Urban planners turned entrepreneurs Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim never got used to the slim turnouts that town hall meetings drew for civic projects under review. It bothered them that so few people weighed in on decisions affecting so many.
Preheim, 39, and Bowden, 29, also didn’t feel comfortable cast in the roles of experts who knew what was in the best interests of citizens. They felt too many good ideas went unheard in the process.
The way the Omaha natives saw it, a new approach was needed to better engage people in civic discourse and therefore help build stronger communities. “Lucky for us, urban planning is really stodgy,” says Preheim. “Technology has not really infiltrated the inherent processes within the field, so there was a great opportunity for us to integrate technology into public participation. That’s where we kind of came up with the solution to a very common problem—how do you get more people engaged and interested in talking about community betterment?
“Town halls had been and still are the primary vehicle by which cities solicit feedback. They’re hundreds of years old, and they really haven’t changed much at all. We saw an opportunity to enliven the conversation by inverting that model and empowering people to be a part of that change.”
The business partners developed a startup technology company called MindMixer (see related story on page 33) whose online platform offers a virtual front porch for ideas and opinions to be shared, noticed, and acted upon.
“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating,” says co-founder and CEO Bowden. “Our founding premise is that technology can break that barrier of convenience and open up a bigger world of potential inputs.”
Co-founder and COO Preheim says, “There’s probably something I could learn from you; there’s probably something you could learn from me. We’re way smarter together than we are individually. I think some of that same mantra and guiding force influences what we’re trying to do here.”
“Our purpose is to build a stronger community by involving people in things that matter,” says Bowden. If the response from investors, clients, and everyday citizens is any indication, these visionaries have found a powerful engine to connect everyday people with local government bodies, schools, hospitals, and organizations of all kinds.
“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating.” – Nick Bowden
Launched in 2011, MindMixer, which offices at the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, has more than 400 clients and expects to reach 1,000 by year’s end. As of July, MindMixer had raised $6.2 million in venture capital, much of it from local investors, to develop its tool. The company’s roster of 30 employees is also expected to grow.
By digitizing the town hall, MindMixer facilitates discussions and debates for projects large and small, from rebranding the entire San Francisco public transit system to a crosswalk put in outside Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.
Whatever the idea, whether it relates to recreation or education or health care or some other quality of life issue, people now have a 24/7 avenue to have a say in it.
Preheim notes, “We think we’re the first company that’s trying to pull this off—to unify all those different communities and allow you to sort of contribute to each of them from a single place. It’s providing opportunities for people to give back or reinvest or make a contribution. We’re a funnel, we’re a vehicle, we’re kind of giving voice to people who may not have had that before. It’s empowering, it’s uplifting.
“We are part of something, call it a new movement if you will, that’s enabling better transparency and decision-making by stakeholders who are sort of tapping into the collective wisdom of their constituents. We’re kind of in the meaningful change business. That’s exciting stuff.”
Validation that they’re onto something big, Preheim says, also comes in the large “number of citizen-submitted ideas that have actually been carried forward and implemented” nationwide and the sheer participation happening on sponsored MindMixer sites.
“Last year, we engaged over 800,000 participants, and those 800,000 participants submitted over 38,000 ideas,” says Preheim. “Those are empowering statistics, these are encouraging numbers.” He projects two million-plus participants to submit upwards of 100,000 ideas in 2013.
Sometimes, projects respond to urgent human needs. For example, MindMixer-supported sites which assisted citizens organizing to fight back flood waters in Fargo, N.D., as well as those rebuilding neighborhoods in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The startup’s success earned it 2013 Innovator of the Year honors from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Technology Company of the Year recognition from the AIM Institute. Forbes magazine named Bowden an “up and comer.”
With the growth and attention come pressures to relocate, but Bowden and Preheim are determined to prove a tech company can make it big in Omaha. They believe there’s enough talented, smart people locally to lead the paradigm shift the company’s helping lead. MindMixer’s big aspiration is restoring the fabric of community by being the front porch of the internet, where people discuss things that matter and get involved in making positive change happen.