In eight years’ time, John Wirtz and his co-workers’ office space in the Haymarket has expanded 50-fold.
Wirtz, a co-founder of the sports technology startup Hudl, remembers 2006 well. He and two other University of Nebraska-Lincoln students worked in a 600-square-foot portion of a 12,000-square-foot office building above El Potrero. In that space, Wirtz could see potential.
“You could feel like something was going to explode,” he said.
And it did, but it goes beyond Hudl, now a national company with more than 15,000 clients and 30,000 square feet of office space above Old Chicago.
A handful of other sports-centric startups have sprung up in the Haymarket and elsewhere in Lincoln. Smart entrepreneurs have smashed sports and sports business with algorithms, cloud computing and the latest in 21st century technology.
Each of their enterprises has filled a different sports niche, from film and strength-training analysis to athlete endorsements and coaching coordination. But in growing up, they’ve turned to each other in an effort to find their way on the roller-coaster ride that is launching and running a tech startup.
“It's in our blood as Nebraskans to help one another,” said Blake Lawrence, co-founder of sports-related startups Hurrdat and opendorse. “Where we used to lend a hand to a fellow farmer, we now lend a hand to a fellow entrepreneur.”
When Lawrence and fellow former Husker football player Adi Kunalic started social media marketing startup Hurrdat in 2010, they sought advice and drew inspiration from Hudl co-founders Wirtz and David Graff, Lawrence said.
“Building a startup can be like a roller coaster,” Lawrence said. “Every day is unpredictable, exciting, dangerous, and the ride can exhaust entrepreneurs.”
Skip Cronin, manager for the strength and conditioning-analysis startup EliteForm, said his co-workers have also enjoyed interactions with the folks at Hudl and other startups in Lincoln.
It speaks to a culture that has emerged among entrepreneurs and developers -- especially in the Haymarket, he said.
Each week, developers, venture capitalists and other startup employees gather at the Crescent Moon for what’s called Open Coffee. They network, exchange ideas and shoot the breeze -- all a change in the Haymarket from what Wirtz remembers back in 2006.
Back then, a trip to coffee shop meant bumping into students and attorneys working in the area -- not software developers.
Now, Wirtz said he has to choose which networking and development-related events he can attend because there are so many options they often overlap.
“This small close-knit community is one to be reckoned with,” said Raymonn Adams, founder and creator of Lockr, which allows individual coaches to analyze their coaching effectiveness and coordinate with each other by storing data from drills and sharing schedules in the cloud.
In December, Lockr picked up $250,000 in investments. By then, it had more than 200 clients, Adams said.
Fueling these sports startups, Adams and others say, is a combination of factors including a vibrant sports culture, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Nebraska athletic department, cheaper business costs and an open network of entrepreneurs.
UNL’s Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management has infused the Lincoln startup market with talent, Wirtz said.
Several startups, such as Hudl and EliteForm, have piloted their software programs with the Nebraska football team.
Rent for office space also swallows less of the budget in Lincoln than it would in San Francisco, Wirtz said.
Startup incubators and “accelerators” that pool resources such as developers and capital have also helped companies like EliteForm, a Nebraska Global startup, overcome early financial and management hurdles, Cronin said.
Another large factor, Lawrence and Wirtz said, is Lincoln’s sports appetite.
There’s a concentration of coaches and athletes that can serve as clients or counselors, they said.
What’s more, entrepreneurs often seek to solve problems surrounding them.
“The state of Nebraska is sports-obsessed, so it's natural to see the sports-focused startup community begin to emerge,” said Lawrence, a former NU linebacker whose company opendorse created an endorsement marketplace for athletes, their agents and companies.
Comparisons to startup communities in the Silicon Valley, Chicago or Austin, Texas, may make Lincoln’s seem like an underdog, he said.
But, as Wirtz sees it, entrepreneurs and developers here seem to have a mission.
“Prove the rest of the country wrong," Wirtz said. “Everybody has this cool common goal to see this community grow into a juggernaut.”