Big Omaha – a must-attend entrepreneurs conference
Up until a few hours before the tickets sold out for Big Omaha, I have never paid attention to know what the conference was about. Luckily, thanks to Casey Allen, a passionate Mixergy fan, who got on a video call and persuasively convinced me to go to the event: ”Mixergy is the media sponsor. You and Andrew should be there!”
Photos Left to Right – Photo 1: Simon Kuo, Shane Mac, yours truly. Photo 2: Yours truly, Espree Devora, Gary Misner. Photo 3: Sara Davidson, Simon Kuo, yours truly.
I quickly looked at the site and noticed an amazing speakers line-up. An all star cast: Tony Hsieh (Zappos), Gary Vaynerchuk (WineLibrary), Dennis Crowley (Foursquare), Scott Harrison (Charity: water), Matt Mullenweg (WordPress), Jason Fried (37signals)… I watched Gary Vaynerchuk’s speech of the last year event on the site. He talked about doing what you love, about using the internet to build a personal brand, and about working on the side of a day job to build up something… His speech resonates with me. I bought the ticket.
This is a new territory to me. I have been to many events, but have never been to an event where I wasn’t either a speaker, nor an organizer in some capacity. I didn’t quite know what to expect. Amazingly, Heidi Roizen made an introduction for me to Warren Buffet. ”Can he come to do a welcome message at the Big Omaha event?” – I asked. ”No, but a photo op, maybe” – said his assistant. To add to it, my friend Andrew Warner kindly and thoughtfully wrote to Jeff Slobotski and Gary Vaynerchuk: “Can Giang say hi to you at Big Omaha?”. Gary’s response: “done, would love to hug”. Jeff: “looking forward to talk to you”. I was very excited and couldn’t wait to meet my heroes in person.
I got to Omaha on Thursday afternoon and barely got a chance to grab a slide of pizza and to say thanks to Casey, before getting swept off in the tornado of excitement and happenings. A huge kickoff party for Thursday night. I walked in and ran into Espree Devora from LA, who quickly introduced me to Sara Davidson (Dusty’s sister). Sara was wonderful, full of energy and magnetism, and extremely hospitable. She seemed to know everyone there. The next thing I knew, Sara was holding my hand, pulling me from one crowd to another, eagerly introducing me to everyone there. I couldn’t express how grateful and welcome I felt. Thank you, Espree and Sara.
Among the people I met, I ran into a group of people from Iowa, who seemed to know each other well before hand. Lucky for me, they opened their arms and welcomed me to their group. We hung out together and bravely took over the dance floor, while the rest of the crowd stayed out. It was the dance floor conversation that went beyond “what do you do”, “where did you come from” and bonded us. Thank you, Katie Miller-Smith, Rob Jensen, Mike Templeton, Levi Rosol and Gregory Hauenstein. You guys were fabulous dance partners.
I also ran into two local people hanging out by the side of the dance floor. They casually said “we ran a 6 month old branding agency for sport stars” but it seems there was more about them than that. After a bit of exchange, I asked them about their previous business. “We sold it. I can’t tell you the exact number, bit it was for between $75M and $400M. We then went into VC investment for a while before this startup”. What?!! It may seem discriminating to say this, but when we think of an 8 to 9 digit exit, Omaha is usually not the first place we think of. I was so inspired. It looks like I just found another guest for Mixergy… Keep an eye out!
I got back to my hotel room that night late and exhausted, but so looking forwards to the next day.
Pat Lazure of WikiCity has previously reached out to me before the event, so I got up early the next day (Friday) for a breakfast meeting with Pat. We talked about WikiCity, about how he started the site and within 6 months, already pursuing an exit opportunity. He sold the site shortly to Omaha World-Herald and went on-board to lead various digital initiatives. I will be posting this interview shortly.
Photos Left to Right: Photo 1: Jason Fried and Gary Vaynerchuk committed $10k each to charity:water. Photo 2: more than 500 people attending Big Omaha event in a contemporary venue, decorated with Kaneko’s art. Photo 3: yours truly, Jim Suttle (Mayor of Omaha city) and Shane Mac.
After breakfast, the formal part of the event started. Speakers with inspiring stories. Despite the fact that I was interested in the presentations, I still could not sit in one place for long. Like most entrepreneurs, I have “that” form of undetected ADD. So I took off, and wandered around the place for a bit and randomly walked back in for a parts of the presentations every now and then. The venue was unbelievable. Not a resemblance of a typical hotel conference room of a typical event. Big Omaha was set up in a contemporary space. Wide open. High ceiling with exposed beams. Giant Kaneko ceramic head sculptures around the place. The space elicits an atmosphere of fresh energy and creativity.
While I was out, I ran into a few people from Bozell and ended up having a long conversation about web design and social media monitoring. While we were chatting, Jason Fried turned up. Jason has been promising to send/bring me some copies of his books (autographed copies) for a couple of weeks but we kept missing each others. I have jokingly emailed him before the event: ”Jason, you’re in a serious trouble, I promise”, so when he saw me, he justed laughed. I finally got a number of autographed copies of “Rework” for Mixergy and AsAble fans. Keep an eye out, I will be announcing how you can win a copy of this soon.
I also caught Alexa Andrzejewski, Co-Founder of FoodSpotting.com and grabbed her for a quick interview while I was running in and out of the formal presentations. Alexa was one of a few female speakers at the event. She talked about how she was inspired by her travel to start FoodSpotting and her plan to grow the business going forward. This interview will also be posted soon.
Among the presentations, I remember most about Scott Harrison’s speech on charity:water. What an unique way to bring a fresh, modern business perspective to do good. I could see at least half of the room was crying because of his story. Moving. Real. Impactful. If you have not heard of the story, you should check out their site. I had goose bumps through the whole talk. It brought back too much memory. Very painful to watch. After the speech, I caught Gary and Jason both committed to donate $10,000 each to charity:water. Do you have any idea how huge this means? $20,000 means 4 new water wells, bringing clean and fresh water to 1000 people. It will save 1000 people lives. I had a quick discussion with Scott and we agreed to talk more later about a partnership to help bringing charity:water to the rural areas of Vietnam. It has been in his plan for 2011 for sometimes but Scott needed help to find the right local partners. I am so excited to help.
While at lunch, I ran into Shane Mac, the founder of AskSummit, an upcoming conference where speaker content is based entirely on community questions. Attendants get to ask questions before the event, vote for the best questions and come to the event to hear the answers to the questions that matter most to them. I did an interview of Shane, which will be posted soon. Shane and I decided that we would work together to organize AskSummit. The first event will be in Seattle later this year. More information to come soon, but I need YOU to plan to be there. Please!
As Shane and I walked into the lunch area, we ran into a gentleman who greeted us with a huge smile and said “Hi, I am the mayor of Omaha”. A hilarious joke – or so we thought – so we played along with the joke until he gave us his business card. Which said “Jim Suttle, Mayor, Omaha City”. Where but in Omaha that the Mayor would care enough about entrepreneurship to turn up at a conference to greet everyone? It was a very touching gesture that both Shane and I certainly won’t forget anytime soon.
Photos Left to Right: Photo 1: yours truly, Alexa Andrzejewski. Photo 2: Jeff Slobotski, yours truly, Gary Vaynerchuk, Jason Fried. Photo 3: Robert Scoble asking a question during Dennis Crowley’s presentation.
The afternoon went by so quickly and before we knew it, it was the happy hour before the official party. I got a chance to talk toSimon Kuo and learned more about his background and interests. Like a typical Asian son, he grew up and got his PhD in microbiology – to make his parents happy. He went into corporate job, climbed the ladder and became VP of Sprint during the height of the tech/dotcom era. It took a while but he finally realized his entrepreneurial dream and now pursuing it. His dream puts him in the middle of the startup community and his hobby in photography. Between Shane, Simon, Sara and I, we got into a huge debate over what could or could not be done in a large corporation, and if there is a need anymore today, for such a large corporation like IBM to exist. It was no doubt that we all have a strong biase toward entrepreneurship.
Shortly before the happy hour ended, we took off with another group of people we met there and went off to a private dinner party. I have heard much about the famous Omaha steak on my flight in, so I had to try it. Scrumptious. It melts in my mouth. It felt like fulfilling a hidden fantasy. The conversation went deep. Someone shared the story of losing their job, driving a cab, losing all hope before he found his way. Someone else talked about his heritage that even though he was born here in the US, it still influences who he is today… It’s the real conversation without a facade that bonds real people to people. This is what I dig most about this and other events. I look for great speaker lineup as a testimonial for the quality of the event. But what I get out most from an event is the relationships with people that I meet there.
The night was short. Barely enough time to get back to the hotel to get change, then back to the official party. Good music. Good crowd. I got a chance to hang out with my new friends Espree and Gary Misner. Both Espree and Gary have amazing stories that I admire. Gary, for instance, read Tim Ferris’ “Four hour work week” book and changed his life. He now lives his dream, travels the world and spends quality time with his family while continues to create business success along the way.
Both Espree and Gary had a go at me for not sharing my story more openly. It’s not easy, you know. I could not have come from a darker place… It’s hard to share with the world. It’s because of where I came from, I don’t have much expectation or aspiration for material things. I think it’s a miracle that I get to be where I am today, and I am grateful. Maybe one day I will figure out how to tell my story…
I again met many other people that night at the party. I don’t normally drink but someone insisted that I tried the local Omaha beer. It was a beer with a strong after taste, reminding me of root beer. Not a fabulous beer but certainly unique. We danced. We talked about startup. We talked about relationship. Places we travel. Our hobbies. I left the party when my feet hurt. There is only how long I could stand and dance on high heels in one night. I was sad that the event was nearly over…
The next morning (Saturday), Andy Stoll was so kind to pick me up from the hotel. Walking that morning would not have been a good idea after all the dancing the night before. Andy was one of the local entrepreneurs who offered rides to others who came in from out of town, without a car. Andy shared with me about his travel around the world, about how he uses his passion and creativity in film to work on social entrepreneurship. I am looking forward to interview Andy in the coming weeks.
The morning came and gone even faster than you could imagine. In the breaks, Simon took his photography equipment outside and took new head shots for me. I just knew that I am in a good hand. His photography work speaks to me. At a break, I also got a chance to catch Casey quickly to thank him for persuading me to be at the event and to say goodbye. The next thing I knew, the event was over and Tony Hsieh was giving out advanced copies of his upcoming books to everyone at the event. And for $20, each of us could get Tony’s signature on the book. Tony helped raised over $2000 towards charity:water from signing the books.
Didn’t want to say goodbye, a group of us headed back up to the Old Market area for lunch. The sun was out and the area was alive and vibrant with people. It was one of those moments that time stood still for me. I could still see the light filtering through the leaves and sparkled on our table. The wind was blowing through our hair. We sat outside, talked, laughed and enjoyed our food.
Time to say goodbye.
I went to catch Jeff Slobotski for a brief interview before heading to the airport. We had a discussion about how amazing the event was and how it put Omaha on the tech world map. Jeff is probably one of the nicest people that I know. Even in the middle of the hectic time, he was always so calm and thoughtful. I was so glad to have met him and I am looking forward to help Jeff and Dusty out with the next year event – in whatever capacity I can. Goodbye Omaha. Goodbye wonderful new friends that I have met there. See you next year.
PS. I know for sure that I have missed many people that I have met at Big Omaha here. Please forgive me. Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thank you.
A special thanks to our video hosting sponsor, Wistia. Wistia is a video hosting and analytic platform for businesses.