One year ago, a small group of entrepreneurs and mentors filed into Kauffman Labs at Kansas City’s Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for the first meeting of a new entrepreneurship initiative. A pair of six-minute presentations and 20-minute Q&A sessions later, something special was underway.
The inspiration for 1 Million Cups came to Nate Olson, a member of Kauffman’s entrepreneurship team, while he was leafing through a startup publication in 2011. Olson said a Seth Godin article about how communities are built through a series of one-on-one interactions caught his eye.
With that in mind, Olson set out to solve what he saw as a problem of fragmentation among entrepreneurs in Kansas City. “I started meeting with a lot of local entrepreneurs,” Olson said, “and realized they didn’t necessarily know each other.”
The idea was straightforward: Olson contends that communities are built “on a million cups of coffee,” so he decided to try regularly bringing entrepreneurial-minded people together for coffee and interaction and see what happened.
Every Wednesday morning since last April, a group has gathered for 1 Million Cups, or 1MC. The meetings generally consist of two entrepreneurs presenting their latest project for six minutes apiece. After each presentation, they open the floor for 20 minutes of questions.
On Tuesday, as he looked back on a first year for 1MC that saw 93 presentations and 6,000 attendees in Kansas City alone, Olson said that the idea has begun to change the entrepreneurship culture in the community, in terms of engagement in the program as well as conversations outside of 1MC.
“Entrepreneurs that presented early on kept coming back for more,” Olson said. “We were tapping into a community-building idea.”
Within that community, differing levels of experience and perspective among entrepreneurs allow for presenters and attendees to get help and insight to improve their businesses. Another byproduct of putting so many entrepreneurs in the same room has been the creation of relationships between like-minded entrepreneurs, such as the group that regularly meets after 1MC to lay out the plan for Kansas City’s Startup Village.
“People have found cofounders, other businesses they want to do business with, and people have also gotten help from investors who heard their ideas and gave them what they needed,” Olson said.
The program has expanded to five other cities, including St. Louis, Houston and Des Moines, Iowa, in the last year, and Olson says there are plans for more expansion. With the growth of the program, new features will be added, such as a “passport program,” under which an entrepreneur that presents twice in his or her home city will be invited to present in another city.
“We are going to create a liquid network that entrepreneurs can move through,” Olson said. “The possibilities are robust; we can change the culture of entrepreneurship in this country.”