For much of his life, Ben Lerer was a “terrible underachiever.”
As a youth tennis player, he beat some of the best young players in the northeast United States. But against less-formidable opponents, Lerer choked and lost.
So he stopped playing. “I was a quitter,” Lerer said Thursday in Omaha as one of the speakers at the sold-out Big Omaha conference on innovation and entrepreneurship, which runs through Friday.
Continuing his streak of underachievement, Lerer graduated with a B-minus average from the University of Pennsylvania and went to work for hotelier Andre Balazs. But Lerer would have to work his way up as a busboy and barback before getting into management.
That didn't go well, either. Again, he quit.
So Lerer took the things he was good at — picking out clothes, eating good food and working his charm with the ladies — and launched Thrillist Media Group, a city guide-type company geared toward men.
Since then, Thrillist has grown into a multifaceted company that writes reviews and content for men, runs the flash sale e-commerce site JackThreads, and another deal site, Thrillist Rewards.
Lerer encouraged the Big Omaha attendees to follow their passions.
“Everyone thinks about this light at the end of the tunnel, and really it's only about the tunnel,” Lerer said. “If you don't love what you do and if you don't love going to work and if you're not proud of the work you're doing every day, then get the hell out of there.”
Big Omaha drew about 650 people — entrepreneurs, designers, professionals from technology, creative and innovative businesses, young professionals and company executives — from 27 states and three different countries to Kaneko in downtown Omaha. Among the other messages:
Co-founder of Square, a mobile payment system
Part entrepreneur, part glass blower, part textbook author and part computer engineer, McKelvey said the process that led him to Square started when his mother abruptly passed away. At the time, McKelvey said, he was working for IBM, a good company, but in other aspects of his life, including engineering and glass-blowing, he thought of himself as mediocre.
“That really messed me up,” McKelvey said, “because when my mom died, she never got to see me do anything really well.”
So McKelvey quit IBM, stopped glass-blowing, and started a digital publishing company called Mira. McKelvey didn't collect a paycheck from Mira for five years. After 10 years, he left and started a glass-blowing school in his native St. Louis.
The dynamics of the glass-blowing industry changed when a new, smaller version of the traditional glass-blowing furnace was developed. The economics of glass-blowing suddenly changed.
But as McKelvey's glass-blowing skills grew and as he developed more products, including a patented glass water faucet, another barrier emerged: access to the financial system.
At one point, McKelvey was about to sell one of his faucets. The customer wanted to pay with an American Express credit card, but McKelvey couldn't accept it without the requisite hardware. The sale fell through.
McKelvey then had a problem he needed to solve: Why wasn't there a way to accept payments on a smartphone?
So he teamed up with Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter who worked with McKelvey at Mira, to start Square, which allows users to accept payments through their phones.
It was an idea that tackled a problem, McKelvey said, suggesting to attendees: “Go out there and seek problems. Don't look for opportunities.”
Founder of Gumroad, a network that allows people to sell anything they can share.
Lavingia is 19 years old. Nineteen.
In the last two years, Lavingia helped spearhead the design backbone of the uber-popular social sharing network Pinterest and also played a role in the design of turntable.fm, an online platform where people can connect and listen to user-curated streams of music.
Lavingia left Pinterest in August, spent time with turntable.fm, then in October launched Gumroad.If you can post a link to the product or item on Facebook or Twitter, you can sell it on Gumroad, which takes a 5 percent cut of the sale.
Lavingia launched Gumroad in February. Since then, he's raised heaps of money, including a $7 million round of funding.
Three years ago, Cohen's mom was diagnosed with cancer.
At the time, she was working for a large, publicly traded company. That all changed after the diagnosis. The news set Cohen on fire and she eventually launched “F Cancer,” a nonprofit aimed at educating the public about early cancer detection.
“Ninety percent of cancer is curable if caught in stage one,” Cohen said. “So why aren't we teaching people how the hell to detect it?”
The F Cancer movement started with a T-shirt that said, literally, “(Expletive) Cancer.”
Cohen said it's important for younger generations to sit their parents down and have the “cancer talk,” much like the awkward “birds and the bees talk” parents had with them.
Chairman of turntable.fm and venture capitalist
Focusing on lessons he's learned, Goldstein broke his talk into 10 key points, including: address hard situations early and often. When it comes to employees, he said, companies should “hire slow and fire fast.” Nothing drags down “rock-star, A-level employees” faster than not taking care of problem employees, he said.