← Techstars Blog

The following is a guest post from Nadeem Mazen of Nimblebot’s mini documentary Silicon Prairie: America’s New Internet Economy. 

Nimblebot.com’s mini-documentary Silicon Prairie: America’s New Internet Economy has been a wild ride filled with unexpected entrepreneurship field-trips, the sage wisdom of startup gurus, kind spirits and community organizers, all across the midwest. We encourage you to download the film at www.siliconprairiefilm.com to get the whole story. The download is a “pay what you want” affair and all donations go to promoting more digital storytelling (and even digital video storytelling training) on the topic of entrepreneurship in America. There’s even Reddit/director commentary from Alexis, Erik and I, as well as five extra short videos featuring internet luminaries from Dwolla.com, Skyvu Games, Widernet Project, Sparkfun Electronics and Kansas City Startup Village (the first to receive Google Fiber!). Our Reddit “Ask Me Anything” will be tomorrow, Wednesday March 20 from 1pm Eastern/10am Pacific and onward at www.reddit.com/r/iAMA. 

Our Journey:

It all started way back in 2012, when Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Reddit General Manager Erik Martin planned a bus trip through the Rockies, plains, midwest and central regions of America during election season for a gaggle of journalists, startup aficionados and Reddit employees. As Alexis says in the movie’s opening scene, “Wouldn’t it be cool just for the sake of getting a bus, maybe make it half red and half blue, and then take it to a bunch of cool places? And, as I think we all know, all the innovation on the Internet does not come out of Silicon Valley.”

Alexis Ohanian, seeing the bus for the first time, uttered “thank you Internet” in hushed tones.

Nimblebot was captivated by the idea – and truly curious about the stories coming out of non-coastal startups, so we stowed away to document the journey.

Top 5 Things You Might Find On A Bus Tour Across America With Reddit

The internet loves top 10 lists with pictures. So here goes:

5) Places like Boulder and People Like Brad Feld are Doing It Right.

When we sat down to interview Brad Feld of Boulder, CO (VC at Foundry Group, founder of Techstars, author of Startup Communities, genius) a few things stood out. First of all, Brad and his wife decided to take a very deliberate look at life some years ago – moving from Boston to Boulder as part of a worldwide search for a new city that “felt like home”. In those days, Boulder wasn’t a startup hub, but Brad did find a warm community, an outdoorsy vibe, a beautiful landscape and the seeds for something great.

Brad Feld, from minute 16:50 of Silicon Prairie Film.

In the years that followed, Brad and a core group of dedicated entrepreneurs helped build a city with the largest number of entrepreneurs per capita. I was impressed and inspired to learn that, in Brad’s experience, a group as small as six or eight entrepreneurs can build a small city into a large startup hub, as long as they follow some of the guidelines that Brad calls his “Boulder Thesis”. My thinking is that if “six people thinking for the long term” is enough, a little organization and education might go a long way in germinating more little “Boulders” across the country over the next decade.

4) There is a network of “startup energy” in the midwest that is overtaking the region.

From 3:49 in the Silicon Prairie Film: A “feeling” of interconnected growth.

Ever talk to someone in San Francisco, New York, or Boston that seems to know absolutely everyone cool in town, doing every possible thing in the startup scene? Someone so unbelievably effective and inspirational that their energy infects you by osmosis, and you just want to punch them in the face/hold them close and never let go out of unbridled emotional overload? Well, the wonderful people at Silicon Prairie News give me that feeling.

Geoff Wood, COO and Ninja at Silicon Prairie News, from minute 1:48 of Silicon Prairie Film

They are creating and supporting some of the long term connections and events (not to mention press exposure opportunities) that allow burgeoning startup hubs to survive and thrive in any economy. On one hand, cities like Boston and New York are mature startup hubs. And they’re nearby. But they don’t necessarily depend on each other – in the way that certain cities in the Silicon Prairie are beginning to – in terms of regional events, fundraising, cooperative planning and community building. The implications for the American economy as a whole are clear, given the potential these Midwestern startup scenes have to evolve simultaneously into a kind of “continuous Megalopolis” of interconnected growth.

3) Reddit (And Startups) Can Party

Have you ever seen Reddit General Manager Erik Martin ride a mechanical bull in a swing dancing nightclub in Omaha? I have. Do you know what a Flabongo is? Do you want to see a video of Alexis Ohanian eating three enormous Runzos after buying over 50 of them for the entire Hudl office – all within 30 minutes of discovering what a Runzo is for the first time? This is the stuff that bus-trips are made of. And there is a reason this section doesn’t have any pictures attached. ‘Nuff said.

Some bottles, a mechanical bull, a Kauffman Foundation gala. The tour meant fun evenings + 0 sleep.

Ok fine, here’s some photos from Alexis’ phone. *Tiny photos. What is this Alexis, a phone for ants?

2) Organizations Like Startup Weekend Are Emissaries From the Future

One of the core elements underlying the growth of any potential startup community is “events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack” – another nugget straight out of Brad Feld’s “Boulder Thesis”. Importantly, these events can’t just be excuses to get together socially – instead they must really provide value for attendees: demonstrating core entrepreneurship concepts, creating new networks, fostering the new arrivals (new people or companies) to the community and so forth.

From the video version of Brad Feld’s “Boulder Thesis”

On the tour, we saw this in practice at the University of Iowa (in Iowa City) where Startup Weekend was leading a 54-hour weekend and guiding new entrepreneurs through their first pitches – and beyond. And if you’re reading this guest blog, you probably already know all about Startup Weekend’s incredible mission.

As someone whose job revolves around helping clients and students imagine, prepare and design for the future, I’m convinced that the Startup Weekend mission comes to us from a more advanced time: the future. Anyway, something about the idea of taking charge of one’s aspirations, solving community or market problems, garnering direct mentorship and taking deliberate action in one’s own life seems like a more connected, more deliberate, more advanced way of living to me.

A Silicon Prairie Film still: the internet community used futuristic technology to band together and fight SOPA/PIPA.

1) The Social Entrepreneurs Blow My Mind the Most

You have to check out the bonus features to the movie! Yes, the Alexis/Erik Reddit commentary track is funny. But more importantly, it’s where we get into some of the side stories. Bonus features are available to anyone who makes a contribution while downloading the movie on www.siliconprairiefilm.com. One of these side features covers Cliff Missen and the Widernet project, which packs “the internet” (or as much as they can wrangle) onto 4TB drives and sends them off to Africa, Asia, and even American prisons – places where connectivity is sorely lacking. These sneakernets are responsible for a huge amount of educational access, job training and now even content creation. Widernet serves communities that are lagging behind on innovation, entrepreneurship and opportunity simply because access is still an issue for ⅔ of the world (and ¼ of Americans!).

Cliff Missen dropping some knowledge in front of a stack of repurposed Widernet computers.

I won’t go into spoilers too much here, but Cliff has great insight not only into how sneakernet access can change lives, but also into how lack of competition at home and abroad subverts the user experience online and increases prices for everyone.

All that is just a fraction of the info neatly packed into our short documentary. We hope that you will give it a watch and spread the word!

Find out more about Silicon Prairie:

Reddit
Reddit “ask me anything” AMA – March 20 from 1 pm – 7 pm EST with Nadeem, Alexis and Erik of Reddit, as well as
 
Ben Vu – SkyVu, Cliff Missen – WiderNet, Nick Patten – WiderNet, Katie Miller and Garnet Griebel – Scarlett Garnett, Jordan Lampe  Dwolla (and tbd Ben Milne), David Stillman – SparkFun, Michael Petricone – CEA, John Wirtz – Hudl, Cecchi MacNaughton Nimblebot/SiliconPrairie Programmer
 
Download the Film
Pay What You Want online release via Gumroad – at www.siliconprairiefilm.com 
In addition to a digital download of the film, contributors get director commentary with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian + Reddit General Manager Erik Martin + Silicon Prairie Director Nadeem Mazen as well as 5 extra short videos featuring internet luminaries from: Dwolla.com, Skyvu Games, Widernet Project, Sparkfun Electronics, Kansas City Startup Village (the first with Google Fiber!)
 
CNN coverage
Here is some great and lengthy coverage the film got from CNN on Saturday as part of its SXSW wrap up, at the 9:45 minute mark:
 
Local Screenings
Local screenings are popping up – St. Louis on the 27th, at Big KC on the 28th, at the Dwolla offices March 20, 
ninette