Episode 24 | Entrepreneurial Opportunity-Building for Rural Nebraskans

Apr. 26, 2018

Show Notes:

In this episode, we’re joined by Bill Udell of Don’t Panic Labs, a software engineering and corporate innovation company based in Nebraska that focuses on solving problems — accelerating businesses and working through challenges.

Bill makes a call for rural community problem-solvers throughout Nebraska to bring forward their ideas, and he shares the company’s mission to truly make an impact for the entire state.

Quick Links:

Full Transcript:

[0:13] Welcome to the Rural Futures Institute [0:16] at the University of Nebraska. [0:18] I’m Chuck Schroeder, I’m executive director of the institute [0:20] and this is Catch Up With Chuck. [0:23] You’re in for a treat today. [0:24] I’m gonna introduce you to [0:27] a really interesting fellow that is a myth buster. [0:32] Bill Udell is a rural Nebraska kid [0:36] who is absolutely shattering the myth [0:38] that young people from Nebraska [0:40] have to go to the Research Triangle in North Carolina, [0:44] or Silicon Valley in California [0:46] to be a part of the tech revolution. [0:50] Bill, welcome. [0:51] I appreciate you inviting me. [0:52] I appreciate you calling me a kid. [0:54] (Chuck laughs) [0:56] I’m not sure that my children would agree. [0:58] Well, we’re all kids here. Okay. [1:01] You’re one of the freshest thinkers that I know. [1:03] So listen then, I wanna set the stage right from the start. [1:06] You’ve been a key player in building a successful, [1:10] very interesting enterprise here in Lincoln [1:13] called Don’t Panic Labs, where you have been part of [1:17] software development, corporate innovation, but also [1:20] colliding tech innovation with business principles [1:25] and launching a number of now successful [1:28] tech-based companies that are all about problem-solving. [1:31] So Don’t Panic Labs has really emerged [1:34] as a great Nebraska success story, [1:38] and I wanna hear your side of how this all happened, [1:42] because it’s a pretty fun story.

[1:44] Yeah, well, you know, it kind of starts [1:46] about eight years ago. [1:49] Nebraska ranked 52nd out of 50 states, [1:52] which is hard to believe that it was actually behind [1:53] Puerto Rico and D.C. in venture capital. [1:57] There just wasn’t any money out there [1:59] to create new software-based start-up companies. [2:02] And there also weren’t any software engineers [2:04] that really had expertise at taking things from [2:08] kind of vision to version one. [2:12] So we kinda set out to solve that problem. [2:14] We raised a fund, a $30 million venture capital fund [2:17] called Nebraska Global, and then [2:19] started training software developers to [2:24] take things that are an idea [2:26] and move them into software. [2:28] And we had some real great success with that, [2:31] and we’re really proud of the companies we’ve created. [2:33] Companies like, you know, [2:34] things that aren’t household names but we’re proud of. [2:36] Beehive, they do asset management, municipalities. [2:42] And Elite Form, they use three-dimensional [2:45] depth-sensing cameras to track weight-lifting bars [2:48] in three-dimensional space, [2:50] which sounds like a lot of big words and jargon, [2:52] but what it really does is it allows trainers [2:55] in weight rooms like the University of Nebraska [2:57] to track the performance of their athletes. [3:00] So they can actually watch the bar [3:02] and see just how much velocity [3:04] an athlete is using when they’re lifting the bar. [3:06] And that technology is now in most Division 1 universities [3:08] and professional football and soccer and rugby. [3:12] US Navy Seals use it, so it’s now a product [3:15] and a company that is infiltrated internationally. [3:18] So we’re proud of the things we’ve created there. [3:21] Well, you’ve covered such a broad array of problems [3:25] that you and your team have been willing [3:28] to jump in and try to solve.

[3:29] Well, listen, one of the reasons [3:31] that we wanted to have Bill Udell [3:33] on Catch Up With Chuck is because [3:36] you’re a rural success story yourself. [3:38] Oh, geez. Now Burwell, Nebraska [3:40] is rural by anyone’s standards, I’d have to say. [3:44] So listen, it’s always interesting to our audience [3:47] to kinda know where people come from. [3:49] Their upbringing, what caused them [3:53] to have the kind of vision and energy that they’re investing [3:57] in creating a better future. [3:59] So I want you to tell the Bill Udell story. [4:02] Well, that’s a long story. [4:03] It all started– no. (both laugh)

[4:05] So you’re right, I was born in Burwell, Nebraska, [4:08] but, you know, my story and who I am [4:10] kinda starts a couple generations ago. [4:13] My grandfather was an entrepreneur. [4:16] He actually started a business in Holdrege first [4:18] before starting Udell Feed & Supply in Burwell. [4:22] My dad was then also an entrepreneur [4:24] and small business owner. [4:26] He kept running my grandpa’s feed store, [4:29] Udell Feed & Supply, you know, [4:32] and that really shaped my world view, [4:36] having them be entrepreneurs. [4:38] And then my dad took it a step further [4:40] and became incredibly active [4:44] in community-building around Burwell. [4:48] To his last day, he was one of the biggest advocates [4:52] for the city of Burwell. [4:54] Anybody that would ask him would hear [4:55] a glowing story about why they should uproot [4:58] and move to Burwell, vacation in Burwell, live in Burwell. [5:02] It’s the key to every thriving rural community we know. [5:05] Yeah, so, you know, kinda having that as my root, [5:08] that civic pride, that’s never really left me. [5:12] So I’ve kinda carried that with me, [5:13] I’ve carried it into Lincoln, everything that I’ve done with [5:16] Nebraska Global, Don’t Panic Labs [5:17] has also had a sense of civic pride, Nebraska pride. [5:21] You know, that’s fed into the desire to have [5:23] Nebraska Global be more than just building companies. [5:25] It’s about building Nebraska. [5:28] We wanna make us competitive on a national stage. [5:32] And I think that comes from [5:35] my grandparents, my parents, and now it’s in me. [5:39] It is, it’s the legacy. Yep. [5:40] It’s the legacy.

[5:42] Well, listen, when you and I met, you’d heard something [5:45] about the mission of the Rural Futures Institute. [5:47] I had heard a bit about the success of Don’t Panic Labs. [5:50] Our mutual friend, Rich Claussen, with Prosper Lincoln, [5:53] who’s one of the great connectors, I think, [5:56] in our culture, said you guys oughta get together. [5:59] And I’m so grateful that he did. [6:02] But listen, I wanna get to the heart of your vision [6:05] for taking the success that you’ve had [6:08] with Don’t Panic Labs and Nebraska Global. [6:13] The first conversation you and I had was about your vision [6:16] for taking that success model [6:17] and taking it to rural communities. [6:21] Not shoving them behind as though they don’t matter [6:23] but this mission that you’ve just described. [6:26] I want you to talk a little bit more about that vision, [6:29] Bill, and what you think could happen.

[6:31] Yeah, you know, it’s a complex vision, [6:34] but it’s something that we think [6:36] we can see some success that we’ve had in Lincoln [6:39] repeated in Greater Nebraska. [6:43] You know, there are a lot of folks [6:45] who have really great intentions [6:46] and they wanna come back into rural communities [6:47] and try to help. [6:49] What we think we’ve figured out, though, [6:51] is a mechanism where we can find, [6:55] you know, those handful of entrepreneurs. [6:57] And by the way, those entrepreneurs are not [6:59] the typical entrepreneurs you might think of. [7:01] We look at people that are raising cattle, farmers, [7:05] you know, people that are running businesses in small towns. [7:07] They’re entrepreneurs, and they need to start thinking [7:09] about themselves that way. [7:10] And we see an opportunity where [7:12] we can come in and use our expertise [7:14] in creating product, creating start-up companies, [7:17] to take an idea, get it off the ground, [7:20] but one of the secret sources we’ve figured out [7:23] as part of Nebraska Global, Don’t Panic Labs, [7:25] is also this training aspect. [7:28] Typically when we partner with a company, [7:30] with the things that we’ve done in Lincoln and Omaha, [7:33] we also offer education. [7:36] So people can actually learn how to become [7:38] the software engineer who can support the software ongoing. [7:44] And that is a key differentiator, [7:45] and we believe it’s gonna be a key differentiator [7:47] that can help us grow Greater Nebraska. [7:50] So we see it as an opportunity [7:51] where we can find those entrepreneurs, [7:55] help them grow a company, help them train resources, [7:59] and actually create businesses that are viable [8:02] in Greater Nebraska, that can then thrive and grow [8:05] and continue to build upon themselves. [8:09] And I think that’s a bit unique, [8:11] it’s a bit complicated, but I think in every town, [8:15] you know, every town’s got two or three [8:18] or maybe more people who are [8:20] just ripe and ready for this. Creative problem-solvers, [8:22] and don’t quite know how to [8:25] turn that into something. Yes, yes. [8:27] And you do. [8:28] And we believe that we’ve figured out in, you know, [8:32] certain scenarios exactly how to take those things [8:35] and turn them and create viable businesses.

[8:39] Listen, we had an interesting discussion [8:41] earlier this week. [8:42] You and I had a chance to get together [8:44] for a cup of coffee and connect some key colleagues. [8:49] Doug Durham with Nebraska Global and Don’t Panic, [8:52] one of the more interesting guys I’ve met for a while. [8:55] We called in my buddy Dr. Tom Field [8:58] who’s the director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, which we’ve discussed often [9:03] here on this program. [9:05] And we talked about a number of collaborative opportunities. [9:08] But I’m gonna tell you, I was especially touched [9:12] when you and Doug talked about [9:14] the importance of intersecting, [9:17] colliding I think is actually the word you talked about, [9:20] high-tech sciences with the humanities [9:23] in building a successful enterprise. [9:26] For those of us at the Rural Futures Institute, [9:29] our big, very audacious goal is a thriving, high-touch, [9:34] high-tech future for rural. [9:37] And so I thought, “Man, you’re talking our language here.” [9:42] And so I want you to talk a little bit [9:44] about how you at Don’t Panic Labs [9:47] see that intersection and why it’s important.

[9:49] Oh, geez, I don’t know where to start with that one. [9:51] I mean, the greatest successes that we’ve seen over time [9:55] have come when someone with no particular technical skill [10:01] bumps into somebody from our world [10:04] who has some technical skill, [10:06] and we see this pollination of ideas. [10:09] We call it collisions. [10:11] We love to see the collisions [10:12] between the non-technical and the technical. [10:16] And to back up just a hair, we’re tending to create [10:20] people who are very siloed. [10:22] Very siloed in how they think about the world [10:24] and how they see the world. [10:25] You know, you go to school and you specialize [10:27] very tightly around computer science, [10:29] or, you know, software development. [10:31] Sometimes learning more and more about less and less. [10:33] Yeah, so you become very deeply knowledgeable, [10:37] you know, about a specific subject. [10:39] And that’s great, because it enables us [10:42] to do some really cool things [10:44] with all those different areas. [10:46] What it does, though, is it also prevents [10:49] a little bit of the “aha” moment from happening. [10:52] So what we like to see happen [10:54] is the collision between people [10:55] who have very different skill sets [10:57] and can bring together these “aha” moments [10:59] of, “Wait, you can do that with software, [11:03] “and I have this idea around how to monitor cattle [11:08] “to see if they have a bacterial infection.” [11:13] So when those two people collide we see new product, [11:17] and then we know how to put some energy behind that [11:19] to actually create new business [11:21] out of that new product, and that’s tremendously exciting.

[11:24] Well, I have to tell you, in that conversation [11:27] I think Tom and I both walked away saying, [11:30] “Here are some really capable tech guys, [11:33] “that, by the way, are just fun to be around.” [11:34] Oh, geez. I appreciate that. (Chuck laughs) [11:36] So I know that Doug had said that, you know, [11:40] one of your priorities is attracting people to your firm, [11:45] that yeah, you’re always needing engineers [11:47] but by the way, you’re really interested [11:49] in finding those folks with the people skills, [11:52] the humanities foundation that helps [11:55] make this universe of talents really work. [12:00] So I think that’s very exciting, and it’s one of the reasons [12:03] that I wanted to get together with you.

[12:04] Well, listen, Bill, we’re gonna run out time [12:07] in a little bit, but it’s just been such a treat [12:09] over the last couple of months [12:10] to get to know you, to get to know your company, [12:14] and I have to tell you, I so hope [12:16] that the Rural Futures Institute and Don’t Panic Labs [12:19] have the opportunity to join hands [12:22] around some of these things, [12:23] because you’re difference-makers, and I think you just bring [12:27] a very different energy to the notion [12:29] of what a successful rural community might look like. [12:36] We say around here all the time, it’s a no fairy tales deal. [12:38] There has to be genuine economic opportunity [12:41] generated in a community to make it work, [12:43] and then the whole entrepreneurial environment [12:47] touches all kinds of things, from healthcare to education [12:50] to entertainment, humanities, and all that sort of thing. [12:53] Yes. So anyway, [12:54] we’re delighted to be acquainted. [12:56] Anything you’d like to add this morning?

[12:57] I feel the exact same way. [12:59] I think there’s a real opportunity for, you know, [13:01] a relationship with the Rural Futures Institute [13:03] to lead to some really interesting [13:08] creative endeavors for sure. [13:10] Really excited for the potential of that. [13:14] You know, for the audiences out there, [13:19] if you’re an entrepreneur, we would love to hear from you, [13:23] and if you don’t think you’re an entrepreneur [13:24] but you’ve got an idea, we’d love to hear from you. [13:27] We genuinely want to start to get out [13:30] into Greater Nebraska and start making a difference, [13:33] and so if you have any ideas of how to do that, [13:37] we’re all ears.

[13:39] If you’ve ever had a more important message [13:41] from Catch Up With Chuck, I don’t know what it would be, [13:43] than hearing from Bill Udell and his team, [13:46] that kind of invitation. [13:48] Bill, this has been a real treat. [13:50] Thank you for joining us. Yep. [13:52] And, folks, I just encourage you [13:53] to stay in touch with the Rural Futures Institute [13:57] through our website, through Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, [14:02] LinkedIn, and all of those tools that are so important. [14:06] ‘Cause we’re gonna be back in another week [14:08] talking with real people about real places [14:11] demonstrating that thriving rural communities [14:14] are a legitimate best choice for worthwhile living. [14:16] Thanks for joining us.


Previous Episode

Next Episode

Episode 25 | Attracting the Rural Creative Class