cow_02A few weeks ago I found myself in Nebraska visiting a client and had the pleasure of attending a conference for young entrepreneurs and tech startups called Big Omaha. Initially I felt a little out of place as the room seemed filled with ambitious aspiring young tech moguls, whereas I consider myself more of a happy-go-lucky designer/worker-bee, with delusions of artistic integrity. But the energy at this event was contagious, and the vibe was laid back and accessible. Long story short, if you’re at all inclined to run a business or start develop an idea, this conference would be well worth a trip to Omaha.

The discussions began with intriguing talks by Grasshopper’s David Hauser and Behance’s Scott Belskey. The mood quickly changed though when Scott Harrison gave an uplifting and tear-jerking account of the inspiration behind Charity: Water, the organization working to provide clean drinking water to communities all over the world. His creative approach to marketing and energy for promotion, coupled with his sincere and moving story moved the crowd to tears and evoked an eruption of inspired applause.

Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library may have been the only man who could bring the crowd back to earth with his unique blend of crass humor and blind tenacity. He spoke from the hip about ambition, persistence, and “hustling”. The author of the best-selling book, “Crush It“, Gary V. is truly a one-of-a-kind individual who initially comes off as some obnoxious Jersey boy. But after a few minutes, his undeniable charisma and surprising humility endear him to you. It’s quite amazing.

Matt Mullenweg of Automattic, the creator of WordPress (the platform on which this blog is written) also gave a nice question and answer session about the future of the web. This was followed by a dose of common sense from the visionary Jason Fried of 37signals, creators of Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, etc. While Jason’s speech read as a summary of his best-selling book “ReWork” it still managed a great reaction.

Day 2 featured a flurry of kinetic thoughts from Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley, delivering around 150 slides and speaking informally at a micro-machine commercial pace. This was followed by a controversial moment by StyleSeat’s Melody McCloskey who insisted that aspiring entrepreneurs should to move to New York, San Francisco or Boulder, CO to launch their businesses. This statement elicited a hostile murmur from the crowd, comprised mostly of Nebraskans. She was then promptly crucified on the live Twitter feed of the event for her comments. Ironically, her speech was immediately followed by a discussion panel of 3 entrepreneurs from (wait for it…) New York, San Francisco, and Boulder.

The conference wrapped up with an entertaining talk by Tony Hsieh of Zappos, who then delivered advance copies of his book “Delivering Happiness“. He spoke on the history of his company and the evolution of their unique 10 Core Values that dictate every aspect of corporate culture and inform every decision Zappos makes.

Overall, Big Omaha was a huge success and a wonderful surprise. Also, this being my second trip to Omaha I can truly say the city itself is also a fantastic bonus. Great food, unpretentious and welcoming people, happening culture, and a pretty hip scene.