For aspiring U.S. startup hubs, one of the most pressing needs isn't just attracting and retaining talented entrepreneurs to their city, but figuring out what comes next.
While it is still very young, the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Omaha, Nebr. isn't entirely new. The movement to rally a community around Omaha's startups began around 2008, when serial entrepreneur Jeff Slobotski founded Silicon Prairie News to brag about fast-growing startups around the Midwest to those on the East and West Coast. A number of national media outlets began to take note of Omaha's quiet, "put-your-nose-to-the-grindstone" entrepreneurs.
"At the time, I was traveling outside of the area and saw many other startup hubs," says Slobotski. "When I arrived back home in Omaha, I realized that we've got the same passion, talent, intellect, and drive here, but nobody was telling the story."
But getting people excited about your city's startups doesn't necessarily mean that venture capitalists are suddenly going to start emptying their pockets. You also have to find ways to keep people enthusiastic about them.
So Omaha's startup leaders are focused on continuing to build its entrepreneurial infrastructure. This September, the city was named the best place in America to work in tech by fintech company SmartAsset. And insurance software administrative company Benaissance was recently acquired for a respectable $80 million.
Here's how the Midwestern city of more than 400,000 is working to take its startup scene to the next level:
Serial entrepreneurs are reinvesting into the startup scene
According to Dundee Venture Capital founder Mark Hasebroock, the Omaha entrepreneur is a different breed than the aspiring unicorn founders of Silicon Valley. Hasebroock says the city is full of serial entrepreneurs that look for strategic buyers who will purchase their startup for tens of millions of dollars, so that they can then take that money and start another company.
Case in point: Hasebroock himself. After founding e-commerce company Hayneedle, he got Dundee Venture Capital to address the Midwest's lack of funding.
"Innovation doesn't happen just because you and I say it has to happen, it's because real people see a challenge and say they have to solve it, and that happens over and over and over again," he said.
Established resources for startups beyond the takeoff stage
Entrepreneurs in Omaha have had access to many of the resources a mid-sized, thriving startup scene needs for a few years: accelerators (Straight Shot and Innovation Accelerator), seed venture capital funds (Hasebroock's Dundee Venture Capital and Slobotski's newly launched Router Ventures), and coding schools that have created a solid talent pipeline (Interface Web School and Omaha Code School).
But what the city has really been lacking, says Erica Wassinger, the Managing Director and Cofounder of the Omaha Startup Collaborative, is an organization to help fledgling startups, particularly those who graduated from one of Omaha's accelerators, stay up.
"We had a lot of enthusiasm and excitement around these people but not really a safety net to go beyond that," says Wassinger. So Hasebroock, Wassinger, and other Omaha business leaders launched the Omaha Startup Collaborative, which gives young startups access to a network of approximately 400 mentors, including entrepreneurs both in and outside of Omaha. The initiative is the handiwork of more than 20 organizations in the Omaha startup ecosystem.
3. Recruiting passionate college graduates who aren't bold enough to start their own business (yet)
It's no secret that Millennials are an extremely entrepreneurial generation, making them ideal startup recruits.
Fortunately, Omaha startups are in a city that's becoming a millennial haven--this year, the city was named the second best city in the country for millennial college students by USA Today. Millennials make up 26.9 percent of the Omha population, according to 2010 U.S. Census Data.
In addition, a statewide initiative, called the InternNE Grant Program, provides financial assistance to companies in Nebraska who are creating new internships. This means that college students who wouldn't be able to afford to take an unpaid internship, and startups that couldn't afford to pay interns, are able to connect.
"There are some really good grads coming out of Omaha who second-guess the corporate route. They're beginning to realize that they can be replanted really quickly to startups," says Hasebroock.
Fittingly, the startup leaders in a young city like Omaha are constantly looking toward the future, and what they can improve upon. Slobotski says that he likes to look at Omaha's growing startup scenes as a "rolling 20-year journey," using TechStar founder Brad Feld's model for how long it takes a community to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
"What this means is not to say that, 'okay, in 2035, Omaha's startup community will have arrived'...but it's saying we have to look out 20 years, and at least every year," says Slobotski. "If we look out 20 years, what still needs to be done?"