One year in, 1 Million Cups Columbia aims to provide exposure, feedback

Matt Fischer and Pack Matthews before last year's kickoff of 1 Million Cups Columbia. | Photo By Austin Huguelet
Columbia entrepreneurs Matt Fischer (left) and Pack Matthews were part of the group that helped launch 1 Million Cups Columbia in August 2013. | Austin Huguelet/Missouri Business Alert

Since 1 Million Cups Columbia launched last August, close to 60 entrepreneurs have presented to the crowd that fills a small downtown conference room every Wednesday morning. But Pack Matthews wants to see more.

1 Million Cups (1MC) Columbia marked the first week of its second year on Aug. 13 with presentations from Kelsey Meyer of Columbia content marketing firm Influence & Co. and Linda Chandler of home decor seller DesignsForHome. Both women spoke for their allotted six minutes, and then took questions from the crowd of about 30 people, many of whom were entrepreneurs themselves.

It was Meyer’s second time presenting at 1MC Columbia, so the audience mostly wanted to hear about Influence & Co.’s recent progress. Chandler, presenting for the first time, received feedback on everything from her social media strategy to her creative process.

To Matthews, the lead organizer of 1MC Columbia for the past year, the program has achieved plenty of positives over its first 12 months, but there’s also ample room for growth.

“Before we started this, no one really had a handle on all of the startups in Columbia,” Matthews said. “But we’ve just scratched the surface.”

Enabling “intimate interaction”

1 Million Cups, a program of the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, started in April 2012 as an informal gathering of a small group of Kansas City entrepreneurs. Formed around the idea that startup communities are built on a million cups of coffee, the group would gather, and founders would share their startup’s stories and collect feedback.

Soon, a standard format was set: Two entrepreneurs were featured every Wednesday, and they delivered six-minute presentations followed by 20-minute question-and-answer sessions with the crowd.

That crowd grew steadily in Kansas City. And, before long, Kauffman was teaming with local organizers in other cities to launch 1 Million Cups elsewhere. It spread to five new cities, including St. Louis, in its first year. In August, Columbia became the 12th city to welcome the program.

Former 1MC Columbia organizer Matt Fischer said that the biggest challenge for local organizers early on was getting founders over their presentation anxiety.

“It think 1 Million Cups is ideal for getting your name and brand out there, because everyone in the audience is there to help and support startups,” Fischer said. “But we basically had to go beg people to present at the start.”

The Columbia community has persevered, sometimes filling gaps in the presenter schedule with out-of-town presenters. There are larger crowds at 1MC meetings in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield, but Matthews says the smaller size is actually a strength of the Columbia events.

Courtesy of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
1 Million Cups was founded on the premise that startup communities are built “on a million cups of coffee.” | Courtesy of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

“Talking to people in Kansas City, they miss the value of the more intimate interaction we have here,” Matthews said. “We can provide the really supportive feedback, the challenging questions, and the ability to easily integrate yourself in the community here. It’s less intimidating for the new startup as well.”

In her recent presentation, Meyer expressed her company’s gratitude for that feedback. She said Influence & Co.’s request for input from the audience during its first 1MC Columbia appearance contributed to the company adding larger corporate clients to its portfolio.

“People threw out a bunch of ideas and just got our heads spinning a lot in a really great way,” Meyer said, noting that Influence & Co. added several larger accounts this May. “It was really awesome to see that just being here and hearing people’s ideas, who maybe didn’t know our company that well but had worked with bigger brands in the past, was really helpful.”

Matthews said that his own startup, Soul Seat, which produces seats designed to alleviate back pain, has benefited from his involvement with 1 Million Cups. After presenting in Lawrence, Kan., Matthews got a contact in the furniture industry that taught him a great deal about how the industry works.

1MC Columbia meets in a space provided by Columbia’s Regional Economic Development, Inc., and the co-working space next door has gone from occasionally hosting one or two startups last summer to housing “a dozen or so now,” according to Matthews. 

Although 1MC Columbia has helped spur positive progress for local startups, Fischer said, the area still has significant needs to address if it wants to provide more fertile ground for early-stage companies. Fischer says that Columbia lacks the level of investment and mentoring necessary to scale most startups.

“We’ve got to find what these bigger markets are doing,” Fischer said. “And we can do it in Columbia, but we’ve got to get everyone here on the same page and see that there’s more here than just biotech.”

Serving up 2,500 cups per week

Nathan Kurtz, manager in entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation | Courtesy of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Nathan Kurtz | Courtesy of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

Nationally, 1 Million Cups has continued its rapid growth. There are now 51 weekly meetings across the country, up from 36 at 1MC’s two-year anniversary in April. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people attend the Wednesday morning sessions nationwide, according to Nathan Kurtz, a manager in entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation.

Kurtz agrees with Matthews about the merits of more intimate environments. Although crowds like the 200 or so people that 1MC Kansas City draws each week are good for exposure, Kurtz acknowledges that certain challenges can arise with gatherings of that size.

“A lot of times, smaller crowds can be better. They’re more participatory and people are less like spectators,” Kurtz said. “We really try hard not to make it about the numbers.”

Kurtz and his team at Kauffman are working on a platform that will allow presenters to get the most out of their visits to even the largest events. Through a mobile app, anyone watching a presentation in person or online will be able to submit thoughts about a presentation through a four-question survey.

“We want to change the narrative of communicating with startups,” Kurtz said.

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