The Challenges and Rewards of Growing a Company in Omaha

Chris Campbell

June 4, 2013 · 5 minutes read

Uncategorized

Real-time online auction marketplace Proxibid is not a new company, but it has certainly stayed fresh since being founded in 2001 by four Omaha-based entrepreneurs. That’s because technological innovation has remained a key priority for the company. “We believe strongly that we can never stop innovating,” says Proxibid CEO and President Ryan Downs. “So we invest a significant portion of our budget in new features and capabilities.”

Considered one of the fastest-rising tech companies in the Midwest today, Proxibid was established originally as a tech and marketing company for auctioneers. “The concept was born from a previous experience some members had in another company that provided live online bidding for European art auctions,” says Downs, the former senior vice president of worldwide operations for PayPal. “When that company became a victim of the dot-com bust in 2000, they came back home with the idea that they could do the same thing—only better—right here in the States.”

One can definitely say that Proxibid is doing something better. Since its founding, it has generated more than $2 billion in inventory across a range of product categories that include: fine art, antiques, collectibles, heavy equipment, commercial and industrial equipment, and real estate. Proxibid has also worked with over 3,000 companies to bring more than 16 million items for sale online, with buyers from 180 countries.

Recently, Proxibid introduced a bank-quality risk management system, a completely new buying platform, two new data centers, and two new selling methods: ‘instant purchase’ and ‘make offer.’ Which is to say that, in a market space that’s becoming increasingly crowded, this proudly Omahan company has not been reluctant to innovate and evolve in order to remain one step ahead of the competition. “We’ve evolved,” Downs says, “and now our vision is to be the only choice when buying and selling high-value, specialized assets.”

In an interview with Technori, Downs talked about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Omaha, his own personal experiences as an entrepreneur, and the future of Proxibid.

On what it’s like to grow a company in Omaha:

Downs: Overall, the entrepreneurial ecosystem here is relatively healthy and has improved dramatically over the last five years. Our mentorship, community support, and infrastructure are all solid.

However, our biggest challenge might be talent—not the quality, but the quantity. We simply do not have enough entrepreneurs and technical people, especially web developers. While the local universities are trying to respond to these needs, we have a long way to go. I think we need to get young kids involved in technology and entrepreneurship at a young age and probably attract some people from outside the community to help fill these gaps. I actually love the idea of selling what we can offer to entrepreneurs in other parts of the country, and to convince them to relocate startups to Omaha.

In the end, the best thing we have as a community would be a long list of success stories. That is what creates momentum and convinces young kids or folks outside the community that they can do it, too.

On the unique qualities that distinguish the Omaha entrepreneurial community:

Downs: We are fortunate to have an abundance of experienced people who will help entrepreneurs. Over the years, I have contacted numerous people I didn’t previously know and asked to spend some time with them. In nearly every case, they have been more than willing to invest some time, share their network, and provide advice. Today, I try to do the same thing when someone contacts me. I also try to participate in chamber activities and events, such as the Big Omaha and Big Kansas City conferences, to show my support for the startup community in Omaha. What is special about our community is that this willingness to help is the norm.

On the worst job he’s ever had—and what he learned from it:

Downs: The worst job was probably farming. (Downs started his own cattle business when he was eight years old.) As a kid, our farm was faced with some difficult financial challenges. We had to cut back on employees and a lot of the work fell on the family members. We put in long hours doing difficult, physical work with outdated equipment.

It was tough. But it taught me many things. First, I learned I didn’t want to farm for a living. Second, I learned how to work hard. Over the years, I have occasionally heard people complain about long hours or how difficult their jobs were. I always thought, “I’m at a desk working on a computer in an air-conditioned building. This is easy.” The third lesson is that you can overcome any challenge if you put your mind to it. That is what happened with our farm—we made it through, and all that land is still with our family today.

On what a typical day at the Proxibid office looks like:

Downs: The great thing about Proxibid is that no two days are the same! With thousands of sellers and nearly a million bidders selling every type of asset you can imagine, we encounter different challenges and opportunities every day. Our office has a great deal of energy, and you can feel it when you come in the building. We work in a very open environment with no offices. Folks are working together out in the open, solving problems, testing new ideas, responding to development in the business.

We also run thousands of auctions out of the Omaha headquarters, so you can usually hear our logistics agents calling bids for a live auction webcast. People watch the large sales on monitors around the building or their own computer monitors, and it is not uncommon to hear folks cheering as bids go up and online sales increase. Suffice it to say, Proxibid is a lively place and we are never bored.

On what excites him the most about the future of Proxibid:

Downs: The trend we’re watching closest is the addition of new selling methods to the industrial asset world, where auction has traditionally been the only method used. Asset owners are starting to realize that the auction method is not a good fit for every single asset they want to sell. That’s why we’ve introduced ‘instant purchase,’ our fixed price method, and ‘make offer,’ which allows us to accept offers and negotiate on behalf of our sellers. We were out in front with this trend and we feel very good about our position.

Another exciting trend is the increase in what we call capital deals, where we take an ownership position in some of the assets we have for sale. We’re now forming joint ventures with auction company partners to acquire inventory that previously would have been out of reach for our marketplace. This action is helping bring new assets and new buyers to the marketplace, and has also created a new revenue stream for Proxibid, allowing us to share in the profit from the sale.

You can learn more about Proxibid here.

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