Jeff Slobotski and Silicon Prairie News Create a Niche by Charting Innovation
One of the leaders of Omaha’s much ballyhooed creatives and emerging entrepreneurs community is Jeff Slobotski, who has caught the wave with his Silicon Prairie News site and his annuak Big Omaha event. Jeff not only has lots of great ideas and an abudance of energy and enthusiasm, but he also has the skills to do follow through and to actually make his concepts reality. The following piece I did about Jeff and Silicon Prairie News appeared in Metro Magazine a couple years ago. Since then, Jeff’s endeavors have grown even more. I have a feeling I will be writing about he and his ventures for a long time. I may even be writing for him one day.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine
Omaha-based Silicon Prairie News (SPN) may not be the next big thing on the Web but that’s OK with founder Jeff Slobotski. The Omaha native envisions his less-than-year-old startup as part social mission and part social networking portal. SPN’s public face is www.siliconprairienews.com, a sleek blog, news and events site devoted to nurturing and linking the area’s entrepreneurial-minded creative class.
Site postings include original published stories, video interviews and listings filed by him and partner Dusty Davidson, owner of the boutique software applications firm, Bright Mix, which hosts SPN. “If you’re looking for news and information around the creative innovative class,” Slobotski said, “that’s what we hope we’ll be able to cover and provide to folks.”
Slobotski, 31, came to admire his hometown as an entrepreneurial hot bed working with political campaigns in Nebraska and as a capital consultant with the Steier Group. He’s further staked-out cutting-edge Omaha in his current day job as sales-marketing guru for New York City-based software design firm Truist.
His travels allows him to compare the climate for startups here with that in centers of innovation like Austin, Texas. What he sees is that, yes, things are hopping as you’d expect in these progressive hubs but there’s also no shortage of enterprising intellectual capital and commerce in Omaha.
“I knew we had a lot of that here — a lot of that same creative class, innovative, entrepreneurial spirit,” said Slobotski, who makes it SPN’s business to track and engage this lively community of Generation X-Y-Z go-getters.
He maintained a personal blog that predated SPN, Midwest to Manhattan, where he commented on New York or San Francisco goings-on. “My office was in Manhattan at that time,” he said. After a while though he decided to turn his attention from what was happening elsewhere to what was happening in his own backyard.
“I thought, Nobody wants to read about me traveling around and writing, ‘Look what I’ve seen’ or ‘Look who I met.’ I like to be behind the scenes anyway — I don’t need to be the highlight of the blog. I wanted to turn that around and say, ‘Hey, look at some of guys or women that are doing it right here.”
That’s when he began formulating the SPN model that features individuals living the dream as entrepreneurs, innovators, mavericks, venture capitalists. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m talking about what I’m seeing in New York and bringing that back here,’ and I was like, ‘No wait, we have that here.” Examples are abundant.
“Rachel Jacobson at Film Streams is an innovator to me. She doesn’t clock in at 8 and clock out at 5, yet she’s really pushing the spirit of what we’re doing as a city,” said Slobotski. “Secret Penguin is another example. It’s a Web design shop that does work for MTV and the NFL, and not a lot of people know that.”
On his SPN site Slobotski’s sung the praises of both Jacobson and Secret Penguin owner Dave Nelson, a pro skateboarder whose youth branding business is built around skateboarding, music and youth cultures. Both Film Streams and Secret Penguin, along with bar/live music venue Slowdown, are part of the Saddle Creek Records complex that anchors the NoDo district’s developing cultural-commercial scene and exemplifies the creative class community Slobotski celebrates.
In his self-described role as “citizen reporter” Slobotski, not a trained journalist but a University of Nebraska at Omaha finance and banking graduate, does a form of advocacy journalism through Silicon Prairie News posts. SPN really is his forum to serve as Omaha’s creative class evangelist and facilitator.
“I see the resources, the talent we have here in town, and again it goes back to those connections or those networks,” he said. “But what good is it that you know people but aren’t helping them develop their skill set or their trade? Our goal is to really build that community and highlight those individuals or those businesses or those ideas to show that you’re not alone. If you’re someone who after you clock out of your 8-to-5 job is moonlighting, working on an idea, it’s like, Hey there’s other guys out there like you and here’s some of their stories.”
Slobotski and Davidson moonlight themselves, doing SPN as a “labor of love” around regular careers. They do more than report on entrepreneurs. They also stage events where innovators across a wide spectrum — from techies to artists — meet and share what they do. The idea’s to foster matches, links, collaborations that result in business needs being met or new ventures being sparked. An incubator for entrepreneurial startups is in the works. Anything arising from this mix of social-business engagement adds to the vibrant creative class scene SPN champions.
Soon after launching the SPN Web site July 25, Slobotski said it became apparent bringing people together in a virtual environment needed a corollary physical gathering. “We said, ‘Let’s get people together face to face rather than just trading emails or text messages or voice mails back and forth. Let’s meet and learn people’s stories.” Thus, SPN organized Omaha’s inaugural BarCamp and Tweetup and a talk by noted Silicon Valley business author/reporter Sarah Lacy.
He said the free events draw on average 100-plus people. SPN’s next event, the May 7-8 BigOmaha conference at Kaneko, will present forward-thinking creatives, innovators and entrepreneurs telling their national and local success stories, including Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library, a hot wine news, tastings, review site, and Rachel Jacobson of Film Streams. BIGOmaha is by-registration-only event. Slobotski said registrants are signed up from around the Midwest.
As Slobotski and Davidson are entrepreneurs in their own right, they, along with peers profiled online or in person, offer insider perspectives on the startup experience and creative class milieu. Slobotski hopes these stories inspire others to follow their own passion and do what they love. It’s all part of the synergy he aspires to promote, one where people with varied skill sets meet via event and do a service trade/barter or work on a project or buy into a vision. One connection may lead to another, and so on. It’s all about being plugged-in or linked-in.
Cross-mingling groups that don’t ordinarily connect, he said, can mean win-wins. “I think each one can respect what the other’s doing and then help each other out. It’s fun, I love meeting people. But who cares if you know this many people. What do you do with those relationships to help others affect change or get involved?”
Beyond a fondness for social media, there’s a social consciousness aspect to Slobotski, who’s founded a charitable organization, Packs of Promise, that provides new backpacks filled with supplies to the homeless through Siena/Francis House. He’s looking at SPN hosting a blog covering green initiatives and businesses.
SPN’s a-work-in-progress. Slobotski found it tough at first finding subjects outside his small circle of friends and associates. But as the word’s gotten out and SPN’s network has increased, he said, “we’ve now got a slate of folks to interview probably 15 to 20 long. Guys are coming out of the woodwork. We can’t keep up with that. We’re doing about a story or two a day” as opposed to a couple a week before. “We just met a guy who works at CSG Systems by day but he’s launched two or three small startup businesses on the side. We want more stories like that.”
He said the site’s at 10,000 to 12,000 hits a month and increasing. Content drives it, which means expanding beyond the local marketplace to do more regional/national coverage. He reported from Austin’s recent South by Southwest fest. Published stories remain the core but Slobotski said video pieces get the most feedback.
“I still think print is relevant and helpful but to be able to see the face of that guy that owns the bakery or that guy that owns the Web design shop telling his story for 3 to 5 minutes — I just think people connect with that a little more.”
He’s also aware SPN treads a fine line with its advocacy, citizen-level reporting. “We’re definitely tweaking and making changes, figuring ways to keep it not too stuffy but also not too weak, too casual and without enough boundaries,” he said. A niche jobs board may be added. A name change is also being considered, as he fears Silicon Prairie may suggest a tech emphasis that really isn’t so.
His long-term goal “is to turn this into a sustainable business — with the right balance, where it’s not ad heavy, but tactfully set-up and structured.”
- Big Omaha – a must-attend entrepreneurs conference (thestartupangel.com)
- The Indie-Rock Club Behind Omaha’s $100 Million Creative Boom (npr.org)
- Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)