Synthesis: Big Omaha 2010 (Part 1)

The brainchild of founders Jeff Slobotski and Dusty Davidson, Big Omaha was created to bring together entrepreneurs, innovators and creatives and inspire them to “follow their passions, build the businesses they love and strengthen their creative communities.” The inaugural event was held last year in 2009 and proved to be a wildly successful happening. Now in its second year, it is obvious that Big Omaha has an undeniably precocious potential.

This year’s lineup of speakers was my first tip-off that this was going to be an exciting event, with folks like Tony Hsieh (Zappos), Dennis Crowley (foursquare), Scott Harrison (charity: water), Jason Fried (37signals) and Gary Vaynerchuk (Wine Library) catching my eye immediately. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend and soak in the scene thanks to Bernstein-Rein.

Even better, fellow BR interactivist Adam Seitz (@adamseitz) and our agency’s executive creative director Arlo Oviatt (@onwardcreative) made the trek as well. What follows is our key takeaways from the two-day event, passed through our respective discipline-specific filters as well as taken from the point of view of being career advertising professionals bobbing in a sea of radical change when it comes to our industry.

David Hauser

@patchchord: As a serial entrepreneur, Hauser was a great way to kick off the day. Rather than concentrate on the specifics of his own current company, he instead talked about cultivating culture. “Culture,” Hauser said, “is the building block of a great community.” Taking that a step further, he took a moment to touch on the most abused artifacts of a company’s cultural expression: core values. In his estimation, core values are not “aspirations” nor should they be open-ended terms. Instead, entrepreneurs seeking to build something viable should concentrate on being authentic, which to Hauser is more important than selling. “Stand out from the crowd,” Hauser proposed, “don’t join it.”

@adamseitz: Best quote from David: “Honesty. Respect. Excellence. These are bullshit. These are a waste of time, they’re table stakes. Those are the rules to play the game.” By the way, he had a great video to start off his presentation:

YouTube Preview Image

@onwardcreative: Loved the courage required to generate initial buzz by sending out chocolate-covered grasshoppers (yes, actual grasshoppers) — not to prospective customers, but to “people who talk”: bloggers, Twitterati, authors of books he highly respects, random magazine editors and radio and TV stations. When a company is built on Authenticity rather than Selling, Hauser said, 1) advertising is cheaper, 2) the right customers stay and 3) the wrong customers leave.

Scott Belsky
Behance Network

@patchchord: As the founder of Behance, a company that develops products and services for creative industries, Belsky is intimately aware of the nuances, quirks, constraints and capacity of the creative/entrepreneurial thinker. It’s a place where the additive combination of organization, creativity, community forces and leadership abilities translates into making ideas happen. The difficulty of Belsky’s presentation (at least for me) is that it felt like a cram session: 80 pounds of ideas, information and advice stuffed into a 20 pound sack. But with such quotables as “organize with a bias to action” and “maintain a culture of capturing action steps and take verbal accountability for them,” I could easily see myself picking up a copy of his book.

Scott and his approach to creative organization and task management resonated with me because we both approach it from an artistic perspective. He stated we are constantly at the mercy of email, phone calls, texts, voicemails, Facebook messages, Tweets, LinkedIn alerts, direct mail and meetings — in essence we are always doing other people’s “to-do” lists. This isn’t productive and can hinder us from tackling the bigger obstacles we face. He spoke of 3 types of tasks that everything can be divided into: Action items, back-burner items and reference items (or as I prefer, “noise”). Take an hour once a week to look at your reference items and remove ones that are not feasible, bubble up the important ones and select one to begin to apply actionable steps to and complete it.

@onwardcreative: Man, so much information from Scott, packed into just a few minutes. He believes (and his research has confirmed) that there is a specific equation creative organizations must put in place to make ideas happen: Creativity X Organization = Impact. If you score 100 on creativity but 0 on organization your impact is, well, zero. True, in an “ouch” kinda way.

Scott Harrison
charity: water

@patchchord: Hands down, Harrison’s presentation was an incredibly moving and unforgettable highlight of the entire event. To me, Harrison’s story was a remarkable example of taking what tools, experiences and gifts one is given and using that to find a higher purpose and calling in life. The work he has done and continues to do through his organization is not just changing lives … it’s saving them. While the audience was enthralled throughout the presentation, what was more impressive is how motivating his message was. When it came time for his talk a little later in the day, Gary Vaynerchuk announced to the Big Omaha crowd that he was donating $10,000 on the spot, the equivalent cost of two freshwater wells.

@adamseitz: His mission is to bring clean water to the 1 billion people on the planet who don’t have it, roughly 1/6 of the worlds population. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the audience. From where he came to where he is inspired each and every one of us to stand for something more and how important one person can be in the lives of others less fortunate. I physically couldn’t take notes during his presentation simply because I was so enthralled with his words and images. You need to check out his site and learn more. Below is a video of Scott from November of 2009. While some of the content is similar, it doesn’t even begin to compare to the passionate and extremely personal story he told at this year’s Big Omaha.

@onwardcreative: I am now obsessed with not only this cause, but how holistically this non-profit cause has been built. Harrison is a masterful storyteller, not of fiction or persuasion-oriented anecdotes, but of the elements that truly make up the unshakeable foundation of a visionary brand. I love what he has done when it comes to bringing clean drinking water to people who don’t have it, but also bringing excellence in branding and design to the non-profit category. Here are a couple of shot of the work they had on display at the venue:

charity: water charity: water charity: water charity: water

Matt Mullenweg

@patchchord: To say that I’m a big fan of Matt Mullenweg’s work is an understatement. The vast majority of the web site development I do for friends and freelance purposes are built on the backbone of WordPress. This blog? WordPress. Unfortunately, take the enthusiasm I have for Mullenweg and temper that with an equal amount of indifference I hold for Robert Scoble, who interviewed Mullenweg for this portion of the program. Given that — according to Mullenweg — “8.5% of the web uses WordPress,” I was thoroughly disappointed to see Scoble (who, by the way, is currently employed by mega-web host service Rackspace) try to lay the blame of the recent security hack activity being perpetrated upon WP sites across the web at Mullenweg’s feet. Oh yeah … nevermind there has been clear evidence that the blame rests elsewhere. Next time, Mullenweg should be given the opportunity to speak without anyone else trying to ride his coattails.

@adamseitz: I was very impressed with Matt and his savvy approach to the internet. He allows us all to be content publishers and effectively gives us all voices. Matt spoke primarily and candidly about WordPress, spam issues, geolocation services and the general state of the web. Key takeaway? “[Social media] toolbars on blogs and web pages are the mullets of the internet.”

@onwardcreative: When asked about the value in having his employees spread all over the world, Mullenweg said the decentralization of talent is a no-brainer. “Geographic discrimination” is just as bad as any other form. “I mean, if I decided I wouldn’t hire any men, or any women, or anyone with blond hair, for example, the limitations I would put on my company would be just as great.”

Gary Vaynerchuk
Wine Library

@patchchord: Unfortunately, I had to duck out for Gary V.’s presentation. Yes, I was bummed. Yes, I missed the whole thing. Yes, I had the only acceptable excuse (client call). But one thing I did catch from Vaynerchuk later on in the day was perhaps one of my favorite quotes of the entire conference: “Maybe I shouldn’t say this because you all are going to tweet it, but every one of my 100 employees thinks they’re better than they really are.” Talk about empowering and pumping up your employees.

Gary V. lit this room on fire. Whether it was his fiery tongue or his ability to think we are all better than we are. The best things happen when people draw lines in the sand then cross those very lines! He made it quite clear that the consumer internet as we know is only 16 years old, an awkward teenager. This thing is just getting started! He passionately stated that his entire premise is the notion of scaling 1:1 relationships and mentioned both Zappos and Best Buy as leaders in this space. 1:many is over and done. Everything on the internet should be personalized and every consumer should feel that their experiences are unique and aren’t shared with anyone else. Favorite quote: “Content is king and marketing is queen.”

@onwardcreative: Vaynerchuk continued a theme of a common shaping force among the speakers: a challenging childhood. In his case, it was as the son of Russian immigrants who forced him to give up his elementary school baseball-card selling business (at which he made about $1000/month) to work in the basement of his family’s liquor store. Once he figured out that people will pay good money for wines that are popular but also scarce, his unique path was set.

Danae Ringelmann

@patchchord: Ringelmann is poised at the forefront of the crowd-sourced, collaborative funding scene that is just starting to break out on the web. While a relatively new area for me to wrap my head around, it was only last week when I had read the fascinating story of Diaspora and the funding success they had achieved with a similar platform called Kickstarter. Ringelmann was very convincing in her belief that the old-school DIY startup model (raise funds/build product/get customers/grow) is going to be turned on its head by this DIWO approach (do it with others) where one solicits customers first based on the strength of an idea, raises money THEN builds the product and looks to grow. Why so convincing? Because it’s already happening.

@adamseitz: While not my area of knowledge or interest, Danae succeeds by recognizing that in order to learn the ropes in the internet business, you have to live it and do it, not read a book. There is no instruction manual and things are constantly changing. Only you can keep yourself on top of them all and make ideas come to life.

@onwardcreative: Really appreciated Ringelmann’s answer to a female audience member asking where her daughter should go to school to learn about the evolutionary forces affecting the business world — the best way to learn is to do.

Jason Fried

@patchchord: Fried has been making quite a few waves lately, especially among the traditional ad agency jet set. His presentation at Big Omaha, the culmination of the first day’s slate of speakers, certainly did not disappoint. Fried has a knack for presenting commonsensical advice in provocative ways. The idea that usefulness is greater — more important, actually — than innovation was a strong statement. To Fried, forcing innovation for the sake of being innovative accomplishes little except create compromise and mediocrity. “Draw a line in the sand,” Fried advised. “What will you NOT do?” His point is that too many companies are trying to be all things to all customers. “Do less,” Fried dared. “Accomplish more.”

@adamseitz: To add on to this, I was struck with the visual of our own agency capabilities slide. It’s an eyechart that can’t be read from even the middle of the room. What if instead of saying everything we did, we had a slide of 3-5 items that we simply won’t do. I think that would blow clients and consultants away. Talk about a key differentiator! Jason and his approach comes off very casual and almost slack, but he is quite the opposite. When he says his company works only 4 days a week … say your sorry … do it yourself … just nail the basics … work less … say “no” and that “yes” is trouble … what he is driving at is simple — focus on things that won’t change. Be useful. Do a few things exceptionally. Don’t strive to be everything to everybody. Stand for quality and focus on the core. Key take away: “Quality is an iterative process.”

@onwardcreative: I found it interesting that 37signals’ products are, to a great degree, developed to literally satisfy their most demanding user: themselves. If they don’t require an add-on when they use their own product, they don’t add it. No matter how much it’s requested by others. Interesting way to ensure product quality.

That’s it for our reflections on day 1. Be sure to also check out our day 2 takeaways!

[Speaker photos via]