Behind the scenes: startup life in Nebraska

Nebraska’s startup business culture has more to offer than ping pong tables and beer fridges. 

The pay is generally less than you might expect working for a more established company. But working for a startup comes with the potential of shared ownership, literally in the form of an equity stake. More broadly, startup employees have the ability to impact all parts of a new  business.

“Startups are a launching pad for your career,” said Justin Krug, senior business development representative at Workshop, an Omaha-based startup building internal communications tools for  businesses. “You wear so many different hats, you take on so much more responsibility than someone might at a 1,000+ size organization.” 

Nebraskans may view startup companies as things that are born and grow in faraway Silicon Valley – as big-city coastal investors funding tech ideas that have little relevance in most of our lives, at least until we log onto social media or hail an Uber.

But the Nebraskans interviewed for this story, who have all actually worked for Nebraska-based startups, can testify that it can and does happen here. In interviews, they sought to demystify the experience of working for a startup. And they discussed the good, the bad and the ugly of being employed by one.

For starters: If you want to make a big impact, get hired at a startup, says Krug.

Krug was hire No. 10 at Workshop. He says the first 10 employees at a startup can have as much a say in the company’s future as an executive can at a larger company. In fact, Krug sat next to the Workshop CEO during his first year on the job, just after graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

“You’re much closer to everything, to every other department, to the customer,” said startup adviser Corey Spitzer.

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Like a fast pace? Startups run quicker and can provide immediate gratification for an employee, said Spitzer, who has worked for both startups and 10,000-employee companies. At giant companies “there’s a lot more black holes that your work goes into,” he said. 

You can also quickly get your fingers in many pies. Amanda Martinez works remotely from Omaha as the software engineering director for Fable, a New York City startup. But she’s also worked with the company’s marketing and community building operations, too. Those varied experiences, she said, offer a better understanding of the whole company, which allows her to make smarter decisions in her role. “I’ve been able to … contribute to all of these things that if I was just an engineering manager at a bigger company, would be completely out of my reach,” she said.

Being closer to the “why” is something Nicole Wheeler appreciated during her five-year tenure at Hudl’s Omaha office. Hudl, headquartered in Lincoln, is well-known for technology that allows high school and college football teams and teams in dozens of other sports to quickly and easily analyze game film and other data. Because Hudl was so new, its history was new – the founding vision had only recently been envisioned.

Wheeler contrasted that to working for her current company McGraw Hill, which is more than a century old. “One of the benefits of Hudl being so new was there was still a lot of history that was there that you could learn from.”

There’s also a level of autonomy that often comes when you work at a startup. At Hudl, Wheeler said she was in charge of deciding how to spend her day. Compared to a larger company where tasks tend to be delegated, Wheeler said “this was more like using my knowledge – what do I think is important and what is the most important thing to get done today?”

Wheeler added, “Which is good and bad, right? Because if you’re in the right mindset for that, that’s great. But if you are confused or feeling directionless, then you need to be proactive enough to go out and have those conversations to be able to get your work done.”

A smaller team and less bureaucracy allows for a more nimble approach to working, Spitzer said. “It’s much easier to turn the ship … Like if everybody agrees that we should be doing this slightly differently, we’ll change it today.”

There are also startup culture perks. Krug recently attended a company retreat with the entire Workshop team in Las Vegas. Beyond making an impact and the ability to influence the direction of the company, Krug said working for a startup “is the most fun I’ve ever had working professionally.”

Every startup employee interviewed also made clear that there are various challenges that come with working at a startup.

One example: Ambiguity. Krug said on his first day he was handed a laptop and told to “go figure it out.”

“That was my new hire onboarding,” he said. Krug noted that the company has doubled since then and “now we have a more full fledged onboarding process.”

Managing work-life balance is another common struggle in startup environments, Martinez said. She said working 50 or 60 hour weeks was common at some startups she worked at.

Krug recently found himself responding to a text from a potential customer while he was at the movie theater. “I didn’t have to do that,” Krug said. “But, you know, it’s one of those things that I felt obligated to do.”

Beyond navigating ambiguity and work-life balance, there can be other issues related to employee well-being, Wheeler said. “One of the biggest problems I had was chronic migraines that have gotten worse as I’ve gotten older,” she said. Fluorescent lighting, poor ergonomics and too much time staring at a computer are all triggers for her.

Wheeler said she didn’t know who to talk to about getting help because the human resources team was small and she worried she was being “a pain”.

Sometimes the startup you work for gets acquired and you suddenly find yourself working for a different, larger company. That’s what happened to Martinez when Omaha startup Flywheel was acquired by Austin-based WP Engine, which manages websites hosted on WordPress. She said the company culture slowly started to change.

At Flywheel, Martinez was able to use her company credit card at her own discretion. At WP Engine, she says it took her “three weeks and a Zoom meeting” to buy some software for her engineering team. 

“I could have had this done three weeks ago, but you’re having me contact 12 different people,” she said. “This is not the life that I want to live.”

“I just want to be trusted to make the right decision for my team when they need it and move on,” Martinez said. “And I didn’t feel like I could do that anymore.”

Krug thinks, despite the potential drawbacks, that everyone should work at a startup for a year. It’s a great option to quickly gain skills that transfer across industries, he said, “a mini MBA of how to run a successful company.”

Martinez and Wheeler both mentioned diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as an area where Nebraska startups need to improve.

Wheeler said that with so many competing priorities, DEI tended to get put on the back burner. She said she struggled at times to find groups of like-minded people or even people with children the same age as hers while working for a startup. “I felt like I was one of the older employees,” she said. “Some of those culture fit things were a little harder.”

When Wheeler started her current job at McGraw Hill, she quickly noticed that her co-workers had kids the same age as hers. “It was just nice to be able to talk about your life with your coworkers and have them understand.”

After leaving WP Engine, Martinez said she decided against working for another Nebraska-based startup and instead looked for a remote role. She said she didn’t feel that the local market “valued what I bring to the table.”

“Omaha companies vastly underpay compared to coastal companies,” Martinez said. “Money, opportunities, and also DEI” were the biggest contributing factors to her decision, she said. Martinez said she also wanted to continue working from home and worried that an Omaha-based company would eventually require her to come back to work in an office at some point. “I needed that flexibility,” she said.

Benefits are another consideration when deciding whether or not to work for a Nebraska startup, Wheeler said. If cheap health insurance or tuition reimbursement are important to you, then startups might not be the best option, she said.

“I would just say, really ask yourself why you want to make this jump and talk to as many people there as you can and get that point of view or get that temperature from people before you make that jump,” Wheeler advised.

Krug said while he loves the “sink or swim” nature of working for a startup, he realizes it’s not for everyone.

“If you’re looking for a J-O-B, job, at a company where you can just hide, you’re not gonna be able to hide at a startup,” Spitzer said. 

“If you’re looking to do something with purpose, and that has impact, and to wear several different hats and not have your work go into a black hole, then startups might be good for you,” Spitzer said. “Yes, it’ll be more stressful, more intense. There’s more pressure. But for me, it’s totally worth it.”

Silicon Prairie News shares event highlights, founder profiles and feature stories digging into all things related to Nebraska startups and small businesses.

By Stefanie Monge

Stefanie Monge is the editor of Silicon Prairie News. She is a seasoned startup strategist, community builder and journalist with a passion for entrepreneurship and experience as a founder herself. Stefanie has spent the last 15 years working with startups around the world. She was the first-ever entrepreneurship reporter at the Omaha World-Herald where she wrote about startups and small business in the late 2000s. Since her time at the Omaha World-Herald, Stefanie has spent 12 years promoting equity and access in STEM fields, has 10 years of experience producing corporate wellness and team-building events, and has served as a startup advisor and board member for six years. Stefanie is an avid traveler, having backpacked around the world for 2 years as a digital nomad. She is the founder and executive producer of international leadership development retreats and conferences, including GETconf (Gender Equity in Tech Conference), Think Start Do Women’s Entrepreneurship Series, and Welcor Retreats.



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