Creating a Startup Business In Nebraska

June 20, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

A close look at Pawlytics logo and information. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

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Efforts are underway in Nebraska to help small businesses in the beginning stages of growth. A recent conference attempted to bring Nebraska startups and investors together.

Walking into the Graduate Hotel in downtown Lincoln, there are people everywhere. In one corner, a man is pitching his product to an investor and a few feet away, two venture capitalists share stories over a drink. Next to all the noise, Lizz Whitacre talks about a new system she created.

"It’s called Pawlytics, a data management system for animal shelters and animal rescues to use so they can be more efficient and save more lives," Whitacre said.

Lizz Whitacre (left) and Justin Collier (right) get ready for the I/O Summit. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

Whitacre’s printed Pawlytics handouts have a great looking logo and interesting name, but Whitacre knows it all means nothing if her product isn’t good. Whitacre is from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. She attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and graduated in May with a major in management.

Whitacre and business partner, Justin Collier, have put several years of research and work into this project. But the project started out far different. It started as “Cat Café,” a place cat lovers could visit with their fury friends over a cup of coffee. That idea fizzled out.

Next, Whitacre took her time focusing on research and building a solid plan. She started the “Family Pet Project” which helped pet owners by rehoming their pets in a safe way online. But then Whitacre went directly to the source, people who worked at pet shelters.

"We started talking to a lot more rescues and organizations and we started to figure out how we were going to bring it to market and get them really excited," Whitacre said. "It seemed to be that the really big key piece missing was that good user experience, for when they were inside of an app they were using."

If a shelter has thousands of animals coming through their facilities every year, Whitacre says Pawlytics lets users streamline the process of bookkeeping, while accessing their inventory on a smart phone from anywhere. She says that will save animals' lives. Working with many animal clinics, she found most are still keeping inventory on paper.

The dashboard interface of the Pawlytics program. (Courtesy of Lizz Whitacre)

"So our goal is to save them time, maximize their efficiency, so they can just do what they love to do and that is save the animals," Whitacre said.

Whitacre even won the New Venture Competition at UNL this year, along with $25,000. Now at the Inside/Outside Summit, in Lincoln, competing against experienced entrepreneurs -- she’ll soon take part in a pitch competition with the grand prize of $120,000 going to the winner.

Brian Ardinger created the I/O Summit, now in its second year. He ran NMotion, a startup accelerator which helps early stage businesses, before moving to this project. Ardinger had the idea to create a summit where investors would be able to connect with people running startups in Nebraska.

"So how do we create those collisions and create an opportunity for early stage companies to get traction?," Ardinger said.

Making connections and getting your name and brand out there to potential investors is important. He says there wasn’t really a place for it, but now there is.

"Specifically designed to bring corporate startups together -- the ties and the T-shirts, the tucked and the untucked – to see what happens when those two worlds collide and learn from each," Ardinger said.

Another look at the Taskboard on the Pawlytics program. (Courtesy Lizz Whitacre)

Sam Nelson is director for the Center of Entrepreneurship at UNL. He has 12 students at the Summit this year, some helping organize the event, some volunteering and some, like Lizz Whitacre, competing in the event. He says it’s a great way for his students to get exposed to a variety of support providers early in the startup process. Whitacre has been putting in the work over the past few years to get to this moment.

"I watched her on Sunday, we practiced one more time," Nelson said. It was just one of the more rewarding points in my professional career -- not that I could take credit for any of it -- but just to see someone stick with it."

Nelson says very few graduates are ready to start a business right out of college. Whitacre is the exception to the rule.

"She's a prime example of, if you are willing to engage in the process and listen to the feedback that people give you, there’s really a good chance you'll land on something where there is truly an opportunity," Nelson said.

Whitacre says her time researching and building her product helped her get here. Whether it was the direction from Nelson at UNL, or mentors giving her feedback, she says it all helped. She spoke at length about her experiences at UNL with Nelson and others on the team.

"There's such opportunity with the talent that comes out of UNL as well," Whitacre said. "To be so close to where students are graduating and to be able to talk to the professors and talk to the school and capture that talent early on. You can't get that just anywhere."

Whitacre says she’s come to find one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to starting your own business. She knows researching your market and finding where you fit, is just as important as having a good idea. Whitacre says she and Pawlytics plan to stay in Nebraska.

At the I/O Summit at the Graduate Hotel in Lincoln, startups ready for the opening of the session. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

"I love Nebraska because I love the startup atmosphere here," Whitacre said. "I love all the different entrepreneurial centers that I can go to for help and people are so welcoming and so willing to sit down and talk with you all the time."

Whitacre says there are plenty of other reasons to love Nebraska too.

"The cost of living here is almost nothing and so if you've got to start a business and you've got to get on that Ramen and pizza diet you can do that here and you can live in a comfortable size apartment or house," Whitacre said. "Which also gives me plenty of room for all my animals."

In the lobby at the Graduate Hotel, Whitacre waits patiently to practice her business pitch again before the big presentation the next day.

"I'm so excited and so nervous. I’ve been practicing all day every day for the last two weeks," Whitacre said.

Whitacre didn’t win the competition. That grand prize went to a Wichita-based company. But Whitacre knows that failure is just the first step to a great idea. She says she’s already onto the next steps of making Pawlytics a success.