Growing Missouri Startups: Think Big Preaches ‘People, Products, Process’

In addition to its accelerator, Kansas City's Think Big Partners also offers coworking space. | Courtesy of Think Big Partners
In addition to its accelerator, Kansas City's Think Big Partners also offers coworking space. | Courtesy of Think Big Partners

Think Big Accelerator At A Glance

Location: Kansas City | Established: 2012 | Classification: Incubator-accelerator hybrid

Startups Currently in Program: 5 | Total Startups Assisted To Date: 11

Key People: Herb Sih, co-founder and managing partner; Tyler Prochnow, co-founder and senior partner; Blake Miller, director of Think Big Accelerator and partner; Sarah Snyder, director of coworking and partner; Pat Doherty, Think Big Ventures and general partner

Specialty: Early-stage, technology-focused startups

Structure: The Think Big Accelerator is part of Think Big Partners, a Kansas City-based organization that also includes a coworking space and a venture capital fund. Think Big’s accelerator invests between $18,000 and $50,000 in startups in exchange for equity, and its program lasts from six to nine months.

One day in August 2009, Herb Sih and Tyler Prochnow, two entrepreneurs who had each built companies of their own, made up their minds to launch Think Big Partners, a Kansas City organization dedicated to helping cultivate new startups.

Blake Miller, Think Big Partners | Courtesy of Think Big Partners
Blake Miller | Courtesy of Think Big Partners

The very next day, Blake Miller, a recent University of Kansas graduate, accepted Prochnow’s invitation to join the mission as a partner. Miller, whose entrepreneurial experience includes developing his own web design company at the age of 14 and working with a professional DJ company for years, moved to downtown Kansas City.

Today, Miller serves as the director of the Think Big Accelerator, which Think Big Partners launched in June 2012.

“When we work with the company we think like a co-founder,” said Miller, who describes his position as one that involves helping build companies, relationships and partnerships. “There’s acceleration because you are around a lot of other people doing the same things. That energy is amazing.”

Organizations like Y Combinator, 500 Startups and TechStars are big names in the accelerator business nowadays. Miller said Think Big views “accelerator” as an overused word. He said the group defines its program as “a hybrid model of accelerator and incubator that focuses on a longer span of a startup’s growth.”

The program gives participating companies a check valued between $18,000 and $50,000, a startup checklist and customized mentorship and growth advice. Think Big takes an equity stake of 6 to 8 percent in return.

Hacker, hustler, hipster

As a result of the experience of its first cohort, Think Big extended its accelerator from a 14-week commitment into one that spans six to nine months. Think Big also decided against a regimen that features lots of structured instruction, choosing instead to take a flexible approach tailored to the startups’ needs. “It’s all about spending time with people,” Miller said. “Entrepreneurs need to think about three things: people, products and process.”

Instead of offering lectures and courses, Think Big acts like a conduit, investing time in working with startups and helping them tap into the right networks.

Miller emphasizes the importance of helping young companies find the right mix of people and skills. In his opinion, a dream tech startup team should consist of hackers, hustlers and hipsters. In other words, a startup needs sophisticated computer engineers (hackers), entrepreneurs with business savvy (hustlers) and designers capable of crafting products (hipsters).

“There are three legs of tripod in building a tech company,” Miller said. “(It’s) very rare they have a complete team.”

At the heart of a growing tech hub

Think Big was among the first tech settlers in Kansas City’s Crossroads Art District. “There was just nothing here.” Miller said, “When I moved into my apartment, I was the first person moved to my loft. It was like one of the first few lofts that opened downtown.”

Over the years, Think Big has seen its 12,000-square-foot co-working office space attract a growing number of companies. About 50 companies now work in Think Big’s space at any given time, and the Crossroads continues to blossom as a tech and creative hub.

Miller describes Kansas City today as “exciting.” He says capital is always a challenge for Missouri-based startups, but that there are a lot of investors in the region. “We just need to unlock that education for the investors,” Miller said

Think Big Partners had five employees in the early days, and now the headcount is 11. The group announced last month that it plans to open a new office in the Crossroads, which will triple its office space.

“We will always be looking for emerging technology, looking how to help people take advantage of emerging markets,” Miller said. “Think Big as a whole will continue to ask the question: What’s next? (We will) continue to be hyper-focused on changing ways people build companies.”

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