When close to 50 people showed up at Aromas Coffeehouse in Omaha on Feb. 13, eager to pick a number for a draft, it had nothing to do with fantasy football. Instead, the participants — all local entrepreneurs — were there to pitch their idea for a live event and score $400 in grant money and a spot on the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's new startup-event calendar.
The idea, according to Dusty Reynolds, director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Chamber of Commerce, is to bring together Omaha's startup community by encouraging area entrepreneurs to put on more local events. Divvying up $20,000 into 50 $400 individual grants that will fund a year's worth of weekly events, the program is also intended to shine a brighter light on Omaha's budding software and tech industries, which have given the area the name Silicon Prairie.
The draft works like this: After their number is called, participants give a quick spiel about their proposed event, then claim their calendar spot with a Post-It note. The events have to meet certain criteria, but range from casual networking meet-ups to expert-led education sessions on everything from how to attract media coverage to finding investors. “When there are more opportunities and more options [to get together],” Reynolds said, “you start to have a stronger sense of community, and that's when Omaha starts to sell itself.”
Reynolds credits the idea to a similar program in Boulder, Colo. He officially proposed the draft this past January, when he noticed events supporting Omaha's startup community had tapered off. “When someone moves to Omaha, they're not necessarily engaged with the startup community,” Reynolds said. “[Now], there's an opportunity for them to be engaged at least once a week.”
Before the draft system was implemented, Reynolds said, “We saw [entrepreneurs] stepping on each other's toes by planning events at the same time.” Now every business or organization has a fair chance to secure a conflict-free date, as well as receive financial support. Omaha's first draft was a success. By the end of the evening, the calendar, spanning part of February through June, had an event for every week, and the group had cemented plans for a second draft to assign events from July through December.
Boulder launched its program last year. The Startup Colorado Community Fund doles out grants to entrepreneurs in the state who want to hold events that benefit the startup community, but the structure is slightly different — instead of a draft, applications for events are accepted and reviewed by a committee on a rolling basis. “We want to support entrepreneur-led events and activities that build a stronger startup community throughout Colorado,” said Morgan Rogers McMillan, executive director of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. “Entrepreneurs identify what the community needs, and we try to provide funding to support their vision.”
Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.
BREAKOUT: Extra Credit
Brad Feld's Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City provided the framework for the Startup Colorado Community Fund. In the book, Feld outlines the Boulder Thesis — four “key components” that explain why “some cities become vibrant startup communities”:
1 Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
2 The leaders must have a long- term commitment.
3 The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
4 The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
> For more information on the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's startup community and event calendar, visit omahastartups.org.
> For more information on the Startup Colorado Community Fund, visit startupcommunityfund.com.