Tag Archives: Silicon Prairie News

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.

Très Johnson

February 4, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Très Johnson is pouring water in a slow, circular motion around a paper filter resting just inside a glass jar. Inside the filter, coffee grounds are mixing with the water, tiny bubbles forming on the surface of the gritty liquid. The glass chamber below collects the drippings of fresh, dark coffee.

At 1010 S. Main St. in Council Bluffs, (drips) coffee shop serves only pour-over coffee.

Johnson had wanted to open a coffee shop almost since he managed one back in 1995. Unfortunately, “the cost of the machinery prohibits just jumping in,” he says.

He and his girlfriend, Amber Jacobsen, took a trip to San Francisco about a year and a half ago. There, they visited Blue Bottle Coffee, which does pour-over coffee—Johnson’s first taste of it.

“It was the best cup of coffee I’d had,” Johnson says. “And I realized it took a smaller amount of equipment to be able to make it. You just had to boil water, have the filter and the stand. And I actually use glass Ball jars instead of a stand.”

Re-inspired by this method, Johnson opened (drips) on July 1, 2013.

This particular brew is Nightingale Blend, roasted by Beansmith Coffee in Omaha, and prepared in a personal pour-over, which has four drips. He also uses a Chemex frequently, with a single drip.

“I do have some French presses and an AeroPress,” Johnson says. “But I’ve found that the pour-over just tastes better. The people that insist on French press have tried the pour-over, and now they don’t insist on the French press anymore.”

A coffee shop is the perfect place to be on a day like this—cold and rainy. Amber is doing a puzzle. Two locals are enjoying their pour-overs and accusing Amber of cheating by looking at the photo on the puzzle box.

(drips) is located in a mixed-use space occupied by artists, including low-income artist housing. The coffee shop definitely has an artsy feel, probably because Johnson is both a painter and a DJ.

One half of the wall space displays Johnson’s art. The other half is space for rotating guest shows.

For Valentine’s Day, (drips) will display the work of approximately 20 local artists in a show called “Lovesong,” named for The Cure song. A Brian Tait show will open mid-February.

The Cure is already present in lyrics painted onto Johnson’s pieces. He often uses stencils to inscribe lyrics from bands like Depeche Mode and Joy Division—words that “people from the ’80s, if they know the song, they connect with.”

He describes his style as “heavily influenced by street art, and then some post-World War II art thrown in.”

“When I’m tired of painting and waiting for paint to dry, I produce music,” he says with a laugh.

He DJs a set every Sunday night for an online radio station, lowercasesounds.com. “Then that’s what I listen to generally throughout the week when I’m painting,” he says. “I listen to it over and over again, because I usually listen to newer music or music that I just picked up. I listen and paint.”

Johnson describes his sound as “deep house and ambient.” He DJs Silicon Prairie News events, like Big Omaha, and he has recently released EPs on the label Deep Site Space.

“There’s always been a combination of the music in the art,” Johson says. “They’re both something that I let myself go into. I don’t really sweat it. I just let it all flow.”

First Monday of the Month


December 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are really two different shifts for breakfast, Jeff Slobotski explains. Some show up at the 11-Worth Cafe at 7 a.m., and others don’t roll in until 8:30. But that’s okay, because the First Monday of the Month Breakfast Club of Champions isn’t 
about structure.

The idea for a monthly breakfast of professionals from all disciplines is one of those brainwaves you can’t assign to one person. Slobotski, co-founder of Silicon Prairie News, says he had a conversation with Omaha friends about getting people together around a meal. “It was that conversation and a San Francisco friend who said she was doing this first Monday of the month thing that made me think, this is a thing that should happen,” Slobotski says.

He put an open invitation on Facebook last June, inviting over 200 people to show up the following Monday at the 11-Worth Cafe on 24th and Leavenworth. “Basically we all show up for breakfast and just take over the place,” the event page reads. “We hang out, drink coffee, and get jazzed to start the day/week & month off right. Let’s do this thing. Go!”

“Honestly it wasn’t until the third time that I actually talked with Tony,” Slobotski admits. That’s Tony Caniglia, the owner of 11-Worth Cafe. Slobotski figured it would be nice to give the establishment a heads-up that things might get a little crazy for a few hours on certain Monday mornings. “We didn’t want their servers quitting after a Monday shift,” he says.

So 40-70 people show up for a chatty breakfast at a local diner. What’s the end goal here?

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“There’s this resurgence, this energy, in the city,” Slobotski says. “People want to be involved, and I think that shows a general passion for the city. Let’s all take our labels off and just come together as people. You don’t come to this wearing a name tag with a stack of business cards.”

“We’ve seen changes in the way business networking takes place,” says Mike Battershell, vice president of Bergman Incentives and a core First Monday breakfaster. “You’re looking for opportunities to get your name out there, but you’re also just looking for ways to make your community better.”

Slobotski describes Battershell as an instigator. “Mike’s the kind of guy who won’t just post to Facebook saying something needs to happen,” he says. “He’ll give you a phone number and a name. He’s an informed instigator.”

For Battershell, the breakfasts are about spreading that information. “You’re probably going to sit next to someone you wouldn’t otherwise sit with. Say you’re a programmer, and you’re sitting next to an artist who’s sitting across from an elected official,” he says. “That’s a catalyst for business opportunities and community improvement projects.”

Diverse backgrounds are key, both agree. “I’m very passionate about not creating another insular group,” Slobotski says. “How can we continue to be open? Be proactive? Be inviting to folks from different geographies and industries, different spheres within the city?”

The welcoming nature of the 11-Worth itself doesn’t hurt. “The wait staff at 11-Worth is great,” Battershell says. “If you get up and move, they’ll remember that you had the corned beef and hash.” In fact, he says he bounces from seat to seat about four times in the morning.

Oh yes, that’s allowed. “If there’s a break in conversation, it’s totally appropriate to jump up and move on,” Slobotski assures. After all: no structure, no special recognition, no food chain.

And no judgment.

Slobotski laughingly admits he orders the same breakfast every time. “The number 11. Two eggs sunny side up, two pieces of white toast, grape jam, massive side of hash browns. The place is underground-famous for its 
hash browns.”

Dusty and Marlina Davidson

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In a fit of late-night online browsing in 2004, Dusty and Marlina Davidson responded to a quirkily written classified for an Old Market apartment: “Super fly loft. Huge windows, two bedrooms, 2,000 square feet.”

With their minds set on moving out of their bland rental into something with a little more character, the couple stopped by the downtown loft the next morning. And moved in the next week. “It was a blink of an eye sort of thing,” Dusty says.

Neither of the Council Bluffs natives had lived downtown before, but both were ready to be in the heart of Omaha. They cite the energy of the Old Market, the Farmers Market (“We go down once a week and get stuff from our ‘garden,’” Marlina says, laughing), and the never-ending supply of things to do.

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The spacious loft seems TV-show ready, with exposed bricks and piping and scarred concrete. Contemporary décor, set off with pieces from IKEA, local designers, and heirlooms, keeps the two-bedroom apartment looking Young Professional Modern and not College Student Artistic.

The foyer is long and narrow, with a tiny seating area, a few plants, and gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows framed by heavy, white curtains. “It’s a weird space,” Dusty says, but the bar is down there, and it’s a good overflow area for entertaining. A little bit of a library adds an intellectual flare to the area, thanks to Dusty’s grandmother gifting him three or four classics on his birthdays. “I wish I enjoyed reading as much as I enjoy books,” he says.

The couple has considered buying a place but, as Marlina says, “We love the location, the frontage, the windows.”

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“The food truck,” Dusty adds with a sigh, pointing out where Localmotive parks right outside on 12th and Jackson every night. “We can’t be bothered to move. It’s sort of like inertia on some level, but we really love our place.”

A few years into living in their no-name building, the Davidsons made the acquaintance of local designer Jessica McKay of Birdhouse Interior Design. With her help, the couple learned how to give their personal style a voice in their Old Market home. “We bought a few pieces,” Marlina says, “but really I think it was more about what do we have and how do reorganize it so that it makes sense.”

One long-loved piece takes pride of place in the loft’s entryway: a bright blue Ms. Pac-Man arcade gaming console, built by Dusty as a gift for Marlina when they were dating. “He bought it as a black box,” she explains, noting he had an artist friend hand paint the iconic character on the console because it was her favorite. An old CRT television is the screen and is hooked up to a computer loaded with thousands of arcade and Nintendo games. “It’s fun when we have people over for the holidays or a party,” Marlina says.20130122_bs_2642 copy

You won’t find them entertaining much during the summer, however. For the past two years, the Davidsons have rented out their apartment to College World Series visitors and escaped the season’s craziness with a European working vacation. “I’m fine never seeing the College World Series again if we can get someone to pay us to go to France,” Dusty says. The couple plan to rent an apartment in Paris again this summer, a scheme that pans out nicely for his work as a serial entrepreneur with Silicon Prairie News and Flywheel, and her summers off from lecturing in communications at UNO.

If that sounds good to other young professionals in town, the Davidsons are all encouragement. “I think there’s more of us down here than people realize,” Dusty says. “There are places to be had. You can find them.”

Localmotive

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Localmotive has been serving up made-from-scratch sandwiches and sourdough rounders on the corner of 12th and Jackson since March 2012, meanwhile building a loyal clientele. And the local food truck isn’t afraid of a little competition—in fact, they want other food trucks to follow their lead into Downtown Omaha. “We’re not crowding trucks in,” says Patrick Favara, one of Localmotive’s three owners. “There’s totally room for more.”

Favara credited their truck’s successful first year in the Old Market to extensive research. “There’s very little here to look at,” he says, adding that food trucks are still a new concept to the Midwest. “And there’s not much in Nebraska’s books yet. If there’s a model to look at, it’s Kogi.” The five-truck fleet in Los Angeles communicates multiple times daily through Twitter, Facebook, and its own well-maintained website so that customers never have to wonder when or where a truck will be out.

From left: David Burr and Patrick Favara

From left: David Burr and Patrick Favara

The Localmotive crew tries to do the same thing. “Communication is essential,” Favara said. “It determines your following.” Even though the truck can be found next to Ted and Wally’s ice cream shop from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. seven nights a week, a schedule is always available on localmotivefoodtruck.com. Localmotive also has an office manager who stays on top of the truck’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. “We make that a priority,” Favara says. “We get back to the people who talk to us.”

You mean, it’s more than just Favara and David Burr in the truck and David Scott, sourdough king, in the kitchen? “You get a staff,” Burr says with emphasis. “You don’t do it all on your own.” Even with a peak staff of 18 employees during the summer, Burr recalls weeks at the beginning of their debut that included 120 hours of work. “Consistently,” he says, laughing. “…for months.”

The large staff is necessary, Favara explains, because unlike employees of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, truck workers can’t duck back to the kitchen to help with prep during slow times. “We staff as many people as a brick-and-mortar,” Favara says, “because they can’t do double-duty.”20121130_bs_6302 copy

Burr adds that while the upfront cost of a food truck is lower than opening a storefront, running a mobile restaurant has its own set of challenges with licensing, permissions, and maintenance. “It’s demanding work,” he says, “and not cheap. We’re a fellow restaurant…[just] in a different facility.”

After hitting many of their first-year goals (i.e., be a staple of late-night downtown; serve at the Farmers Market; be a source of good food for restaurant staff coming off the clock late), Burr, Favara, and Scott are focusing on their second year. Their 2013 goals include expanding their garden (even with the tough 2012 summer, they still used most of the produce they planted), have a regular beef supplier (“You’d think it would be easy to find local beef in Nebraska,” Burr says), and be more available to the young entrepreneurs of Omaha. “We love that crowd,” Favara says. The truck supplied a meal last May to attendees of Big Omaha, a convention produced by Silicon Prairie News.

And years down the road? They’ve thought of a quick-service restaurant, just a little kitchen with a walk-up window. More trucks one day, like Kogi, and maybe a trailer for festivals. “We’re not limiting ourselves,” Favara says with a smile. “We’re not the first food truck in Omaha, but I think we’re setting the standard.”

Find Localmotive’s location schedule at localmotivefoodtruck.com.