May 23, 2013
Ryan Downs, CEO and president of real-time online auction marketplace Proxibid, has it easy. Or at least he thinks he does. That’s because he learned to work hard early. When Downs was a kid, he worked at the family farm in Nebraska. “We put in long hours doing difficult, physical work with outdated equipment. It was tough,” he recalls. “Now I’m at a desk working on a computer in an air-conditioned building. This is easy.”
Downs joined Proxibid in 2010, and he has since helped the company become one of the most trusted online marketplaces for high-value assets. Proxibid also happens to be one of the fastest-rising tech companies in the Midwest. Founded in 2001 by four Omaha-based entrepreneurs, the company originally started as a tech and marketing company for auctioneers, but as Downs himself will tell you, “the company has certainly evolved since then.”
Just how fast (and solidly) has Proxibid grown since its founding? Well, more than $2 billion in inventory has already passed through it, with 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.
Evolving along with the company’s core business is the technology that supports it. “We’re constantly innovating to stay ahead of the curve,” says Downs. “Over the last two years, we have 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.’”
“We believe strongly that we can never stop innovating, and we invest a significant portion of our budget in new features and capabilities.”
Tech Cocktail recently caught up with Downs, who, prior to joining Proxibid, was the senior vice president of worldwide operations for PayPal, spearheading efforts to enhance the end-to-end user experience for PayPal and eBay customers. We sat down for a conversation about the entrepreneurial challenges and experiences throughout the growth of Proxibid, the unique qualities that distinguish the entrepreneurial ecosystem and business community in Omaha, and the exciting future that lies ahead for the company.
Tech Cocktail: What’s it like to grow a company in Omaha?
Ryan Downs: The Omaha scene is very unique – definitely a different vibe from Silicon Valley. The work ethic and the spirit of the people here are amazing. In Omaha, people will stick with you through the most difficult challenges because they believe in the final outcome. They’ll stay with a company for many years to see it through success. In Silicon Valley, where there are many options for those with an entrepreneurial spirit, people tend to move around a lot.
Finding funding as a startup in Omaha can be challenging. We have a handful of local firms who are able to provide funding in the $500,000 to $2 million range, but we don’t have as many local options for larger rounds of funding. I found that for us, the best way to secure funding was through local investors. Simply by leveraging our connections, we were able to bring in funding from private sources. These local investors obviously expect a solid return on their investment. However, most of them have an additional motivation: they want to see a local company succeed and create jobs in the local community.
Tech Cocktail: Have you always had an entrepreneurial instinct? What made you decide ultimately to become an entrepreneur?
Downs: I grew up with entrepreneurs on a family farm and started my own cattle business when I was eight. Like my father and grandfather, I have always been energized by building something, trying new things, taking risks, and being my own boss. I have started businesses in technology, agriculture, and real estate, and will probably pursue entrepreneurial endeavors forever.
Tech Cocktail: How do you, as an entrepreneur, engage with the Omaha community in ways that benefit Proxibid?
Downs: 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 on the talent – not the quality, but the quantity. We simply don’t have enough entrepreneurs and technical people, especially web developers. While local universities are trying to respond to these needs, we are trying to do our part at Proxibid. We’re heavily involved in Silicon Prairie News’ Big Series of conferences, Infotec, and other events. We send people to speak and teach at PKI (the Peter Kiewit Institute) and the Raikes School (at the University of Nebraska).
We also participate in Chamber activities, and we’re constantly spreading the word about Proxibid in our community, as well as supporting projects that embrace our entrepreneurs. 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. Because in the end, the best thing we have as a community would be a long list of success stories. That’s what creates momentum and convinces young kids or folks outside the community that they can do it, too.
Tech Cocktail: What’s one thing you have done that worked successfully and would recommend others to do?
Downs: You have to take some personal risk. I meet a lot of folks with great ideas. They want to start a business but they don’t want to give up their comfortable salary and benefits at Large Company X. I won’t say it is impossible to start a business while employed elsewhere, but I think the odds of success are low. When I started a tech business, I went “all in” and quit a very lucrative job as a partner in a law firm. [Downs received his JD from Harvard Law School.] That was not easy. It made my wife nervous. The first year in business was very difficult. However, had I not taken that risk and made that bold move, I would have missed out on the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my life.
Tech Cocktail: What advice would you give other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Downs: Three things. One: do something you love and believe in, because you will put more hours into your startup than you can imagine. Two: surround yourself with great people whom you enjoy spending time with and will challenge you. And three: don’t get down when you run into challenges – look at them as learning opportunities and experiences that make you stronger and better. Remember, this stuff isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would do it.
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