Corn Husking

What We Learned On Our First Trip to Big Omaha, Nebraska’s Answer to SXSW

screen shot 2012 05 11 at 9 56 14 am What We Learned On Our First Trip to Big Omaha, Nebraskas Answer to SXSW

Photo by Malone & Company / Big Omaha via Silicon Prairie News

Earlier this week, Betabeat shlepped out to LaGuardia and took a plane and then another plane to Nebraska. We could tell things were gonna be different when the view from the window seat was tract after tract of pastoral green and brown instead of the Lite Brites that usually greet us descending into Queens. Then our shuttle driver from the airport invited us over for a home-cooked meal. We could get used to Central Time!

We are here, of course, for Big Omaha, an intimate startup conference that people like to describe as “how SXSW used to be,” i.e. before the marketers descended, Jay-Z showed up, and the suits started ruining everything. Attendance is capped at 650 and batches of tickets sell out within minutes.

The conference is put on by good folks from Silicon Prairie, a pioneering blog about the Midwest’s very own Startupland. There are no funding announcements at Big Omaha, precious little in the way of branded swag, and few formalities, although convention has it that everyone stands up and cheers when you take the stage. Did we mention how polite everyone is? We’ve already hugged two strangers. Be warned, it will probably happen again.

So far we ran into SecondLife’s Philip Rosedale in a hotel lounge (and possibly scared him off by enthusing, “I know you!”) Between the California tan, Anime haircut, and polar blue eyes, he looked like he had been sent to Omaha from a not too distant future–where they still wear colorful cowboy shirts. BoaHaus bad boy Eddie Huang tipped us off to how the Midwest does snacking differently.

Later, we accosted Turntable.fm’s Seth Goldstein by breakfast coffee stand and reminded him about that time we stalked him at the Ace Hotel. After that we interrupted Square cofounder Jim Mckelvey, who just finished telling the story of how his side career glass-blowing led the idea behind Square, as he was trying to eat lunch. Meeting people is easy!

By far the most amusing presentation of yesterday morning came from Thrillist and Lerer Ventures Ben Lerer whose first slide featured his Twitter handle and the words, “…because I don’t have a lot of followers. . . And its embarrassing.” Guys, let’s help @BenjLerer out! “The story begins many, many years ago when I was a young, plump boy,” Mr. Lerer told the crowd about his short-lived tennis career and days as a B-minus coed underachiever. The entrepreneurial streak started early in that one, however. “I did make incredible fake IDs,” Mr. Lerer said, flashing a sample of the one he made for himself at UPenn. “I actually looked like that first of all, which is so upsetting, but quality work, quality product.” Betabeat concurs.

Mark Ecko, who spoke at last year’s big Omaha, was milling about a cocktail hour hosted by Omaha Steaks. Jordan Lampe from Dwolla, the innovative online payments company, told us how meeting Mr. Ecko at the conference last year led to an investment from his venture capital firm, Artists & Instigators. Zaarly founder Bo Fishback experienced the same happy coincidence last year. We chatted with Dwolla’s “genius” dev Brandon Weber, who got heckled for the mammoth size of his laptop in the blogger’s lounge earlier. “You’re trying to write email, I’m changing the world!” was his belated retort.

After that, we met the lovely Sarah Prevette from BetaKit, who sold her company Sprouter to PostMedia Network last October. Rather than the old advertising route, Ms. Pervette is also exploring leveraging her team’s expertise in emerging tech to clue in Fortune 500 companies. We gave her some advice about her impending trip to India: beware the brownouts and invest in some airy Jane Goodall shirts.

Our last stop for the evening was the official after-party where we saw Skillshare cofounder Mike Karnjanaprakorn and Raptor Ventures’s William Peng, fellow New Yorkers who both worked at Hot Potato, which Facebook acquired in 2010. The three of us looked on as an enterprising evangelist for Shopify whipped out his accordian to play some pop hits. Know any rap, Mr. Karnjanaprakorn asked? And the dude obliged with rather cheery rendition of “Cop Killer.”

Here’s our favorite revelations from yesterday’s esteemed panelists:

The Nuclear Winter Is Coming 

Seth Goldstein, a serial entrepreneur and veteran of Flatiron Partners, the New York VC firm that suffered mightily in the dotcom bust, has more perspective on the current bubble talk than most. Mr. Goldstein delivered his speech in 140-character aphorisms. No. 8 was “Raise money when you can, not when you have to.”  Mr. Goldstein talked about meeting 19-year-old Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia in Turntable.fm room. Mr. Lavingia, a former designer for Pinterest, just raised $7 million for Gumroad, which aims to make selling as easy as sharing. But not because he needed to; the company is only spending $25,000 to $30,000 a month. But Mr. Goldstein came on as an investor and then “Kleiner perkiness says, ‘Hey here’s $7 million,'” in which case you should say yes. “If we do go through a nuclear winter, which we will, it might wait until Facebook goes public,” said Mr. Goldstein, you better raise while you can. “All these incubators and incubators of incubators are going to hit a wall.”

I Can’t Believe You Asked Me That!

The GOOG’s interview process has nothing on the yesterday’s Big Omaha speakers. With the idea that job interviews naturally veer towards exaggerations and untruths, Square’s Jim McKelvey said, “I explain to them that I’m no good at detecting lies … but I will eventually find them and I’m really good at firing people,” if it’s not a good fit. Philip Rosedale asks, “What is the one thing your friends will say about you that you would disagree with?” Mr. Rosedale’s friends would say he’s happy, but he says, “I want to be cool and maybe a little bit scary.” His presentation on the future of work for freakily ingenius, if that counts. He also asks interviewees to, “Take me on a trip, walk through your front foor with me,” and describe what you see. And then the items you mention reveal your priorities “Do you see how subtle that is? Because you can’t lie,” said Mr. Rosedale. Hmm, seems pretty easy not to mention that pile of clothes in the corner. Mr. Lerer and Fuck Cancer’s Yael Cohen both revealed that any job offer comes with a warning about they are are “assholes” and an encouragement not to take the gig, with the idea of weeding out the weaklings. Too bad they didn’t discuss how often that works.

Underachieving Pays Off

Did you know that Ben Lerer worked for hotelier Andre Balázs after college? We didn’t! Mr. Lerer told the audience that with his Ivy League degree, he expected to easily slide in at the top of the world. “Where’s the keys to all the hotels that I’m now running,” he asked his boss. Not so fast, said Mr. Balázs, explaining that before you could be a good general manager, you had to learn how to be a good assistant general manager and so on and so forth down the line. “He kicked me out of the corporate office to be a bus boy and a bar back for the summer. I was not super stoked about that,” Mr. Lerer admitted. Eventually, he convinced Mr. Balázs to make him the Food & Beverage manager, but before he was ready.  “I hated it because I was super insecure. I knew everyone who was under me all had more experience.”

But there’s a moral to this sad tale. Sitting on a roof one day, it occurred to Mr. Lerer that he might as well as do what he knows. “It turned out that being an incredible underachiever for a long period of time,” had its benefits. He took his expertise in “eating a lot,” “buying clothes,” and “trying to hook up with girls,” and formed Thrillist.

Zen and the Art of Stillness

All that innovating can come at a price to your sanity if you can find some stillness amid the chaos. Mr. Rosedale said he “counts to a very large number each day.” He stops and starts and tries to keep his place with goal of reaching 10,000 before he sleeps. “That is crazy!” the moderator yelped. Mr. McKelvey, who had the idea for a mobile payments like Square when he realized a talented fellow glassblower was living out of his car uses the concentration required to shape glass properly, which requires that you, “Make your final move at the last possible second.” He also flies small planes. “It’s not that difficult to fly a plane, but you can’t screw it up!” said Mr. McKelvey. And what of Mr. Lerer? “All you guys have such good answers,” he told the crowd. “I, like, have a beer and fall asleep on my sofa.” Apparently some people could relate. It got a big applause.

We only wish we’d gotten to Omaha a little earlier. Last week, the city played hosted to Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting and from the brochure still resting in our hotel room. We missed a visit to a fine jewelers as well as dinner at one of Warren’s favorite steakhouses. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to hear Ms.  Prevette’s talk!

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com