OMAHA, NEBRASKA — In the summer of 2008, Jeff Slobotski was working for the sales team of a technology company in New York City but living in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. During his travels around the country for work, he kept getting asked, “What’s going on in Omaha?” Slobotski knew that, contrary to popular belief, there was a lot going on in Omaha, including a small but burgeoning community of entrepreneurs and creative types launching new business ventures. So Slobotski started interviewing people with a flip camera and posting the videos to his personal blog. It was the seed of what would become Silicon Prairie News, a site founded by Slobotski and his partner Dusty Davidson that covers the tech start-up world in much of the Midwest, with a special focus on Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City.
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The name Silicon Prairie News came from wanting to take “the mindset and ethos of Silicon Valley and apply it to our region,” says Danny Schreiber, a journalist who joined Silicon Prairie News in 2009 and is the site’s managing editor. The site is part of a growing trend of alternative online news outlets covering new tech communities outside of California, says Schreiber. “There are fifteen other blogs like ours covering this sector. No longer is there a heavy concentration of tech companies coming out of Silicon Valley, it’s spreading across the US. And there will be stories missed by larger publications and covered by smaller ones.”
In Omaha alone, business in the tech sector is growing rapidly and has reached an impressive scale. Nebraska Global Investment Fund, a young software venture business based in Lincoln, recently raised over $37 million in capital. “The number of individuals who are interested in this sector and have started stuff has increased,” says Schreiber. We’re seeing more and more side projects. In the West, they have startups in garages. Here it’s basements, because it’s pretty cold.”
It was Davidson, a tech entrepreneur in his own right and the co-founder of the event management software company TripleSeat, who encouraged Slobotski to evolve his blog into a news site, and provided funding as well as office space. Within a couple of years, Silicon Prairie News has expanded to five full-time employees, including a full-time editor and full-time event coordinator. “I could hire five more reporters today and easily give them enough stories to cover,” says Schreiber. “There’s a ton of stories that we’re not telling.”
More than telling stories and covering the news, however, Silicon Prairie News has made engendering the tech startup community part of its mission and holds a series of meet up groups and networking events in Omaha and neighboring cities. Though not a significant source of revenue, these events raise the profile of the site and reflect Slobotski’s passion for networking and connecting individuals to each other. There are few critical stories on Silicon Prairie News, a fact which Schreiber attributes to a bias towards wanting the industry to succeed. That said, he says the site’s coverage is aimed “highlighting in a straightforward manner.”
In 2009, the Silicon Prairie News team decided to host a conference called Big Omaha focused on the tech industry in the mid-West. The event sold out its 300 available tickets quickly and had to be expanded to accommodate 400 attendees. “This idea about having a community and getting people together offline, and writing about them online, came together,” says Schreiber.
The conference wasn’t only a networking success, it brought revenue in as well. Since 2009, there have been two more Big Omaha conferences (600 people attended in 2011) and roughly 90 percent of Silicon Prairie News’ annual revenue comes from this and other smaller scale events. In 2012, the site’s management is aiming to diversify revenue streams by creating a jobs board on Silicon Prairie News and seeking more advertising and sponsorship for the site. Ideally, says Schreiber, 50 percent of revenues will come from events and 50 percent from these other sources.
Silicon Prairie News’ continues to grow, as does the Midwest’s tech community. For instance, the tech startup Zaarly, whose founder is from Kansas City, recently raised $13 million in capital and Silicon Prairie News was the first news outlet to cover the company. In 2012, Silicon Prairie News will further expand its influence by creating an awards event, where the site can give recognition to the notable companies and individuals who are building the Silicon Prairie.
Silicon Prairie News Data
Name: Silicon Prairie News
City: OmahaMaura R. O'Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.