I have been to every Big Omaha since its debut in 2009. I do not think that this means very much other than I have the ability to contextualize this year’s event through the lens of time.
This was not the best Big Omaha, but it also was not the worst. The speakers were interesting and often compelling. In particular, I thought that the talk by Marc Hemeon was terrific and very Big Omaha-y.
The crowd was a little smaller than some past crowds but also a little larger than others. And while they needed encouragement to start out the conference, there were far more people in attendance to hear Elle Luna than I remember being present for the infamous closing of the 2011 conference when the cow appeared.
What was most interesting about the event for me was the evolution not of the event per se, but of the culture surrounding the event. There has been a maturation.
Recently, I watched a terrific video regarding the evolution of the Hero, where they described modern culture and the hero’s quest. And in many ways Big Omaha’s story arc mimics this video well.
I did not expect this. I expected this year to be rocky. The transition from the original founders to AIM scared me a little bit. I was concerned that something my friends had worked on so hard may be on the verge of a dramatic crisis. But it wasn’t. The conference was exactly what it was supposed to be. It had honesty, charisma, and moments of real clarity for the speakers and the attendees.
But beyond that, this conference has actually grown into something even greater than its original concept. Because it is now bigger than the founders and bigger than a single linear track – now there are numerous groups that are attaching their efforts to make the overall two day Omaha experience – making the event an even richer tapestry of entrepreneurship and inspiration.
During the event this year, Pipeline planned a module where they brought a number of their graduates and their new class to Nebraska for three days. It wasn’t needed, but it was great to see random Pipeline graduates at events. During the event, I was invited to three dinners that were not executed by Omaha-based companies. These events included funders, founders, and attendees that were not at the first Big Omaha. The event gives a reason for many to make an annual pilgrimage to Omaha to see what is happening in the great land of the flyover.
More than those things though, I felt like the energy was being delivered by a whole group of people that were not intimates. I tell people that when Big Omaha started, I knew probably 70% of the attendees. I knew people’s parents and their stories. That is not so anymore. The energy from great young companies, entrepreneurs, designers, et al is incredible. And interestingly, it is more than Omaha. There were big numbers of people from Kansas City and from Lincoln. These people carried many of the sessions with their enthusiasm.
This was great but also a little sad for me. As Brad Feld wrote in his blog post “Feeling Old(er) at Big Omaha”, this was very much my experience. There has been a maturation of the event and of many of the people who are cornerstones to the Big Omaha experience. But as an individual, I could tell that my personal impact was less and would be increasingly less as time passes. This is not to say that I am not important; it is simply to say that there has been such a swarm of new voices that the event does not require the personal attention of only a handful of people to make stuff happen. Sure, Caleb and Joey and Jean are critical – but there is a voice that goes beyond theirs to the wider community that makes the burden lighter. There are many voices and hands to help move it along. That’s great and really powerful for our community. It is critical, then, that the mature voices make room at the table for so many more vibrant insights.
At the closing party, I was talking with Blake Lawrence of Opendorse and he said to me that his thought process has really changed. When he first attended events such as Big Omaha he was a little anxious about chatting with people that he knew by reputation only. He felt like they were important and that he could not participate in their “club” of importance. He was nervous about approaching established people and telling them about himself and his products. Now he realizes that others in the room are probably facing this type of anxiety. And he now feels the responsibility to be available to those who are seeking his time and advice about their thing. He has shifted from being the mentee to the mentor.
This is part of the evolution that I personally feel as well. My role in the wider community has changed a lot since the first Big Omaha. For Big Omaha 1, I worked for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, was a sponsor, was actively promoting the event to skeptics, and was heavily invested. If it failed, it was going to be a big black eye for the burgeoning entrepreneurial movement in Nebraska. For Big Omaha 7, I am somewhat of an experienced hand. I have helped grow start-ups; I have invested in them; I have consulted with numerous ones – and yet, I know that I still have anxiety about being asked hard questions that I feel unprepared or unqualified to answer. However, through the journey I have learned intimately that start-ups and entrepreneurship are hard. Big Omaha has consistently resonated that message – but in doing comes understanding. I have also learned that you don’t have to know everything to be valuable and that my experience – even when not perfectly aligned – is often germane. I can help even when I am uncertain, and it is important than even though I feel old(er) that I recognize my voice and experience are helpful.
I don’t know if I expected this year to be so “without drama”, but I think that the lack of drama was a critical step for the conference and for the Big Omaha team. And I think it was also a sign that while I can get lost in the details of Nebraska Global or how the State of Nebraska is doing, the anxiety of being a lonely voice is no longer a reality. We are many voices. We are many hands. And even when we are not perfect for a task, we have lots of support that help make our efforts less burdensome.
Strangely, while I feel like I have matured and the conference has matured, my Monday-after-Big-Omaha-anxiety is still the same. We cannot stop building. We don’t want normal. We want exceptional and exciting. We want substance.
Let’s not just talk a good game, but also deliver on our entrepreneurial promise by building great companies. Let’s make the area proud of more than the conference. Let’s make people pay attention to Omaha more frequently than just the days of Big Omaha. Let’s be heroes for building great companies, not just great conferences.