Lessons Learned from 1 Million Cups Kansas City

Last week I had the chance to visit the burgeoning entrepreneurial community of Kansas City.  It was a great opportunity to see what other entrepreneurs are doing and sample the flavor of innovation communities outside of Minnesota.

Kansas City has a lot to offer the emerging entrepreneur.  The city houses an entrepreneur-led community, called Startup Village, where a dense network of startups organically grew up along some newly laid Google fiber.  The Techstars Sprint Accelerator, an intensive three-month business development program, is located in Kansas City.

And of course Kansas City is home to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

The Kauffman Foundation was founded in the 1960s by Kansas City entrepreneur and humanitarian Ewing Marion Kauffman to “give back to society”.  The organization established programs to support and educate entrepreneurs, which Kauffman believed was the best way to bolster individual success, propel the local economy, and establish entrepreneurship as a key part of the immediate ecosystem. 

Kauffman himself helped to shape Kansas City.  In 1950, he built his own pharmaceutical business out of a basement in the city, called Marion Laboratories, Inc.  The company was sold to Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals forty years later, after it had reached over $1 billion in sales.  Kauffman also purchased the local major league baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, in in 1968 and transformed the team into the model for sports franchisement.  Just in case you’re wondering why the Royals play at something called Kauffman Stadium.

The Kauffman Foundation has deep roots in education and entrepreneurship and launched several signature programs just for entrepreneurs, including the online Founders School, FastTrac, and the national program 1 Million Cups.

1 Million Cups in theory is something very simple.  Every week, two different entrepreneurs stand up in front of their peers, industry leaders, and the community and pitch their business idea.  The entrepreneurs each receive six minutes to entice the audience with their concept, story, and business model.  Then the founders field questions for twenty minutes from the attendees.

Simple in theory.  But the amazing part is that this exact sequence of events happens in ninety-three different 1 Million Cups communities across the United States at exactly 9AM every Wednesday morning.  You can be sitting in Kansas City or Saint Paul or Boulder or Charlotte and experience the exact same flow of events at the exact same time.  You can almost sink back in your chair and feel the buzz and vibrations emanating from these other innovation hubs.  Even if you’re not that imaginative, just pop onto Twitter and take a look at the live feeds streaming in from the other 1 Million Cups communities.    

The bread and butter of 1 Million Cups is the same in each community, but the intricacies in each group is very different.

I have attended 1 Million Cups in Saint Paul on several occasions and saw many similarities between the Saint Paul and Kansas City communities.  The 6-minute pitch and 20-minute Q&A structure was exactly the same.

“What can we as a community do for you?” is always the final question asked to the entrepreneurs in any of the 1 Million Cups communities, underlying the real purpose of this event to leverage the power and abilities that we can have as a whole.

And of course coffee is a staple component of 1 Million Cups.  The whole idea centers around the concept that entrepreneurs network and build themselves over a million cups of coffee.  Remember to write that one into your budget.

However, 1 Million Cups was born in Kansas City, so they have a thing or two figured out about the whole process.

First off, the room was packed.  It was amazing to see that dense of an entrepreneurial community.  There was even a group of visiting Chinese students studying entrepreneurship at the closely located University of Kansas for the summer.

The 1 Million Cups Kansas City organizers also crafted beautiful handouts for the attendees that included the official event Twitter handle and hashtag- it actually is amazingly easy to use the wrong handle with all the different 1 Million Cups- short bios of the presenting companies with their Twitter handles, a space for notes, a list of community events and announcements for the week, and pictures and Twitter handles for the 1 Million Cups Kansas City community organizers.  This was just such a simple and brilliant way to facilitate interaction with the event and keep everyone, literally, on the same page.

Unlike my experience with the Saint Paul community, the Q&A session in Kansas City was begun with questions from an expert panel.  Last week, this included local businessmen Steve Woods, Managing Director at Boom Ideanet, and Ben Kittrell, Founder of Doodle Kit.

Guerrilla Signs team with the gorilla mascot.

Guerrilla Signs team with the gorilla mascot.

The first startup to pitch at this particular 1 Million Cups Kansas City event was Guerrilla Signs from Springfield, Missouri.  This team built the Ninja Sign, a 4 x 4 foot collapsible, highly portable sign that can be assembled by a single person in under three minutes without any additional tools.  The group is still figuring out the target customer, but these high quality signs could greatly impact the real estate and commercial market.

Bric Founder Grant Stanley.

Bric Founder Grant Stanley.

The second startup to pitch, Bric, offers a solution to workforce management issues.  This team from Omaha, Nebraska uses machine learning and data analytics to build out project plans and track the actual time required to complete jobs for creatives and creative agencies.  Their target customer likely uses fixed billing, such as advertising and design agencies.

The questions posed to these entrepreneurs, whether in Kansas City or elsewhere, is always similar.  What is the marketing strategy?  Who are the target customers?  What is the value added?  Solid business development doesn’t really change geographically.

It was such a cool experience to engage with a different 1 Million Cups community and see how they do the same things just a little bit differently.

We have a fantastic, welcoming 1 Million Cups right here in Saint Paul.  This group meets every Wednesday at 9AM, of course, at the James J. Hill Reference Library.  Hopefully, we can initiate our own 1 Million Cups in Rochester in the near future.  But for now we have this amazing community with great organizers just a little over an hour away.  1 Million Cups Saint Paul provides an opportunity for Rochester companies to spread brand awareness to our greater entrepreneurial and startup community.