The winding road that leads to entrepreneurship can be both exhilarating and a little nerve-wracking, but local serial tech entrepreneur Dusty Davidson said the twists and turns are all part of the journey — which makes success even sweeter. Starting Out Believe it or not, the Iowa native and Iowa State University alum never intended […]
The winding road that leads to entrepreneurship can be both exhilarating and a little nerve-wracking,
but local serial tech entrepreneur Dusty Davidson said the twists and turns are all part of the journey — which makes success even sweeter.
Believe it or not, the Iowa native and Iowa State University alum never intended to become an entrepreneur. Originally, he aspired to be a software engineer, which is what led him to obtain a computer science degree and begin his work in software engineering and software development at a small company, and later a larger corporation. Both jobs contributed to a new outlook that helped Davidson realize there was more out there for him.
After struggling to find a career in software engineering that fit his desire to work on innovative and cutting-edge projects with like-minded individuals, Davidson was ultimately inspired to follow an entrepreneurial path.
“I started my first company Brightmix because I wanted to surround myself with amazing people and do really interesting and impactful work,” Davidson said. “I didn’t have any particular idea, so my partner and I did software consulting for a couple of years. Out of that first company — and my first entrepreneurial endeavor — sprung a number of things.”
Next up, Davidson built a software product that eventually became the company Tripleseat, which he grew and scaled. In the pursuit to find other entrepreneurs and people he related to, he started Silicon Prairie News, a blog and website highlighting entrepreneurs and innovators from in and around the Silicon Prairie.
“One after another, things kind of spurred out of that,” Davidson said. “All really driven by this idea of, ‘how do you build innovative and interesting companies in the middle of the country and then find others who are doing that as well?’”
After many years, Davidson stepped away and took some time off before founding Flywheel — managed WordPress hosting built for designers and creative agencies — in 2012. This, Davidson said, was the idea and entrepreneurial endeavor that was his biggest success and the most impactful one in a lot of ways. Over the course of about eight years, Davidson and his partners scaled the company before selling it in 2019, which was the goal all along.
The Next Adventure
As for the last few years, Davidson has occupied his time by mentoring and investing in other entrepreneurs.
“I don’t have as much active involvement these days — it’s more at a higher level trying to help the next generation,” Davidson said. “At Flywheel and Tripleseat, we raised investor dollars over the years and that was difficult to do in Nebraska. So, I have been doing some angel investing to help companies get off the ground. I also sit on a handful of boards for young startup companies similar to Flywheel and lend some operational experience. It is a lot of fun and impactful to be able to help in that way.”
Companies he currently sits on the board for include PetFriendly, a pet wellness company, VidaNyx, a cloud-based eDiscovery tool for child advocacy, and workshop, a digital marketing firm.
Also on his agenda, rejoining the startup community that he used to be deeply involved in by participating in community events, speaking appearances and helping wherever he can.
Over the years, Davidson said the most fulfilling experience has been building teams of extraordinary people who become great friends and co-workers. With the highs of entrepreneurship, Davidson said there have also been some hurdles to navigate — like the constant pressure, stress and challenge of building something new and continuously trying to grow faster.
“As an entrepreneur, you don’t want to run out of money, you need to raise money, hire great people, build the right thing and make sure your customers are happy,” Davidson said. “And you never have enough resources, time or people. I happen to enjoy solving those challenges, but they are challenges nonetheless.”
As for inspiration, Davidson continues to be most motivated by helping people realize their real potential. He enjoys watching people he’s hired in the past make an impact. That carries forward to today in which he said he also delights in betting on a young company based on his belief in its future success.
“It is incredibly exciting for me and something that I enjoy and think I’m good at,” Davidson said. “I get to watch people realize potential that they maybe didn’t even see in themselves and that is pretty cool.”
Road Less Traveled
In a way, becoming an entrepreneur in Nebraska means going against the grain, according to Davidson. Unlike in other parts of the country where becoming an entrepreneur is much more common, he said there aren’t a lot of examples of people who have chosen to forego the classic path and instead start something on their own in this area.
For aspiring local entrepreneurs who want to make it work in this part of the country, Davidson said networking matters.
“Once you recognize that you’re doing something different, my advice is that you have to surround yourself with people who think the same way that you do,” Davidson said.
“You will probably have to go out of your way to do that. It’s being in that community of entrepreneurs and startup companies that creates the best success long term — whether that is because you have access to more knowledge or connections for money.”
While opportunities may be less available in Nebraska, Davidson said this allows local entrepreneurs to stand out and make even bigger impacts in their community.
The Momentum Accelerates
As a technology entrepreneur who specifically focuses on the world of software and tech-enabled startups and entrepreneurs, Davidson said that while it is never easy to start a company, it is easier now than it ever has been, especially in places where historically it hasn’t been as easy.
“In the past, it was hard to raise money in Nebraska because all of the venture capitalists wanted to stay in places like California instead of coming to the Midwest,” Davidson said. “Well, the world has changed in large part due to COVID, but also the world is just changing to be more global and remote-friendly. So, it is actually a great time to start companies and scale them in places like Nebraska.
“There is more opportunity now to build big and interesting things in places like Omaha and that is fun. It is only going to continue to accelerate and I look at that and get super excited about what is possible for the future.”
Fueling Nebraska Startups: A Look at Invest Nebraska’s Latest Report
by Michelle Leach
It may be shocking to know that,
just a short 12 years ago, Nebraska ranked dead last in venture capital dollars invested in the state. As of today, Invest Nebraska, the organization tasked with connecting entrepreneurs and investments, has spurred more than $30 million in seed capital for silicon prairie-grown startups, with the investor engine generating hundreds of millions of dollars in VC activity. In its recently-published 2022 Nebraska Venture Capital Report, Invest Nebraska analyzed the past $1 billion of Nebraska VC between 2012 and 2021.
Invest Nebraska has quantified and qualified progress and traction statewide across multiple ventures, communities and sectors in this report. Notably, it found that between 2012 and 2021 the annual amount of VC grew from $21.7 million to $317.6 million. For comparison, VC dollars were just slightly north of $107 million and, prior to the pandemic, figures sat at around $153 million and $61 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Invest Nebraska also reported on the volume of deals behind these dollars. Between 2012 and 2021, deals in a calendar year climbed from 12 to 40. For the three years between 2018 and 2020, the figures were 36, 30 and 28, respectively.
Taking a deeper dive by industry and business type, far and away the biggest industry represented in terms of dollar value was hardware, robotics and advanced manufacturing. This industry accounted for $328.6 million of the past $1 billion in VC fueling Nebraska startups. B2B software followed at $269.6 million, with health care, life sciences and medical devices; fintech and insurance; ag tech; and consumer industries rounding out the balance at approximately $207 million, $134 million, $41 million, and $20 million, respectively.
When it came to the number of deals by industry, B2B software led the way at 101 deals. The largest industry by dollar value – hardware, robotics and advanced manufacturing – accounted for the smallest number of deals (at 12). Health care, fintech, consumer and ag tech rounded out the 269 deals analyzed and accounted for 53, 43, 31 and 29 deals, respectively.
Anecdotally, or qualitatively, Invest Nebraska also showcased one venture that secured capital in each of the six isolated and analyzed industries. These ventures were: Flywheel (B2B software), Pacha Soap of Hastings (consumer), Birds Eye Robotics of Herman (agtech), LifeLoop (health care), D3 Banking (fintech) and Monolith of Lincoln (hardware, et al).
In an introduction to the report, Invest Nebraska CEO Dan Hoffman emphasized VC’s role in financing the new industry leaders that represent growth and the future of the state’s economy.
“Nebraska’s science and technology entrepreneurs are vital in a world with rapid technological change,” Hoffman said, when asked about key takeaways from the report and sources of pride for the organization. “They often see the potential in novel innovations and newly developed intellectual properties. They cultivate ideas that challenge the status quo.”
Program Director Matt Foley added: “The Nebraska entrepreneurial ecosystem is showing a strong momentum in the number of agtech companies starting up, as well as those that are raising venture capital.”