Kansas City's days as flyover country are over. Tech startups and funders and entrepreneurs have been landing here for a while now, and the latest high-profile business nexus takes place in an airport hangar.
That event is Big Kansas City, the first local iteration in a series coordinated by the Omaha-based news organization Silicon Prairie News. The three-day conference and party kicks off March 26 at the National Airline History Museum, with 16 speakers set on the docket to evangelize to KC's tech and startup community.
"It's about giving a voice and, in many ways, putting these cities in the middle of the country on the map," says Silicon Prairie News co-founder and CEO Dusty Davidson, whose company has put on Big events in Des Moines and Omaha. "We build an online community throughout the year, every day, and these are the couple of times a year when we can bring that community offline, to interact both with each other and also interact with these speakers."
Regan Carrizales, community builder for SPN, says Big Omaha and Big Des Moines (formerly Thinc Iowa) have helped raise the region's reputation in Silicon Valley and beyond, but there's more work to be done.
"On a national level, there's intrigue," she says. "They're definitely interested. They know that something is happening. I think now folks are still learning, but they're also waiting for us to keep producing those really cool companies."
"We bring in people from the coasts," Davidson says. "Really, it's about showcasing to the outside world the great things going on in the region — the great things going on here, the great culture of the region."
Among those taking the stage at Big Kansas City are Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder; Dhani Jones, former Travel Channel host and co-founder of the nonprofit BowTie Cause; and Bo Fishback, the KC-based founder of the social marketplace Zaarly. "They're not just talking heads," Davidson says. "They interact. Most of them are there throughout the whole time, just mingling and meeting with the folks."
Carrizales says social media allows for a lot of networking, but having three or four online conversations going on simultaneously can be distracting. In person, the pace becomes human again. "It's that intentional interaction, and it's those beautiful moments that happen unintentionally that connect people," she says.
There was, for instance, the day that Colorado investor Brad Feld ran into Kansas Citian Ben Barreth at Thinc Iowa, the precursor to Big Des Moines. Barreth is the founder of Homes for Hackers, an organization that offers rent-free startup space with Google Fiber access. He and Feld chatted for just a few minutes, and the Homes for Hackers idea stuck with Feld. In February, he announced that he had bought a house in Kansas City, Kansas, and was taking applications from entrepreneurs wanting to live and work in the house, Homes for Hackers style, rent-free.
"Being in a physical space and place and connecting with people makes you be intentional. It makes you be present," Carrizales says. "And for us, it's all about being present. It's being there, being engaged, connecting with people you normally wouldn't connect with."
Getting the chance to rub elbows and swap Twitter handles with the startup world's heavy hitters isn't cheap. Regular admission to Big Kansas City costs $499. (Startup founders and entrepreneurs get in for $299.) But the presentations stream free online, and videos will be available after the conference. Davidson says the price is dictated by the caliber of the speakers and the potential for networking — and because it's a hell of a party.
"There's an opening party with booze," he says. "There's breakfast and lunch each day. There's a middle party with booze. There's a happy hour with booze." And, of course, there's also a closing party. With booze. And all your new, soon-to-be-successful friends.
Vayable matches sightseers with scenesters.
There's a long tradition among foreign correspondents who file from faraway places. They hire "fixers" — locals who know the cultural topography of a place (its language and traditions) — to help them slip into a city's background, the better to find sources. But you don't have to draw an exotic assignment to use Jamie Wong's Vayable. The site makes it simple for anyone to find — or become — a fixer-style tour guide in cities worldwide.
On Vayable (pronounced viable), a community resident can assemble a hometown tour and post it to the site, along with a price for conducting the tour. Visitors can use the service to find guides who know the clearest view of monuments, the weirdest area museums, the best-kept dining secrets.
Wong says the idea for her company started as a blog she shared with friends, who commented with their own travel experiences and destination-specific tips. "It became very obvious that there was a huge opportunity for a platform here," Wong says. She launched the company in April 2011, and it now has guides in 500 cities and 100 countries. (Vayable takes 15 percent of the tour price and charges its users a fee when they book a tour.)
KC's only Vayable guide so far offers a five-hour tour called "Authentic Kansas City." For $20 a head, it includes stops at Boulevard Brewing and the Roasterie, and at Arthur Bryant's and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Elsewhere, Vayable guides build their tours around themes: "Underground Wine Experience" (San Francisco) or "Midnight Street Food Crawl" (New York City).
In a marketplace where social media's crowdsourced data has overtaken traditional media, it's not surprising that travelers are ditching Frommer's for something more personal.
"I think there's something really magical and transcendent that takes place when people connect with other locals on the ground and are able to peek into a world and learn about how people live, rather than being a tourist on the fringe," Wong says.
Travel itself isn't the thrill anymore, she adds. Visitors to a new place want inside information.
"A generation or two ago, if you had the luxury to travel, you'd go somewhere," Wong explains. "And by pure virtue of it being a different city, it was so different from anything you knew. Now, to really access the parts that are different and beyond the Starbucks and McDonald's and the airport terminals that all look the same, it does require an extra step, going in deeper. Technology is what's going to fuel that and make it accessible and safe and easy."
If paying to meet up with strangers who want to show you dark corners of a strange city sends up a red flag, Wong is already ahead of you. She says Vayable vets its guides and requires video interviews.
Besides, meeting new people is part of the point. "Anyone who does travel expects to meet strangers," Wong says. "That's why they're traveling. Otherwise, they'd be locked up in a hotel room."
Dan Martell's Clarity is having a Big moment.
Clarity founder Dan Martell says he owes his business to a failure.
As a young entrepreneur in New Brunswick, Canada, he started a Web-hosting company and a vacation-rental website. Both went under. His third attempt at a startup was a Web-consulting firm called Spheric Technologies, and it, too, struggled. But just as Martell was on the brink of bankruptcy, a local politician set up meetings for him with three people who were running successful businesses.
"Those three people changed my life," he says. The insights he gained from those contacts led him to turn Spheric into a major success. He sold it in 2008, making enough money to allow a move to San Francisco and a career starting companies. The serial entrepreneur was 28 and on his way to, well, Clarity.
"I always joke that I started Clarity for the 18-year-old version of me that had nobody in the tech space as a friend," Martell says. He calls his latest venture, launched in January 2012, an "eBay for advice." Experts in various fields create online profiles and set a price for a consultation. Among the nearly 11,000 experts selling their knowledge on the website are industry titans (including Mark Cuban, an investor in the company), tech-sector old-timers and best-selling authors.
Clarity has facilitated 13,000 customer calls to date, Martell says. User profiles are ranked on many factors, including customer reviews and how much the experts do to promote themselves on the site. The experts, in turn, grade their advice seekers. The big no-nos: bailing on a scheduled call and making a bait-and-switch appointment to look for investment capital. "Don't pitch me, bro" is one of Clarity's mottos, Martell jokes. "You can't be a dick on Clarity."
Martell thought the company would be useful for young startup owners seeking sage guidance from their business elders — people like his imaginary 18-year-old self. But Clarity's demographics skew older. "Established people are actually a bigger use case than first-time entrepreneurs," he says. "The reason why is because first-time entrepreneurs are really intimidated or don't know they should be doing this."
A Big Omaha veteran, Martell says one point he'll make at Big KC is that nobody goes straight to the top in business. Failure is an important part of an entrepreneur's career, he says. "Every one of my lessons will be based on a failed story."
Sphero rolls mobile gaming into the real world.
Sphero, the cueball-looking robot that Adam Wilson invented, looks at first glance like something designed to startle a cat. The app-controlled ball (you pilot it with a smartphone or a tablet) does more than just wig out your pets, though.
Wilson's design brings the touch-screen-gaming plane into the physical realm. Among the 20 apps developed for Sphero so far is Sharky the Beaver, in which the user manipulates a character on the screen and Sphero rolls round in sync. In others, such as a drawing game called Etch-O-Matic, Sphero is the controller and guides what happens on the screen.
Wilson and co-founder Ian Bernstein came up with the idea for Sphero while working on other small, phone-controlled robots. Most of the robots they built were too difficult to create an app for, Wilson says. He then suggested a robot that looked like a marble.
"And Ian said, 'Let's just make a robot ball,' " Wilson says.
The Boulder, Colorado, company launched in 2010, and the robots are now sold at Target, the Apple Store and specialty electronic stores. This year, they plan to go international.
Anyone can write apps for Sphero. (The company doesn't take a cut of the profit.) Wilson sounds surprised and giddy about what developers are doing with his robot.
"It's very humbling," he says. "It's very exciting. But it's also very satisfying. Kind of like the plan is working. You build it, and they get excited."
A favorite third-party app at the Sphero office is a hot-potato game, called Pass the Sphero, Wilson says.
"We've turned that into a more violent game around the table," he jokes.
Our favorite uses of Sphero so far:
• Tipsy isn't available just yet, but nothing that holds so much promise can stay shelved for long. It's simple: a Sphero drinking game. Put the robot on a table, add your friends and some booze, then start playing. The loser of a series of mini games has to drink. In this case, it's probably good that Sphero runs only about an hour on one charge.
• YouTube has some pretty amusing videos of Sphero running complex racetracks and obstacle courses. And the footage demonstrates just how tough these little robots are. (In one promotional video, a man stands on one but doesn't break it.) This isn't a toy that requires you to be very gentle with it.
• Are you shocked that there's a SpheroCam? This app allows you to control the ball and snap pictures or video using an iPad or iPhone camera — finally, a way to capture every perfect moment of kitty confusion or puppy outrage and share each one with the world.