Matthew Marcus is an entrepreneur in his own right, but he also has made a name for himself by supporting and connecting other Kansas City founders.
Marcus is co-leader of the Kansas City Startup Village, a community of entrepreneurs that formed in Kansas City’s first neighborhood to get access to Google Fiber. He’s also executive director of the Kansas City Startup Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to unify and support the city’s startup community. Meanwhile, Marcus is working on 1 Minute Candidate, a digital platform he created to connect voters with local and state politicians.
Missouri Business Alert sat down with Marcus recently to get updates on those projects, talk a bit about the impact of Google Fiber and hear his assessment of Kansas City’s startup landscape.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Missouri Business Alert: How did you get involved with the startup scene?
Matthew Marcus: I’m a programmer by trade and then naturally gravitated towards entrepreneurship. I didn’t really know what entrepreneurship was in my early days, but once I discovered it, I knew that this was for me. So I created my first startup in 2010. I’m from Kansas City, but that first startup, we based it in Colorado.
But I made my way back to Kansas City in 2012. There were a lot of entrepreneurs and things were happening in Kansas City, but it was still very young. And then it was kind of a “right time, right place.”
I got involved with another startup and inherited a building in the heart of the Kansas City Startup Village. Before it became a part of the KC Startup Village, I had zero understanding of what I was going to do with that building. It was an antique shop previously, then it became a startup home, and then I became a co-leader of the KC Startup Village and fell in love with community-building and helping entrepreneurs, helping Kansas City become prosperous in this startup world.
When Google Fiber brought high-speed Internet to Kansas City there was talk about making Kansas City the most entrepreneurial city in America. It has been about three or four years since then. Did Kansas City live up to that expectation?
I remember when through the Big Five initiative they threw out of making Kansas City the most entrepreneurial city in America, and it was kind of laughable at first because it is such a relative term or phrase. How can any community be considered the most entrepreneurial?
But fast forward three, four years later, and I think what it’s really become is this distant North Star, if you will, that we just continue working towards. We might not ever achieve that, but it’s still something we can strive for.
I think Google Fiber’s participation in that has been very instrumental and very key. … There have been so many different initiatives, organizations, individuals that have started … because of this vibrant community that has evolved since Google has come to Kansas City.
Regarding the Kansas City ecosystem, what is good about it, what is unique and what still needs work?
We’ve had conversations where people ask, “Is Kansas City the next Silicon Valley?” Because everyone rates themselves against the No. 1 startup community, so to speak. I think the clear answer is: No. Kansas City won’t be the next Silicon Valley. Likely, there won’t be another Silicon Valley. Every startup community or ecosystem is unique in its own right.
Through the efforts of the foundation we’ve kind of looked at startup communities around the country and we tried to boil them down to their essence and figure out what makes a vibrant startup ecosystem. So we discovered those six core stakeholder groups we feel that comprise a vibrant startup community or ecosystem, and that’s the entrepreneurs first and foremost. You have school involvement; you have a corporate involvement; you have government involvement, investors, and then you have nonprofits or civic organizations.
And so you look at Kansas City and we have activity within all those stakeholder groups, which is awesome. Some are more progressive than others, and others are still working to kind of catch up or to become more involved. Some might think I say this with a bias because I’m here, but I’ve actually experienced other startup communities and visited them, and Kansas City really isn’t all hype. We do have a lot of awesome things happening here and a lot of participation.
What is your personal involvement in the ecosystem?
First and foremost I consider myself an entrepreneur. I just love the entrepreneurial lifestyle. I like to create companies and projects where I can. I think for me, and this is kind of a Midwestern value, is that we choose collaboration before competition. So we like to support one another here. For me, it is a truly valuable way of life, this “give first, get later” mentality. …
In a way, I consider my ecosystem involvement as a philanthropic endeavor. Up until my executive director position with a foundation, it has all been volunteering. I just sacrificed many, many hours over the course of about four years simply because Kansas City has given me so much. Now I have a chance to give back to the city and also those who are a part of the city.
The Kansas City Startup Foundation is becoming one of those resources to facilitate the ecosystem. What about it is unique and different?
There are organizations, projects, programs, initiatives within each of those (six) stakeholder groups that are doing really great things for Kansas City, but what we realized when we were creating the foundation is that there is no unifying piece. So (we are), in a way, the hub of the wheel. A lot of those stakeholder groups have natural connections with one another. … I think what we’ll ultimately end up doing is helping Kansas City go further, faster. So in a way we are kind of this force multiplier for the collective impact.
How is the foundation funded?
The foundation is still kind of laying out its own foundation. Thankfully we had a couple of fundraising opportunities come our way, which allowed me to come on the board as the first and only paid employee of the foundation. That being said, we certainly want to be a sustainable organization that has revenue in place so we don’t always have to ask for money. What those are, we’re still trying to figure out.
What is the business model of the 1 Minute Candidate?
The idea is, we serve two audiences. One is the voters themselves. The other is political candidates, specifically on a local and state level. The idea is that voters essentially want to be more engaged and understand their political candidates on the ballot within their districts. But it can be really difficult and time-consuming to know about these candidates. So the idea for us is: “Hey, voter, watch a one-minute … video about the candidates,” where the candidate’s literally talking to the camera (and says), “Hey, voter, I’m running for X position in your district, here’s why you should vote for me.”
So now the voters get educated quickly, and for the political candidates, it becomes a digital platform to engage with those voters quickly and easily. So the revenue model would be that the political candidates pay to put their videos on their 1 Minute Candidate profile page. And then we also have an advertising engine, which allows these political candidates to drive more traffic via existing advertising platforms to their 1 Minute Candidate profile page.
What is the competition for that? Because there seems to be a lot of resources out there for politicians to market themselves.
I think that typical competition would be the mailers that they send out. The signs in the yard, the phone calls, those type of things. But I think we’re filling a niche that currently most state and local candidates are missing out on. … They’re missing this component of, “Hey, see me for who I am in an authentic medium,” which in our case is a video where the candidate’s talking to you. They currently don’t do that.
Where do you see yourself, 1 Minute Candidate and the Kansas City Startup Foundation in a few years?
So, 1 Minute Candidate, I think it is a fantastic idea, but as with any startup you have got to have the team and time to build it. Unless I find a time and a team to rally behind it, it will be really hard to keep this proposition for the long-term…
The foundation — again, a very young organization — we have our sights set high. It is a marathon, not a sprint. .. (T)he changes that we are trying to make and the connections, the establishment that we trying to create for ourselves in the Kansas City ecosystem is going to take some time. … But it comes down to: Just give us a chance and we will go as fast as we can.
And as for myself, this is a lifestyle that I have consciously chosen, so I love the somewhat-organized chaos. It really is not organized at all — it’s crazy. It’s a chaotic lifestyle, but it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s energizing.