Seven startup tips from the entrepreneurs of Big Kansas City

Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert
Marc Hemeon of North Technologies and Google was among the speakers to deliver entrepreneurial advice at the second Big Kansas City conference. | Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert

Entrepreneurs and innovators from across the country converged on Kansas City last week for the Big Kansas City Conference, which took place Thursday and Friday at the Airline History Museum. The second-year event, put on by media and events company Silicon Prairie News, featured two days of startup founders and others sharing stories of the lessons they’ve learned building businesses, pushing ahead through difficult times and working to meet their customers’ needs.

Missouri Business Alert attended the conference Friday and came away with seven pieces of entrepreneurial advice, courtesy of the speakers of Big Kansas City:

Make your own solutions

Eric Schweikardt is the co-founder of Modular Robotics, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that manufactures robotic toys for children. The Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. started the company to build robot kits that would give kids the opportunity to learn about technology while playing. From this desire, he created Cubelets, a modular robotic system that allows for the creation of moving, flashing, noisemaking machines without programming or expert knowledge.

While the finished Cubelets are easy and efficient to assemble, Schweikardt faced some challenges figuring out how to manufacture them. The Modular Robotics assembly line was initially composed of human “elves” tasked with the job of putting together the stackable toys. However, in order to boost efficiency without exporting the manufacturing overseas, a solution had to be hacked.

The answer came through the creation of FARKUS, an open-source system of robots to manufacture more robots. By using Arduino platforms and 3-D printed parts, Modular Robotics now uses machines such as the Crousel and Conveyance to assemble its toys. With these tools, Schweikardt said the company “can use robots and technology to create the same prosperity as if we had minimum wage workers in our factories.”

Work trumps talent

Mike Johnston|Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert
Mike Johnston’s MikesLessons.com grew out of his struggles learning to play the drums. | Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert

Learning to play the drums didn’t come naturally to Mike Johnston. As a kid, he found it difficult to master the same skills his peers were grasping in the same amount of time. So, Johnston decided, an unshakeable work ethic was what he needed. “You can’t control how talented the person next to you is,” he said, “but you can outwork them.”

Now as the founder of MikesLessons.com, a site where he offers live and prerecorded drum lessons, Johnston stresses that constant, tireless work is the key to moving your business forward.

As a teacher, he works on making sure that he has alternate explanations and adapts to their individual needs. As a business owner, he spent three years building a following on his YouTube account before launching a site and meticulously controlling his brand, down to the photos that represent him. With that tireless attention to detail, he has turned his passion into a business that draws thousands of subscribers from around the world.

Transparency creates connections with customers

When Neil Blumenthal first started online eyeglass company Warby Parker, the company showroom — his living room — gave his customers the freedom to stop by and try out various styles. For the business, it provided the opportunity to learn how to best suit those customers, from the styles they picked up to the size of the mirrors they needed. For the customer, getting to see the glasses in person and the people behind them built a connection.

“We created these advocates for life because it’s so rare that customers get to meet the people behind the brand, get a peek behind the curtain,” said Blumenthal, who presented via video call.

Blumenthal said connecting customers to the brand by sharing specific information about the company, from its carbon-neutral glasses to its company values, has also helped by showing that Warby Parker has nothing to hide.

“You customers will quickly find out everything about you anyway,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather share it with them in a way that actually has positive effects?”

Solve problems by asking questions with empathy

Shradha Agarwal | Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert
Shradha Agarwal told the Big Kansas City crowd that many great businesses start with a simple question: “Why?” | Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert

Digging for the answers to problems has always been an important part of life for ContextMedia founder Shradha Agarwal. From reading voraciously as a child to starting the Northwestern Business Review in college, she has always asked questions in an effort to help herself and others. “A lot of great businesses are started by asking that integral ‘Why,'” she said.

So when Agarwal decided to launch her startup, a medical media company that delivers educational content tailored to patients suffering specific aliments, she coupled her inquisitive nature with empathy for the needs of her market. She stressed that merely asking doctors, patients and healthcare administrators what they wanted wasn’t enough, but that having the empathy to question in a way that uncovered their “pain points” — areas where they struggled and could use improvement — was integral.

“When you redirect the question to focus on pain points and empathy,” she said, “that is when you start to come up with ideas to turn the curiosity into a business.”

Technology is a tool for social change

When Kimberly Bryant’s daughter Kai spent hours on end playing video games, the concerned mother and biotechnology professional looked for a way to channel her daughter’s love of technology into a more productive outlet. After enrolling her in a computer science summer camp at Stanford University, Bryant was hit with a stark reality: Kai was one of just three girls in the class, and she was the only girl of color.

Black Girls Code, Bryant’s organization that hosts coding workshops, seminars and classes for girls of color between the ages of 7 and 17, was founded in 2011 with the goal of not only equipping these girls with valuable skills, but also helping them improve their communities through technology.

“This work is really about teaching girls to be social change agents in their community and to utilize technology as a tool for that social change that we’re hoping to see,” she said.

With more than 3,000 students across eight chapters in the U.S. cities and South Africa, Bryant hopes that the program reaches 1 million girls by 2040.

Always say ‘Yes’

Marc Hemeon | Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert
Marc Hemeon encouraged the audience to say “Yes,” no matter what. | Phil Joens/Missouri Business Alert

Sometimes saying “Yes” is hard. Many times it could throw off your original plans. Other times you may just not want to. But Marc Hemeon, co-founder of North Technologies and Entrepreneur in Residence at Google, says you should.

“This is my philosophy: Always say ‘Yes,’ no matter what,” Hemeon said. “No matter how annoying it is.”

Working with others, like other entrepreneurs, developers, engineers and designers, has helped Hemeon in boosting his own capabilities and in working toward better solutions. Whether it involves helping with a project or letting a colleague offer his or her own ideas, the designer stressed moving past the ego factor that often shuts down people’s willingness to yes to things that may make for better work after all.

“Get rid of that crap,” Hemeon said. “In true collaboration, you can’t even pull out where the idea originated from, because it doesn’t matter.”

Don’t rely on viral marketing

According to Anita Newton, vice president of corporate marketing at Kansas City digital marketing firm Adknowledge, success in marketing is not about viral videos or most shared posts. It’s about building a set of processes that is scalable, repeatable and actually creates results.

In order for a company to have success in marketing, Newton said testing marketing strategies and establishing market fit are crucial components, but that one facet reigns supreme: securing the customer’s attention with an emotional connection.

“Testing is important, but really being emotionally connected is what is going to help you win and separate you from the others,” she said.

Newton emphasized that by starting with a target audience and determining what truths and attributes of individuals can connect to your brand, and then meeting those factors with emotionally engaging content, companies are much more likely to earn the customer attention they crave.


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