TechStars for a Day, Startup Culture, and My Comparisons to Omaha

Alright, stay with me.  I promise you'll get something at the end.  I don't promise you'll like it, though. I attended TechStars for a Day in Seattle.  If you want to know what this rockin' organization does check it out.  But in short, they are a business accelerator.  Get your company off the ground in the most awesome way possible.

It seemed like a classic case of serendipity. I was behind the controls at Big Omaha helping the speakers tell their inspiring stories when an email invite came in from TechStars to join them in Seattle to hear more about the program and to give them an opportunity to meet me. It was at this point I was faced with a very important decision: jump up in excitement or let Tony Hsieh finish his talk. History shows what path I took, I didn't interrupt, and everyone got a free book. So good on me for that one.

I didn't know what to expect. The only person I'd ever met that's gone through the TechStars program was Matt Galligan from SimpleGeo. I used the opportunity of Big Omaha to ask him what he thought of it after going through it. He recommended I absolutely make it to Seattle to see what the inaugural Seattle TechStars class has to offer.

So Sunday I jumped on a plane and headed to Seattle feeling not just as a representative of #MysteriousDottie, but maybe as an unofficial spokesperson of Omaha for a day as well.

Showing up Monday morning I met so many people.  All seeming to fit in a category of person that I honestly can't say I've really met before.  They are passionate about launching or improving on something awesome.  Everyone had an idea and regardless of what happened that day, what happened in the past, or what happens with TechStars or otherwise they are going to launch this particular thing that means so much to them.

Even though these companies are all technology based there was zero talk of tech.  Nobody asked me "so what are you building your company with?" or asked my opinion on web frameworks.  No side discussions about browsers, operating systems or programming languages.  Nobody cared.  If you were to ask someone the (increasingly awful) question "What do you do?" you won't hear "I'm a ruby on rails developer" but instead "I run a company that does X."  I always joked with @lasertron that her title in the world was "Textiles Engineer" and that seems to be a parallel to these business owners.  She's as much of a engineer of fabric as these people are programmers.  It's a means to an end to build something completely radical.

I won't lie, there was an air of competition.  I want to guess there were maybe 30 companies in attendance, between one and four people per company.  This however is very narrowed down from the hundreds that apply from all around the world.  While each person there is supportive and excited for everyone else, they all want to be a member of the final ten companies that will be selected in June.

An example: Andy Sack, the director of TechStars in Seattle, mentioned he had forgot his camera and asked if anyone in attendance had a camera that wasn't a camera-phone.  I was the only person to raise my hand.  I was dubbed the official TechStars for a day photographer and I did my best to make sure I captured the event.  Though unexpectedly I got a few people telling me that it was a "good move" to volunteer to take pictures and get an "in" with the TechStars committee.  Honestly, that was the last thing that came to mind when raising my hand to say I had a camera but others saw it as a strategic move.

I got to meet a handful of mentors and past TechStars companies.  Urbanspoon, Feedburner and Everlater were in attendance.  There's something really great to be hanging out casually with the team from Urbanspoon, asking them specific questions about their mobile development strategies.

So enough about facts and what I saw.  You're here for my thoughts.  So here are my personal reflections.

To me it felt like I was taking Big Omaha a step further.  Where just a couple weeks ago I was being told to follow my dream, an event like this with knowledgeable, real world tested companies were pointing me in a direction to do so.  From founders openly discussing the mistakes they made to groups saying openly they really had no idea how to program before embarking on the path to their idea it opens up a layer of "realness" and detail to each person telling their story.

Much like me when I decided I wanted to build something awesome you start developing more questions than answers and our local community is lacking on those answers.  Having people be completely transparent in detail about not only the things they've done right, but also what they've done wrong helps so much when giving people the tools they need to launch the next really great thing.  Now that I see the startup community of Seattle (and before that TechStars having Boulder and Boston classes) I hope Omaha starts making the steps to go that direction as well.  But as I've mentioned to others Omaha is slightly in a chicken and egg situation.  In order for people to open up about how they launched something great we need a handful of something greats to launch.  And for that to happen there is that possibility that the best scenario is to leave the area.

I know, the infamous least popular opinion of all of Big Omaha.  But you'd be surprised how many mentors and successful business owners in Seattle told me how I need to get into a bigger pond.  And I'll stick by the thought that for some people it is a valid choice.  Until Omaha has a culture that strives to enable people to succeed in their dreams not just in great community (that we have), but in experienced mentors and investments that are geared to the startup sector, people may be spinning their wheels.  Sorry.  <3 you guys.

I don't say that to stir controversy, but more to be appreciative that these types of things exist.  The opportunity for someone like me, just some random dude in Omaha, to visit, if only for a day, is a great thing.  I encourage any of you if you have an idea and some first steps on executing it to apply to TechStars, or YCombinator or local institutions like the Halo Institute.  Maybe it'll be the move for you to take your idea to the next level.  Maybe it'll be a complete waste of your time.  For me even if I never hear from TechStars again just the application process and being a part of the club for one day was worth the effort.  You learn something just trying.


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Gabe Kangas

May 26, 2010