Making Headwinds: Nebraska Entrepreneurs Find Support

Midlands organizations are elevating the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. As communities rather than islands unto themselves, entrepreneurs are redefining industries, solutions and even what it means to “fail” in the startup space.  

Got a Problem? 

“The entrepreneurial climate is much stronger than it was 15 years ago,” said Scott Henderson, managing principal of NMotion, powered by gener8tor. 

Henderson described NMotion as a “startup accelerator helping connect founders and early-stage startups connect to mentors, customers and investors within either our 12-week or 16-week programs,” with $100,000 guaranteed investments for each selected startup.

“We have seen some great companies grow and succeed, and even more not succeed. Both of which are important, because there is no failure in startup creation, only lessons learned that can be applied in the future.”

He urged entrepreneurs to fall in love with a problem, not the solution.

“Often, you discover what you think is the problem is hiding the actual problem behind it,” Henderson explained. 

When you have an idea, Startup Grind Omaha Chapter Director Craig Heron said sharing your idea to reach validation is key. Don’t keep ideas “secret” for long.

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“Tell people about it,” he said. “Get feedback. Go to events to get connected into the wonderful community of entrepreneurial supporters in the region.”

Startup Grind is characterized as a perfect resource to do just that. It’s been described as the largest independent startup community engaging with 2 million-plus entrepreneurs. The Omaha chapter is one of about 600 chapters worldwide.

Questions to ask are: Will your product solve a widespread problem? Will someone pay to solve that problem?

If the answer is no, Henderson said shake it off and take it as a learning experience. Keep going until you find the real problem. 

“Once you do that, find ways to get those people to pay you for the solution,” he said. “Nothing teaches you more than trying to swell the solution even if it’s just a concept, not a full-blown product or service.”

Sounding Off

Starting a business can often be isolating and overwhelming if you don’t have other like-minded individuals supporting and coaching you. 

“Starting a business is scary and can often feel lonely,” said Greater Omaha Chamber Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Laurel Oetken. 

“You don’t have to do it alone. Lean on others who have been there and have done it before, or can get you connected to someone who can help.”

Omaha is home to several organizations that are local with global extensions, such as EO Nebraska. 

EO Nebraska is a regionally- and globally-recognized chapter within the Entrepreneurs’ Organization network, with 90% of its members renewing in 2022 — well above the reported average — and one of four chapters worldwide with 100% participation in its EO Matrix platform.

Craig Gubbels, who is the current president, said the most valuable tool the organization offers is the forum. The forum is a group of five to 10 owners who meet at least monthly to discuss all aspects of their lives. 

“Learning from the experience shared and deep personal relationships developed in the forum has made me far more successful as an owner, husband and father than I would be without it,” he said.

Startup Grind Omaha also hosts monthly open lunches and happy hours as a way to connect entrepreneurs in less formal settings. Heron said its events regularly have between 50-70 attendees, which is up from 25-30 last year. 

“We started Startup Grind Omaha, because we felt there was a gap in the type of events supporting tech entrepreneurs,” Heron said. “The roadmap looks a lot different for tech entrepreneurs than other types of businesses.”

Pursue Knowledge

Beyond leaning into relationships, conferences and events can be a great source of knowledge. 

For example, in addition to its local networking groups, Entrepreneurs’ Organization also offers learning presentations by speakers like Tony Hawk and Molly Bloom, author of “Molly’s Game.”

Startup Grind Omaha hosts hybrid conferences and “fireside chats” on a variety of topics. Recent events have included “Rethinking Home Solutions” with Rory Rubin, co-founder and CEO of S.I. Container Builds Omaha, and a fireside chat with serial entrepreneur Dusty Davidson. 

The Greater Omaha Chamber, as well as Startup Grind, helped bring back Startup Omaha Week this year, which took place July 25-29. The week offered a dozen key events for entrepreneurs, founders and teams to connect, network, learn, and meet customers and other champions.

“We connected with over 500 individuals from across the metro area, Nebraska and even out-of-state,” Oetken said. 

Startup Grind also helped co-host the event. 

Oetken also referred to the chamber’s role as a community catalyst and builder of entrepreneurial- and innovation-driven ecosystems; for instance, it is partnering with MIT on the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) to solve day-to-day challenges faced by founders.

NMotion has created its own ecosystem that presents ongoing benefits to its startups. 

“We’re seeing the benefits of layered wisdom,” Henderson said. “Founders who sold their companies for large profits either start more companies or invest in others.”

Get Started

The timing to start is good “because of the ease of access to capital that exists across the state, the resources that are available through our state government, and the support entrepreneurs can receive through our ecosystem,” Oetken said. 

Unfortunately, she said many people have shied away from starting a business because of the uncertainty involved. 

“It’s a very hard decision to leave a corporate job or take the leap to start something new, not knowing whether it will succeed or fail,” she said. 

Fundraising remains a perennial challenge, if not the No. 1 cited problem for founders. However, Heron said there are lots of opportunities for Nebraskans to raise funds. 

“The challenge is keeping that funding flowing,” he said. “So that we can incubate great companies until they are sustainable or hit escape velocity to attract financing from national sources.”

Fostering an entrepreneurship mindset at a young age could help break down those barriers for future generations. 

“An opportunity for us, looking out five to 10 years, is to invest in STEM career training more,” Heron said. “We need to have many more programs to give students options based on their learning styles and life circumstances.”

He also noted that the Business Innovation Act is a major opportunity for citizens. 

“Through the Business Innovation Act, the state has really stepped up to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Nebraska in a way that isn’t the case in a lot of other states,” he said. “One of the biggest areas of improvement, which is being worked on, is making sure those opportunities are accessible to all Nebraskans, including those in rural and traditionally underserved communities.”

Off Startup Omaha Week, Heron noted the need for the event was apparent.

 “It was the type of energy around the entrepreneurial ecosystem we need to keep the momentum going,” he said. “We had a record year of fundraising for startups and many more that have bootstrapped so they don’t show up in those reports.”

With the changing economy, Gubbels said there is no shortage of problems that need to be solved or niches that need to be filled. 

“Challenges create opportunities and, right now, there are so many opportunities for new entrepreneurs to set out and fill those voids with new innovated business,” Gubbels said. “Don’t be afraid to ask other entrepreneurs those tough questions,” he said. “They have most likely been through it and have some great experiences to share.”