Big Omaha speaker tells innovators: 'Core beliefs' guide startup projects through challenges

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Posted: Friday, May 10, 2013 12:00 am

Tony Conrad was inspired by a movie on a restless flight to invoke a leader from the past Thursday at the Big Omaha conference on innovation and entrepreneurship.

He described the scene in “Lincoln” in which President Abraham Lincoln and House member and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens spar about how to pass an amendment to abolish slavery. Stevens urges the president to follow his “True North,” or moral compass. Lincoln responds that following one's “True North” has “got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you'll encounter along the way.”

Conrad said that exchange struck him as brilliant because he encounters such challenges all the time as a startups founder and investor.

“If we don't have core beliefs or an idea of how we're going to get to the “True North,” (I) guarantee we won't get there,” said Conrad, probably best known for creating, a simple, free service that allows users to create a personal Web home page with no coding required.

Understand the journey and keep your core beliefs at the forefront of your mind, Conrad encouraged Big Omaha attendees. His talk kicked off the two-day conference that drew more than 650 people, including entrepreneurs, designers, technology professionals, creatives, young professionals and company executives to Kaneko at 1111 Jones St.

Conrad called on the “brilliant minds” in the room to shape the world as they want it to be and where they want it to go. And in each new idea or product they create, foster a greater meaning.

“The best founders aren't starting companies,” he said. “They're starting movements.”

That movement can come in various forms. As a founding member at True Ventures, Conrad has lead investments in companies like WordPress, Blue Bottle Coffee and MakerBot. He said those founders each had a greater goal than just selling a product.

Bre Pettis, CEO of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based MakerBot, envisions everyone having a 3-D printer in their home and, through his company, he wants to empower “creative explorers to make the world better.” James Freeman, founder of Oakland, Calif.-based Blue Bottle Coffee, created a coffee roaster and chain because he truly believed in the experience of drinking coffee and creating “something magical to start the day.”

“What I saw ... is somebody who had a core belief around coffee, coffee drinking and what those things can be,” Conrad said of Freeman.

The idea of greater meaning was also at the core of Conrad's creation The site came about because Conrad wanted people to have more control of their online voice and image beyond what Google's algorithms bring up in searches or career-related sites like LinkedIn that highlight only one facet of a person.

“The only person who should define you is yourself,” he said.

That message resonated with Jennifer Kros-Dorfmeyer, a first-time Big Omaha attendee and brand marketing manager at Hayneedle.

“It's important to define who you are as a person,” she said. “You don't let the world around you do it.”

West Corp.'s Courtney Snyder, vice president, client engagement and marketing, and Trac Burkhardt, director, strategic account development, agreed, noting that Conrad and other speakers were energetic and dynamic. Snyder said their messages reached people across all kinds of careers and points in their lives.

“It's more about diversity, so they relate to everyone,” Snyder said.

Among the other messages from speakers:

>> “We're building worlds. Everyone in this room is building worlds. ... Don't ever feel you're doing something trivial.” — Megan Casey, founder and CEO of Pack, a social networking site for dogs, on her personal struggle over not producing a physical thing like a widget, but rather communities online.

>> “You can't not do it.” — Dr. Peter Hudson, co-founder and CEO of Denver-based mobile healthcare firm iTriage on entrepreneurs pursing their dreams.

>> “ 'The more you give, the more you get' is as true in business as it is in your personal life.” — Nikhil Arora, co-founder of Back to the Roots, an Oakland, Calif.-based company that sells grow-your-own mushroom kits, on social entrepreneurship.

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