About 40 founders, chief executives and business leaders gathered this week to sound off on what’s working, what isn’t and what’s next for the Omaha startup community.
A discussion at Kaneko focused on what the startup community has yet to overcome: access to capital and to talented hires. Leading the discussion were First National Bank’s Clark Lauritzen, president of the company’s FNN Wealth Management; Julie Mahloch, founder of social beauty website Bloom.com; Dan Houghton, co-founder of BuilderTREND, a company that creates software for home builders; and Mark Hasebroock, founder of Dundee Venture Capital.
The event was a call to action, intended to keep the momentum and conversation going from Dundee Venture Capital’s inaugural Straight Shot accelerator class, which wrapped last month.
A handful of Fortune 500 companies call Omaha home, and the city is often cited for its per-capita income growth. But startups can’t seem to access that capital, Hasebroock said.
“Omaha is still a town where deals get done at the club,” Lauritzen said, adding that more investment opportunities need to get in front of those with capital.
Mahloch said that in her experience, one of the challenges to getting funding in the Midwest is that investing in a startup is risky, and Midwesterners are often averse to risk. “Midwesterners don’t want to risk their money and like conservative deals,” she said.
Startups and large corporations also “need to have a symbiotic relationship,” Lauritzen said. First National Bank hosted a hackathon (a collaborative computer programming event) earlier this year and got involved in the Straight Shot accelerator program by providing mentors for the participating startups.
The company was looking for future employees and ideas in both endeavors. “It’s OK to have some selfish intent here,” he said.
Another issue with bridging the gap is the startup culture — some people just don’t feel “cool enough” to participate, Houghton said. “Whenever there’s a scene ... it can be very intimidating,” he said.
The lack of talented software developers in the region was cited as a problem many Omaha startups seem to face.
“We’re having a really hard time ... recruiting good software developers,” Houghton said. He noted that BuilderTREND recently hired a 21-year-old college junior, paying him $72,000 per year. “We told him, ‘We don’t care if you finish college.’ ”
Nick Bowden, CEO of MindMixer, who was in the crowd, agreed. The problem is not finding one, two or three software developers. It’s finding 15, 20 or 50.
Lauritzen said that even First National has concerns with finding talent, and the hackathon was a good starting point.
These kinds of frank discussions about what’s lacking aren’t common in the Omaha startup community, Hasebroock said, and they are needed. It was the first event of the Dundee Double Down series, where attendees gathered on chairs and couches in an intimate setting to eat, drink and talk. Hasebroock said he hopes to host the action-oriented events every few months.
“You’re all doers, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” he told the audience.