When 1 Million Cups Springfield launched in late February, organizer Rick Thomas gave the first presentation. He made the case for 1MC Springfield as an important tool for building and sustaining an entrepreneurial community in the city. He highlighted the potential of bringing entrepreneurs together with resources like the talent base of Missouri State University and its award-winning eFactory and organizations such as the local chamber of commerce and the Small Business Development Center.
Springfield isn’t the only Missouri city embracing 1 Million Cups as a way to create a more collaborative entrepreneurial community. Two years ago, Nate Olson, a specialist in entrepreneurship at the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, wanted to bring his city’s startups and innovators together to share ideas and connect with each other, increasing what Olson refers to as “collision density.”
What started in April 2012 as a weekly coffee gathering of a small group of Kansas City entrepreneurs has grown into 1 Million Cups. Every Wednesday morning, two entrepreneurs present their startups to fellow businesspeople, community leaders and potential mentors and investors. Both entrepreneurs give a six-minute presentation followed by 20 minutes of question-and-answer. Time for networking — with plenty of coffee, of course — follows.
Today, the idea has spread from Kansas City to more than 30 cities, including Columbia, Springfield and St. Louis.
Springfield: “The ingredients were there”
Thomas and 1MC Springfield have drawn standing-room only crowds of more than 100 people each Wednesday to share and discuss ideas. Thomas said the group in Springfield reflects the “dense, quirky population of students, artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs” that he sees as a key ingredient in a potential powerhouse startup community.
“Springfield was in a bubble before 1 Million Cups came,” Thomas said.”All of the infrastructure was in place, and the ingredients were there; all we lacked was an environment where people could share their ideas with each other.”
Matthew Douglas is a 1MC Springfield presenter and the founder of ShopSee, a startup that makes a social shopping app. He said his presentation provided an opportunity to conduct market research and refine his team’s approach to product development. Douglas also was able to make connections with potential investors as well as people offering advice and mentorship to a fellow entrepreneur.
“There’s also the benefit of being plugged into the community of creative businesspeople,” Douglas said. “It gets my mind going being around all these people trying out new ideas.”
Springfield presenter Bryan Mansker, inventor of the T1 Race Belt, a specialized belt for triathletes, is another early beneficiary of 1 Million Cups Springfield. After presenting at the event last month, Mansker raised $50,000 in seed capital through a connection he made following the meeting.
St. Louis: A gateway to contests, contacts
St. Louis was the second city in Missouri and fourth overall to adopt Kansas City’s caffeine-fueled export, and organizer Dennis Piel can point to several success stories that he says resulted from the unique opportunities and connections rooted in 1 Million Cups.
Through 1MC’s partnership with Dream Big America, a nationally syndicated radio show that broadcasts startup pitch competitions, St. Louis app developer Qurate won $19,000 in cash and services last year.
For Aaron Mottern, founder of fitness startup Hey Let’s Train! and an original community leader for 1MC St. Louis, the biggest benefit of presenting is the opportunity to connect with an audience that organizers say typically numbers around 50 in the room and 100 more over public television live stream. “One of the major successes that a company will get is a lot of exposure,” Mottern said. “And you never know who’s going to be in the audience.”
Piel himself connected Joe Fischer, co-founder of greeting card company Greetabl, with his cousin, who’s a Cardinal Health executive.
Mottern also said that the feedback he received from 1 Million Cups attendees was essential to refining his startup’s approach to its mission of connecting physical therapists and chiropractors with their clients working out and rehabbing at home. “Some entrepreneurs dramatically change their business models because there’s been so much feedback on how to improve,” he said.
Columbia: Increased visibility for entrepreneurs
Columbia’s meeting, in a downtown conference room that organizer Pack Matthews said draws 20 to 30 people each week, can’t match the crowds in Springfield and Kansas City. But last week’s meeting of around 20 Columbia residents, ranging from FedEx customer service representatives to prospective investors, provided dozens of questions for Tron Jordheim, who presented 7Methods, a sales and customer service consulting firm.
When the group spilled into the reception area afterward for conversation and networking, Matthews directed a biotech entrepreneur and 1MC newcomer toward Mike Nichols, vice president of research and economic development for the University of Missouri system, which houses several biotech startups in its Columbia incubator.
“The value we provide here is the networking and connecting that happens because we’re smaller,” Matthews said, adding that 1 Million Cups has made the entrepreneurial community in Columbia more visible.
The downtown co-working space set up by Columbia’s Regional Economic Development, Inc. has gone from occasionally hosting one or two startups last summer to housing “a dozen or so now,” according to Matthews. That includes Matthew Murrie and Andrew McHugh, co-founders of the The What If…? Conference, who Matthews says got the idea to integrate Twitter into their conferences from 1MC Columbia organizer Collin Bunch.
Kansas City: Celebrating two years
After two years and presentations from more than 200 startups in Kansas City, Olson said he has stopped keeping track of attendance for the flagship 1MC meeting. But every week a couple hundred people from Kansas City’s business and startup communities pour into the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center to hear two entrepreneurs share their stories and solicit feedback.
“It’s really the stepping-off point for people in Kansas City,” organizer Melissa Roberts said.
Roberts points to Callie England, the founder of vegan snack startup Rawxies, as one of the biggest hits in 1 Million Cups Kansas City’s history. England was able to get her products on local grocery store shelves after she presented in Kansas City, and a subsequent pitch at 1MC Denver, where a Whole Foods buyer was in the room, led to a deal with the grocery store chain.
England’s Kansas City-to-Denver connection is an example of 1MC’s passport program, which allows presenters who have pitched in one city to travel to present at any other 1MC location, from Orlando to San Diego.
With the addition of 1 Million Cups meetups in Little Rock, Ark. and Nashville, Tenn. on April 16, the organization will have grown from six cities at this time last year to 36 meetings in 21 states. And the network will continue to expand in May, boosting the lineup to 40 locations
For now, Olson says his priority is maintaining the existing network of domestic cities, but he predicts that once 1 Million Cups hits 50 locations the event will start to expand internationally. Olson said there are interested parties from places including Canada, Colombia, Mexico and England.
All that expansion has meant changes for Olson as 1 Million Cups prepares to hit 40 cities in May. “I’m more of a creator and less of an operations guy, so we expanded the team to more people like that,” he said. “I’ve learned a ton about leadership and how to work yourself out of every part of the process. You can’t do it all in 40 cities.”
Correction: April 10, 2014
This story was updated to accurately characterize interaction between Greetabl co-founder Joe Fischer and Cardinal Health. Dennis Piel, a 1 Million Cups St. Louis organizer, introduced Fischer to his cousin, a Cardinal Health executive. A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that Greetabl’s products were now being sold in Cardinal Health hospitals and pharmacies.