Nate Olson once read on an entrepreneur's blog that communities are built through a million cups of coffee. That appears to be grounds for truth.
One year after Olson and colleague Thom Ruhe at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation founded 1 Million Cups, a networking organization for startup entrepreneurs, the expected conversations -- and communities -- are percolating.
Not just in Kansas City but expanding to other cities around the country, 1 Million Cups meetings are brewing communities among business developers who otherwise might feel isolated.
That collegial spirit is most in evidence on Wednesday mornings at the Kauffman Foundation. At each regular 9 a.m. meeting an average of 220 people now listen to presentations by two pre-registered entrepreneurs. About 40 more tune in each week through live streaming.
The opportunity to explain their new enterprises gives presenters exposure to possible advisers, funders and fellow business operators who might become customers, suppliers or confidants.
"The neat thing about 1 Million Cups is that it's a friendly environment for people who have passion for an idea to get in front of an audience," said Mike Farmer, founder of Leap2, a mobile Internet search application. "It's the first step to test the waters before you fund-raise or give venture capital pitches."
For Tyler Becket, who started Hugo Tea Co. last fall, his January presentation was a turning point for the young company.
"Immediately after, we doubled our wholesale accounts and doubled our online sales," Becket said, adding that the Kauffman Foundation itself became a client. "Before it was all about coffee. Now there's tea at the meetings, too."
Becket said the 1 Million Cups exposure added legitimacy and access to his venture.
Farmer said he also appreciated that the gatherings had become "showcases for some amazing talent here in KC" and in some of the other new markets where 1 Million Cups groups are being established. They are places, he said, where people sometimes are humble to a fault about their ideas.
Reno, Nev., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this month became the fifth and sixth cities to form 1 Million Cups groups. They joined Kansas City, Des Moines, Houston and St. Louis. Organizers hope to have groups going in 20 cities by the end of the year.
The Kauffman-based group is getting more exposure at 12:30 p.m. today at Hangar 9 at the Downtown Airport, where sample presentations will be shared at the Big Kansas City event sponsored by Silicon Prairie News.
For people who can't get to a meeting, there are 1 Million Cups website, Facebook, Twitter and other social media links. Olson said that in the first year, 146 startups had been able to share their stories with more than 6,700 participants.
Though technology helps spread the word, a survey of participants taken earlier this year found that face-to-face contact was the big draw.
"The word-of-mouth growth of 1 Million Cups suggests the value of interpersonal networking among entrepreneurs," said Yasuyuki Motoyama, a Kauffman senior scholar who researched the program. "Busy entrepreneurs may look to peers for trustable information, rather than weeding through electronic information and trying to assess its value."
Olson, who shepherded the beginning of 1 Million Cups, said research and experience had made it clear that the groups worked best when led by entrepreneurs themselves, not by existing organizations that have broader agendas.
To that end, four new-business creators now are in charge of the Kansas City group. They are George Brooks, with Cremalab; Mike Craig, with Ruxter Mobile; John McGovern, with Crowd Prospectus; and Melissa Roberts, with Partnership for Technology Innovation.
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