The “for lease” sign hanging in the window of the gritty, 1880s-era former Krug brewery stared them down. Eric Gautschi, Jon Hustead, Matt Linder and brothers Shawn and Shane Bainbridge were taking a walk around the block to stretch their legs in between Big Omaha speakers and, on any other day, may have just kept walking.
But after hours of listening to speakers like “The Thank You Economy” author Gary Vaynerchuk and charity: water founder Scott Harrison, the men questioned what was stopping them from launching a business that allowed them to follow their passion of fusing goodwill and doing the right thing with business.
“We sort of had that feeling of, 'If not now, then when?'” said Shawn Bainbridge. “It helped us jump.”
Taking the “for lease” notice as a literal omen, they dialed the building owner's number and arranged to meet the following Monday. Within a week, they signed a lease, made the move and, on July 1, 2010, opened the doors of the New BLK (pronounced “black”), an ad agency, art gallery and creative think tank located at 1213 Jones St.
The story of how New BLK came about is just one of the dozens that have piled up since Big Omaha, a conference on innovation and entrepreneurship, began in 2009. As Big Omaha celebrates its fifth anniversary this year and kicks off with an opening party at the Slowdown this evening, attendees and conference organizer Silicon Prairie News are looking back on how the event has shaped their careers and perspectives.
Dusty Davidson, co-founder and CEO of Silicon Prairie News, said he and co-founder Jeff Slobotski never intended to build a company that puts on conferences. They initially aimed to get a bunch of like-minded people in one room and invite national speakers for some inspiration and “maybe a kick in the pants.”
“We were doing it because we were passionate” about the startup community in Omaha, Davidson said.
But soon, that passion multiplied. What started as a one-day event with more than 350 attendees has, five years later, grown into a two-day conference with more than 650 attendees expected this year. Demand for the Omaha conference spurred Silicon Prairie News to add Big Des Moines in 2011 and Big Kansas City this year, creating a Big Series.
Davidson said despite that growth and change, the core of Big Omaha has stayed the same. It's still hosted at the arts and cultural center Kaneko, features national speakers and is structured with long breaks, lunches and parties so that people can interact and mingle.
“It's still that same intimate conference experience that people really fell in love with,” Davidson said.
The conference has turned into a big reunion for attendees, said Dusty Reynolds, director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. As the startup community here grows, entrepreneurs cross paths more often and Big Omaha gives them a chance to all be under the same roof.
Reynolds attended the conference for the first time last year but tuned in via online streaming the two previous years while he was working on a startup in Africa. When he returned and started working with the chamber, the group welcomed him in.
Reynolds said it felt like he'd gained personal relationships. For many, that's the value in attending.
“It's got such a strong name and, undoubtedly, put Omaha on the map,” he said. “While it's fun to celebrate what's happened, it's even more exciting to look at what the next five years hold.”
The New BLK's Gautschi called his group's conference experiences a “ big revival tent of entrepreneurs.” Speakers evangelize the crowd by encouraging them to lead a life and career they won't regret. The group's members kept that in mind when they left their comfortable jobs to open the New BLK and began taking on small-scale projects.
They incorporated the idea of goodwill by hosting about 50 events in their art gallery space and viewing clients as a cause. That model has turned out to make good business sense.
“If an idea has legs,” Gautschi said, “it does take on a life of its own.”
Their idea has grown today, three years later, into an eight-person team with a rotating cast of contracted workers and an office dog named Jonny Puerto Rico. At any given time, they have about 20 projects and about a dozen active clients.
The company's portfolio includes working on projects for local companies like Lucky Bucket Brewing Co., Proxibid and UNeMed Corp, the technology licensing arm of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. They also did a major public awareness campaign for the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Center at the University of California, Irvine, and they're developing a branding experience campaign for Wells Enterprises' 2nd St. Creamery.
The art gallery portion of the New BLK is on hiatus, but they're working on bringing it back in a new format.
Shawn Bainbridge called Big Omaha a catalyst in more ways than one because it also served as a meeting place to connect with others in the startup community. All Omaha transplants, the guys of the New BLK weren't exactly sure what Omaha had to offer.
“We thought it's cool what Dusty (Davidson) and Jeff (Slobotski) did, putting some action behind a shared philosophy we had,” he said. “(Big Omaha is) putting it in motion and bringing what's going on around you into the fold. It's kind of a revival or rally cry.”
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