It hit me about midway through the second day of EntreFest: I was actually thinking of Big Omaha and EntreFest in the same thought and it didn’t feel like a stretch.
If you’re not familiar with EntreFEST, it’s been around for seven years. The University of Northern Iowa has been the driving force behind it since it launched, and the last two years it has been produced by Seed Here Studio of Cedar Rapids.
I can only claim to attending the last two, the 2013 event in Cedar Rapids and this year’s event in downtown Iowa City, May 14-16. It has historically been billed as an event for entrepreneurs — but the focus has been on small business entrepreneurs, not high potential startups, making it different event than other entrepreneurship and innovation conferences. Still valuable, of course, but inherently local in focus, and more of a workshop than a big galvanizing event. It was more about finding a good small business accountant or real estate agent to help launch your cupcake store or landscaping business than creating the next Instagram.
Big Omaha, on the other hand, has always been focused on high growth startups. That event just finished its sixth year. Self-billed as “The Nation’s Most Spirited Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” it’s explicitly meant to be a galvanizing event aimed at connecting and promoting the startup communities in the Midwestern plains states.
I’m not saying the two are equivalents. Big Omaha still a world class event, and has drawn national attention for years. It gets big name, national speakers — this year’s event, for example, featured Ev Williams, co-founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium.
Entrefest, on the other hand, in the past has been a nice, useful local conference. Helpful. But not at all designed to have any impact outside of the state.
Something changed this year, though.
Part of it was programming. In addition to big name general session speakers like Ben Gilbert (who had just left Microsoft Garage), thoughtful, strong tracks were built for both high-growth startups and innovation within existing companies. (I spoke at and participated mostly in the latter.) There was an attempt to move the conference more in that direction last year, but conference organizers said they got a late start on it and didn’t really achieve their vision. I don’t know if they fully achieved their vision this year, but the progress was obvious.
And all of this was done without sacrificing the small business programming that was the core reason the conference was started in the first place.
More than than that, though – this year Entrefest felt like it had actually developed a sense of place. And more importantly, that place was kind of weird.
Before you write that off as some artsy-fartsy, warm and fuzzy statement, consider for a minute that both just might be critically important. For a conference on innovation to really have an impact, it needs to pull people out of their normal world for a while. To make people feel like they are someplace separate from their every day world. And to help people to drop their guard, make connections, and open up to new ways of thinking (this is an innovation conference, after all), it helps to bring the weird.
That’s one of the reasons Austin is such a perfect site for SXSW Interactive. Austin knows how to bring the weird, and SXSW Interactive has become the largest conference for ground zero innovation in the country.
Big Omaha knows how to bring that, too. A loud emcee and DJ to introduce speakers. Crazy snack breaks to foster community and conversation, including, a few years ago, chocolate fountains and bacon (two great tastes that go great together) for an intermission snack break. An over-abundance of riotous standing ovations. And a setting — Kaneko, a cavernous former warehouse space turned art studio and center for creativity-based programming right in downtown Omaha — that helps create the right mental space, too.
Entrefest, on the other hand, was held in a hotel conference last year. A perfectly nice hotel — the Kirkwood in Cedar Rapids. But it felt mostly like another hotel conference center conference. Professional. Maybe overly much. And not in the middle of a community. The Hotel at Kirkwood is, quite literally, in the middle of a bunch of corn fields.
This year, though, the conference was right in downtown Iowa City. It included parts of two different hotel spaces, the library, The Englert Theatre, and about every restaurant and bar in a restaurant-and-bar-heavy area.
There were unexplained squid tentacles sprouting from the tops of buildings. Food served in the swanky Hotel Vetro lobby by an overall-clad Carl Blake, a self-taught software engineering prodigy who has appeared on The Colbert Report as the creator of “the best-tasting pig in the world.” A marching band that accompanied a few brave souls (it was raining) to the Englert for the “Dream Big Grow Here” pitch finals. A host (Andy Stoll) who wore approximately 37 different startup-themed t-shirts at the same time and took one off every time he talked, accompanied by increasingly weird techno-stripper music. A 500-person “massively multi-player thumb war” before featured speaker Ben Gilbert’s presentation.
— Josh Krakauer (@JHKrak) May 15, 2014
Sense of place? Check. Sense of weird? Check.
I typically judge conferences like this more by who I’m able to connect with even more than by the quality of the speakers.
A few years ago, it was common that the key players in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area startup and innovation community didn’t even know each other. That’s because there really wasn’t much of a community to the community.
With so much “oh, wait, you have to see THAT” going on at EntreFEST this year — it was hard NOT to connect with a bunch of people I didn’t already know.
Our startup/innovation/tech community needs galvanizing events like this. Startup Weekend in March gave us a big boost. The Mission Creek “Tech + Innovation Conference” in April was another great step forward. The community in the Creative Corridor is still small compared to some cities – but it’s growing, and it needs events like these.
So here’s to EntreFEST finding its voice in 2014. I don’t know what the thoughts are on host cities for 2015. But I’ll agree with Welch Avenue‘s Geoff Wood – my vote would be to keep it in Iowa City and keep building it.
After all, if we have a weird center of Iowa, it’s Iowa City. And we need to keep bringing the weird.
If you’re interested in some other takes on EntreFEST:
- Here is one from my team members at Fusionfarm.
- And here is another from New Bohemia Open Coffee organizer and local WordPress Meetup leader Josh McNary.
- Here’s a whole bunch of links and galleries from my team members at We Create Here: “The Best of the Fest.”
- Here’s a photo gallery from the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
- And here is the awesome Silicon Prairie News’ Social Recap
I’m sure I missed a bunch of others – if you know a good one, hit me @TimMcdougall13 on Twitter, or throw it up in comments.
And thank you, Justin Torner, for all the great pictures. Go to EntreFEST’s page on Facebook if you want to see hundreds of others, most by Justin.