breaking even after two years. Entrepreneurship takes a remarkable amount of hard work. Koterba clears his mind with decompressing silence on his trips to Florida to see his two children. It helps him brainstorm innovative ideas or think about new supplies.

Customer demand means Koterba has added gauges and straps to his inventory. He added guitar pedals using crowdsourcing as an additional method of gaining capital. Koterba has a hand in designing products and it allows him to make connections with like-minded artists.

Blues player and shredder Sebastian Lane buys many of these products on Gear Supply Co.’s list, including custom picks.

“They are the leading forefront when it comes to quality guitar goods,” Lane says.

Koterba still plays his instrument daily, strumming in his chair and trying out product lines while responding to e-mails. At the end of the day (even if that means 1 a.m.), nothing replaces diligence because, “no one is going to work as hard as you.”

Visit gearsupply.co for more information.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

Big Omaha

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Big Omaha

Rewind to May 8, 2009, and you will find a community of 400-plus graphic designers, entrepreneurs, creatives, developers, small business owners, and even a handful of investors seated in tidy rows at KANEKO in the Old Market. It was a first-of-its-kind conference for Omaha.

Many of these people knew of this event through casual conversations—mostly on Twitter—about a little-known conference coming to town called “Big Omaha.” It was the brainchild and second-born of friends Jeff Slobotski and Dusty Davidson (the previous year’s Silicon Prairie News being their firstborn). The two recognized a movement and a simmering energy surrounding the local tech community. It was a cadre of women and men who decided start-up and tech success could happen not on the West Coast but in their own backyards.

The inaugural Big Omaha sold out 10 days prior to the conference. The energy it created has sustained these past eight years. The result? Omaha is now a destination for start-ups seeking new ideas, new energy, and even new money in the form of investors.

“Big Omaha provides inspiration for people to start something,” explains Brian Lee of AIM, a not-for-profit organization that promotes technology to empower people, enhance organizations, and create brilliant communities. Lee serves as managing director of Big Omaha and Silicon Prairie News.

Two years ago, Big Omaha and Silicon Prairie News were acquired by AIM. Although the ownership structure has changed, the Big Omaha experience remains true to what Slobotski and Davidson created with the first conference in 2009.

“Big Omaha has had a huge impact on our community,” Lee says. “It is part of a larger movement in the past eight years that started with Big Omaha.”

Now the conference welcomes a sold-out audience of 700 attendees with guest speakers in a range of tech- and entrepreneurial-based industries who have crisscrossed the globe. When the speakers take the stage, the majority are candid about their successes and their failures, which they are encouraged to share in engaging, meaningful, transparent, and memorable ways.

“We ask our speakers to address overcoming challenges, which helps our audience find inspiration,” Lee says. “In the Midwest, we appreciate authenticity. Hearing those struggles helps a lot.”

Part of the splash of Big Omaha’s first conference in 2009 was its clever cow branding, developed by Omaha-based Oxide Design Co. The cow visuals have remained, although design duties changed hands in 2015 from Oxide to Grain & Mortar.

Now that Big Omaha is owned and operated by AIM, its goal is to cover costs through sponsorships and ticket sales, Lee says.

The conference continues to be a hot event. Tickets that cost as much as $599 are scooped up annually by local, national, and even international attendees.

Big Omaha could move to a larger venue, selling more tickets and earning more revenue. But Lee says from his vantage point, the Big Omaha culture isn’t about a bottom line.

“Our goal is not to outgrow KANEKO. We want to preserve the charm and the experience (of Big Omaha) for as long as we can.”

Part of this charm is the togetherness. Everyone who attends Big Omaha hears the same speakers in the same order. Speakers are encouraged to remain the entire two days of the conference, immersing themselves in the experience and networking with Big Omaha ticket-holders. (The pre-party and post-party have become a popular part of the two-day conference.)

Graphic design, architecture, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship ideas abound here. UNL architecture students provided an art installation in 2016, and a guest speaker in 2015 and 2017 was fashion entrepreneur Mona Bijoor, a favorite among the fashion designers and fashionistas
in attendance.

The conference’s first row is filled with familiar faces each year. One of them is Megan Hunt of Omaha, who has attended every single Big Omaha since 2009.

“I remember the incredible momentum that had built up in the Midwest startup community for this event,” Hunt recalls. “The desire we all had for a space to come together, share the work we were doing, and learn from the superstars in our field was palpable. The way that Dusty and Jeff harnessed that energy and built Omaha’s reputation as a hub of entrepreneurship is nothing short of legendary.”

Hunt has owned a web-based bridal design company, a co-working space, and, most recently, a web-based clothing retailer known as Hello Holiday that also boasts a very visual storefront in the heart of Dundee.

“I love going to Big Omaha because, for me, running a business is not just dollars and cents and strategy around growth,” Hunt adds. “It takes a lot of creativity and ingenuity. Big Omaha is my favorite conference because they do understand this so well, emphasizing how interdisciplinary business and technology can be, and welcoming artists, musicians, designers, and writers—people who may normally be in the minority at
other conferences.”

Big Omaha 2017

Big Omaha returned to KANEKO for the ninth consecutive year May 18 and 19. Below is the lineup of speakers.

Joe Ariel, co-founder and CEO of Goldbely

Mona Bijoor, managing partner at King Circle Capital and founder of JOOR

Christina Brodbeck, founding partner at Rivet Ventures

Daniel Burka, design partner at GV, formerly Google Ventures

Shirley Chung, chef and owner at Steamers Co.

Baldwin Cunningham, vice president of strategy at Brit + Co., co-founder of Partnered

Diana Goodwin, founder and CEO of AquaMobile

Alex Klein, co-founder and CEO of Kano Computing

Brandon Levy, co-founder and CEO of Stitch Labs

Mitch Lowe, co-founder of Netflix, CEO of MoviePass

Margenette Moore-Roberts, global head of inclusive diversity at Yahoo

Nish Nadaraja, former Yelp brand director, partner at Rich Kid Cool

Brian Neider, a partner at Lead Edge Capital

Vanessa Torrivilla, co-founder and creative director of Goldbely

Shandra Woworuntu, founder of Mentari

Matt Zeiler, founder and CEO of Clarifai

Visit bigomaha.co for more information.

Big Omaha participants try virtual reality goggles at a previous year’s event.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Drew Davies

March 30, 2015 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine

Sometimes a business’s most successful seeds are sewn in grassroots.

At least, this is the approach that seems to have worked quite well for entrepreneur Drew Davies, who created the graphic design company Oxide Design Co. in 2001.

“Fair to say I have entrepreneurial blood in my veins,” Davies says with a laugh, referencing the legacy of business-owning passed down to him by his parents, who own Soul Desires Bookstore and Coffeeshop in the Old Market.

Davies says the “leap of faith” for starting a business on his own was maybe a bit easier for this reason. Although he worked for other smaller graphic design firms out of college, Davies’ passion for the field pushed him to explore other ways to forge a unique identity, this one uniquely his own.

“Graphic design is an interesting business,” he says. “It’s a lot about running a successful business, but also a lot about putting your heart and soul into a more creative endeavor. So there’s a certain drive to be in an environment where that’s fostered.”

And that drive extends far beyond his own business.

Dubbed by Davies as his “half and half approach,” over 50 percent of Oxide Design’s often award-winning projects are with nonprofit organizations like the Nebraska AIDS Project, the Federal Voter Assistance Program, and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where all work is donated or discounted. The projects (“picking a favorite is like picking a favorite child,” Davies adds) range anywhere from customizing voting ballots to designing custom condom wrappers to raise AIDS awareness.

“Nonprofit is something I feel pretty strongly about,” Davies says. “I never started this business to get rich and famous. I wanted to be in charge of what I love doing, so it’s nice to have the ability to give back.”

We don’t know about his bank balance—and “famous” may be too strong a word—but Davies has garnered his share of prominence in the industry.

Davies was awarded the AIGA Fellow Award last November, an honor given to recognize designers who have made a significant impact for a cause or community. He’s also the only Nebraskan to have judged the Communication Arts (CA) Design Annual, a design competition dedicated to showcasing the world’s elite talents in the field. He has also served as national co-president of AIGA, the professional association for design, and was pegged as one of Graphic Design: USA magazine’s list of People to Watch in 2012.

And at the foundation of Davies’ passions? Omaha.

“I’m amazed almost every day at how creative the work is that comes out of this city,” he says, adding that Omaha’s reputation in design, as it is in so many endeavors, is perhaps a bit under the radar when viewed through the prism of a national perspective.

That’s quickly changing, though.

“It’s always been a pleasure being from a place that collectively produces such good work that it shatters people’s preconceived notions about what it means to produce from Omaha,” Davies says. “It makes me proud to be at the heart of this community and to show off this work and have people realize, ‘Wow, there’s something fabulous going on in that town.’”

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Aviture

February 27, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 2004, Mark Griffis founded Aviture as a response to Lockheed Martin’s request that he subcontract for them on a long-term project. The former Air Force officer turned serial entrepreneur had been consulting for the defense technology corporation when they asked him to stay with the project. “I had two days to come up with a name,” Griffis recalls.

Fast forward to 2013. Aviture had grown from a small startup into a stable software development company with enviable contract relationships with large corporations such as Lockheed. And Griffis decided it was time for Aviture to walk away.

Working for a Lockheed or a Northrup is great, he says, but it wasn’t helping Aviture move forward. “Let’s make a difference as Aviture without necessarily needing the support of a larger corporation.”

When a few contracts came up for renewal last summer, “we just decided we were done,” Griffis recalls. “We had enough work of our own, and we focused on getting this new space.” Aviture moved into a contemporary office space near I-80 and 132nd St. in the spring of 2013.

Ryan Wade, Aviture’s Vice President of business development, would put the company’s turning point back even further. “2010 was about realigning our customer base,” he says. Being choosy about the contracts they accepted meant a smooth transition into product development while not leaving Aviture’s consulting side behind entirely.

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So while Aviture is still handling some government projects (like UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] mission planning software), the company is moving into the commercial sphere, focusing on web development and data analytics. “Everybody can put a dot on a map now,” Griffis says. “But what are you going to do when you have 1,500 dots on a map? What are you going to do with that information? Those are the types of problems we want to solve.”

His goal for Aviture is to provide data analysis that’s easily visualized and absorbed so that businesses can get back to work quickly. After all, 1,500 dots on a map create a blob of information that’s difficult to wade through, if not useless.

For military operations, Griffis points out, missed opportunities from poor data analysis can put lives at stake. “In the business world, it’s not as dire,” he says, “but if you miss an opportunity, your business can definitely suffer. That’s what we try to offer insight into.”

According to Griffis, the same technology that can solve the problems of military mission logistics can be put to work solving problems with 3D surgical imaging, concussion analysis, or back-of-the-house restaurant management. “Understand what a customer is trying to do and why,” he says. “Then you can apply the technology.”

“We look at things from a business perspective,” Wade adds, “which I think is unique in tech. We have experience in developing and actually bringing products to market.”

Creating products that clients can easily apply to their own businesses means that Aviture employees have to have a strong desire to learn. “It’s not just coding,” Griffis says. “It’s not saying go make this widget. It’s understanding why, always asking why.”

To find those people, Griffis launched a second part to Aviture’s 2013 pivot: a technology business incubator attached to Aviture. He calls it The Garage. “My dream would be to create this pipeline where people come in with Aviture, find their passion in The Garage, and follow it out.”

The new incubator, he says, is a risk-mitigated way to get involved in Omaha’s startup environment.

About four fledgling business ideas are active in The Garage. Some are still very early stage (“part of this is education,” Griffis explains. “About mentoring them. Is the market there? What are the distribution channels? How are you going to raise money?”), and some are ready to move out (Huntforce, a trail camera management company, is going into its second round of funding).

All of the business concepts represented in The Garage exhibit Griffis’ desire to encourage Omahans to create on the next level of innovation. “I believe we don’t need more coders,” Griffis says. “We need more technology leaders, people who know how to apply technology.” Promoting this philosophy, Aviture hosted Hack Omaha last year, a weekend hackathon where programmers attempted to create useful products from city data.

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

January 28, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 2011 Patique Collins left a two-decade corporate career to open a fitness business. Two-and-a-half years later her Right Fit gym on West Maple Road jumps with clients.

This former model, who’s emceed events and trained celebrities (Usher and LL Cool J), now seeks to franchise her business, produce workout videos, and be a mind-body fitness speaker with a national reach.

Under her watchful eye and upbeat instruction, members do various aerobic and anaerobic exercises, kickboxing and Zumba included, all to pulsating music, sometimes supplied by DJ Mista Soul. She helps clients tone their bodies and build cardio, strength, and flexibility.

The sculpted Omaha native is a longtime fitness convert. Nine years ago she added weight training to her running regimen and got serious about nutrition. She’d seen too many loved ones suffer health problems due to poor diet and little exercise. The raw vegan describes her own workouts as “intense” and “extreme.”

And she pushes clients hard.

“I really want to help every single person that comes in reach their maximum potential, and that is a big responsibility,” she says. “If you don’t give up on you, I won’t. I will do whatever I can to help you earn your goals if you’re ready to.”

Collins has even been known to show up at your workplace if you skip class. “There’s accountability here at Right Fit. I’m very passionate about my clients.”

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She believes the relationships she builds with clients keeps them coming back. “People will tend to stay if you develop a relationship and work towards results.” Her gym, like her Facebook page, is filled with affirmations about following dreams, being persistent, and never quitting.

“I think positivity is a part of my DNA,” says the woman who sometimes dresses as a superhero for workouts.

A huge influence in her life was her late maternal grandmother, Faye Jackson, who raised her after Collins and her siblings were thrown into the foster care system. “My grandmother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and made me believe it.” Collins went on to attain multiple college degrees.

Motivated to help others, she made human resources her career. She and her then-husband Anthony Collins 
formed the Nothing But Net Foundation to assist at-risk youth. While working as a SilverStone Group senior consultant and as Human Resources Recruitment Administrator for the Omaha Public Schools, she began “testing the waters” as a trainer by conducting weekend boot camps.

Stepping out from the corporate arena to open her own gym took a leap of faith for this single mother of two small children.

“This is a lot of work. I am truly a one-woman show,” she says. “Sometimes that can be challenging.” Right Fit is her living, but she works hard at maintaining the right balance, where family and faith are top priorities.

She’s proud to be a successful female African-American small business owner and humbled by awards she’s received for her business and community achievements. Collins believes opportunities continue coming her way because of her genuine spirit.

“There’s some things you can’t fake, and being authentic is one of them,” she says. “I’m doing what I want to do. I think it’s my ministry. Everybody has their gifts, and this is mine. I’m able to influence people not just physically but mentally.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

Try to Keep Up 
With Deb Bass

November 19, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Deb Bass has essentially had three careers: She’s been an RN for 20 years, a startup entrepreneur for eight, and a CEO for about 12.

But don’t get the idea that Bass is calling this stage in her life anything like semi retirement. “I’m working harder than I ever have in my life,” she says with a laugh. As of 2012, she’s CEO of Nebraska Health Information Initiative (NeHII), a 501(c)3 dispensation with an ambitious goal to get electronic health records across the state talking to 
each other.

Health care has actually been a constant in Bass’ professional life. Specifically, the problems related to health-care information exchange.

“People don’t realize that someone who’s started a business has risked everything they own.”
– Deb Bass

“When I was a young nurse, I was in the operating room,” she recalls. “If a patient came in by ambulance, the EMTs would usually go to the patient’s medicine cabinet, empty it into a plastic bag, and bring that to the emergency room. And I would be there with the anesthesiologist, opening every bottle, looking at the pills, looking at the dates—people would put different pills in different bottles—and that’s how we put together   the pieces of what the patient was taking. That was our medicine query. By this time, we were doing surgery, and we were still trying to figure out if the patient was diabetic or if they had high blood pressure. And I remember thinking, there has got to be a better way to do this.”

Building Bass & Associates

That thought stayed with her even as she quit nursing to co-found Bass & Associates, a technology consulting business, in 1993. “February 2, to be exact,” she says. The date is firm in her memory. “We wrote the business plan, and I remember thinking, I sure do hope this works. You have to sign over your house, and…people don’t realize that someone who’s started a business has risked everything they own.” She recalls her 10-year-old daughter asking on family trips if they could please stop talking business 
for awhile.

Coincidentally, it was an aspect of health care that led Bass to reluctantly sell Bass & Associates just eight years later. “A 10 or 20 percent increase in health care every year.” She shakes her head. “You cannot build a business model that will absorb those kinds of increases each year, year after year.”

“The name has good brand value here… Throughout the years, she reiterated to me that you cannot afford to tarnish your reputation.”
– 
Bruce Peterson, executive vice president at Bass & Associates

Eventually a business has to pass on some of that cost to its employees. “And believe me, you pay as much as you can before you turn a cost back to your employees,” Bass says with emphasis. “It just got to the point where we needed to be an even larger organization so we could get better insurance.” In 2001, she sold the company and her stocks, though she stayed on as CEO and Bass & Associates kept her name.

“The name has good brand value here,” explains Bruce Peterson, executive vice president of Bass & Associates. He’s worked with Bass in several capacities over the course of two decades. “Throughout the years, she reiterated to me that you cannot afford to tarnish your reputation.” Having her name remain on a shingle she no longer owns would suggest Bass might be on to something.

 Stepping Up with NeHII

In 2007, Bass connected with NeHII (pronounced “knee high”) as a contracted resource through Bass & Associates to solve a different kind of health-care problem: the one she struggled with as a young nurse in the operating room. “To make it simple, we’re the Expedia model of health care information exchange,” she says. The public/private collaborative nonprofit that is NeHII enables electronic health records (EHRs) to speak to one another, across hospitals and across the state. “A physician enters a patient’s first name, last name, date of birth, and then we send crawlers across all participating hospitals, identify all the matches, and pull them into view on a screen.”

“She is passionate, passionate about NeHII.”
– 
Connie pratt, program director at NeHII

In an all but completely digitized world, it’s still not the norm for a physician to view a complete health record of a patient on a screen. Within one hospital, Bass explains, there may be as many as five or six different EHRs—one for the ER, one for the lab, one for the physician’s office, and so on. “Consumers get frustrated because they’re always asked to fill out the questionnaire with the  same set of questions,” she says. “‘You mean you don’t have this recorded somewhere?’ They don’t. Because they have all these siloed systems.” Benefits of a health information exchange (HIE), Bass says, include accurate data that doesn’t rely on the memory of laypersons; the ability to identify drug seekers; and facilitating consumer comparison by standardizing 
industry terminology.

“She is passionate, passionate about NeHII,” says Connie Pratt, the program director of NeHII. “She’ll go to the nth degree to make sure that it’s meeting people’s needs.” Pratt adds that the inevitable setbacks of such an undertaking don’t hold Bass’ focus for long. “She just keeps going—and that’s huge. Some people, when somebody says no, it’s done. Deb says, ‘Okay, that one said no, but we’re going to go over here now.’”

NeHII currently represents 51 percent of all hospital beds in Nebraska, on pace to represent 80 percent by 2015. The end goal, Bass says, is for all these state HIEs to connect to a federal architecture—a nationwide health information network, known in D.C. as The Healthy Way. Despite the fact that technology is ready for that scenario today, Bass says the industry is still a long way away from seeing Healthy Way work. “The challenges are the privacy and security policies and the politics.”

Maintaining the Pace

Pounding away at policies and politics means 7 o’clock mornings and 11:30 nights. “She is a doer,” Peterson says. “She was the pace car for Bass & Associates. Everybody that worked with her was trying to keep up.”

To cope, Bass sets another pace: twenty miles a week. “I really wouldn’t call it running anymore. It’s a run/walk.” And she lifts weights. “I have got to do it or my brain just goes nuts.”

20131018_bs_7033

Also keeping her grounded are her three daughters. “For all the working women out there, we always worry we’re spending too much time working and not spending enough time with our children. ‘Do they know who I am?’ And to see them all grown up and be talented and independent is…” Bass breaks off the sentence with a huge smile. Fittingly, one of her daughters is a doctor, and the other two are successful 
in business.

As for herself, Bass isn’t planning to leave the business world any time soon. Nebraska is recognized as the leader in the U.S. for HIE, and some EHRs are trying to give NeHII a run for its money. “The race isn’t done,” Bass says. “You won’t know if you’re on the right horse until you cross the finish line. And we’re all still 
riding in it.”

Grant Stanley

August 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Anyone familiar with his personal and business histories knows Grant Stanley is a natural-born entrepreneur.

Stanley learned first-hand about his desire to be his own boss when he instinctively started his first business as an elementary school student. While walking through his Omaha neighborhood one day, he noticed the many homes that needed landscaping assistance, and despite having no experience, called upon those neighbors and offered suggestions and recommendations.

Recognizing his drive and ingenuity at a young age, they hired him to do their yards, and a future business magnate was born. He went on to attend business school at UNO—studying analytics and graduating in just over two years—and it didn’t take him long to realize that’s where his true future lay.

“I’m not sure exactly where it came from; I guess it was always just part of who I am,” Stanley says of his entrepreneurial outlook. “I enjoy working for myself, calling my own shots, and making my own decisions. Success or failure, it’s just in my nature.”

With his business plan in place, Stanley set out to find a partner—someone who shared his entrepreneurial spirit and passion for data along with a skill set to complement him.

Wanting someone fresh and undisturbed by the corporate world, he set out on the UNO campus and found Tadd Wood, who was still working on his degree.

“I enjoy working for myself, calling my own shots, and making my own decisions. Success or failure, it’s just in my nature.”

Once he agreed to work with Stanley, Wood decided not to limit his learning to one degree. When he was done, he’d earned four degrees in four years and was set to help Stanley move the business idea forward.

“I still had the landscaping business, but I knew it was time to get out of it,” Stanley says. “It’s our vision to make predictive analytics simple and affordable because all companies, not just the largest, should be able to benefit from predictive analytics and data science.”

These days, the two friends and business partners are elbow-deep in providing forecasting (or predictive analysis) for companies throughout the country and world.

Their up-and-coming Omaha company, Contemporary Analysis (CAN), has a simple message: “We build systems that help you work smart.” It’s their contention that their systems help improve sales, marketing, customer service, employee engagement, and strategic planning—all with the goal of achieving optimal performance with less effort.

Simple yet very effective, and considering they are competing with big hitters like IBM and serving clients throughout the world (but largely in Omaha), they are more than holding their own.

“All of our services tie into predictive analysis using database information and looking for patterns in the data to help us predict the future,” says Stanley, who founded CAN in January 2008 and brought Wood into the fold a month later. Both were just 20 at the time.

“Data is a great driver to determine what is likely to happen, particularly with human behavior and patterns. In the case of most of our business partners, we use this information to determine sales, buying patterns, and other historical indicators. It’s all science.”

And chemistry—something the two definitely share as they continue to grow their business and fulfill their dreams.

Mark Hasebroock

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite Mark Hasebroock’s success as an entrepreneur—he was a co-founder of prosperous e-commerce businesses Hayneedle and GiftCertificates.com, in addition to having experience as a small business owner and working in investment and commercial banking—he says he still wishes he’d had less time-consuming, back-and-forth discussion and more expedient, hands-on guidance when he was on the launching pad.

“We got strung along so many times by different investors who just took forever to get to a conclusion. Having been on the other side of the desk starting companies of my own, it was frustrating looking first for the capital, and second: ‘Can anybody help me? How can I get from here to here? Where is this resource? If you were in my shoes, what would you do?’ type of stuff,” Hasebroock says. “At some point I thought, ‘There’s just got to be a better way to do it, and I want to someday start a fund of my own—and do it my way, and do it right.’”

In 2011, Hasebroock did just that, kicking off Dundee Venture Capital (DVC) with an objective to be responsive to, decisive with, and supportive of entrepreneurs, he explains. “When we get an inquiry, we should review it and either we get back to you and say it’s a fit, or we say, ‘It’s not a fit and here’s who you should talk to.’ And let’s do that in a 24- to 48-hour period. The standard is two to four weeks.”

With his team of Michael Wetta, Nick Engelbart, and Andrea Sandel, plus two interns (“They’re all rock stars; I’m notoriously bad at giving direction, so they have to be self-starters.”), DVC operates out of offices in the Mastercraft Building on North 13th Street on the edge of downtown. The Dundee in the company’s name, and in the logo based on a pre-1915 annexation postal stamp, reflects the company’s first offices, as well as Hasebroock’s home neighborhood.

“We started in Warren Buffett’s grandfather’s grocery store—that’s where Dundee Bank is today—and I was an investor in Dundee Bank, so it all kind of tied in together with some of the history with where capitalism sort of started in Omaha and the heart of Dundee,” Hasebroock explains.

“…when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back.”

He also likes both the Omaha and Nebraska associations with the Dundee name. Hasebroock grew up in Omaha (he was once a Peony Park lifeguard), graduating from Westside High School, and earning his undergraduate degree at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his MBA from Creighton University. He and his wife, Jane, who met in their youth and married in 1984, chose to raise their four sons and four daughters in their shared hometown. “No twins and, yes, the same spouse,” Hasebroock likes to say, adding that the family calls the older four the “Varsity” team and the younger half, the “JV.” The collective teammates are now ages 11 to 27 and have kept the family involved in numerous school and community-related sports, clubs, and activities for years. And Hasebroock himself plays hockey with a local adult league, the BPHL (Beer-and-Pretzel Hockey League) on Team Gold, stressing their three-time defending champion status.

“I haven’t really strayed too far,” he says. And his ties to the Heartland continue through his investments. With a preference for Midwest-based endeavors, DVC invests anywhere from $50,000 to a half-million dollars in growth companies that focus on e-commerce and web services.

“The next criteria is super-passionate, driven founders, so when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back,” Hasebroock says.

DVC is already seeing its investees take off and even soar under the guidance of Hasebroock and his team. Hasebroock says it was through mentor Mike McCarthy (founding partner of McCarthy Capital) that he saw firsthand how the simple principle of “treat people like you want to be treated” breeds success, and he emulates that culture of respect at DVC. Plus, there’s a multigenerational—and even simpler—principle Hasebroock follows: “Like my grandfather used to say, there’s four secrets to success: W. O. R. K.”

“It’s empathetic because we understand. And yet there are demands on the capital. We certainly want it back. We’d like more than we put in.  But we also know that these founders are being pulled in two hundred different directions. And to the degree that we can help keep them on the rails a little bit and not just chase that next great shiny penny idea; that’s what we want to do.”

Hasebroock, who’s also now involved with a new Omaha-based accelerator for technology startups called Straight Shot, sees nothing but growth ahead for DVC.

“I think the next step is another fund that invests in startups. I don’t think the supply is going to slow down,” he says. “We’re continually seeing really creative ideas out of a lot of markets.”