[This post is part of the Successes of Philanthropy series, a sponsored project of the Washington Monthly. Learn more here.]
In more than 80 communities across the country, founders of early-stage startup companies gather each Wednesday morning to meet each other, swap notes and share ideas. At each of these events, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups initiative, one or two of these entrepreneurs present their companies to peers, mentors, educators and advisors. Each six-minute presentation is followed by a 20-minute question-and-answer session with the audience.
In places like Fargo, North Dakota, organizers credit these weekly events as their “town hall” for the community’s entrepreneurs. “It fuels our community’s weekly rhythm,” says Fargo, North Dakota, 1 Million Cups organizer Greg Tehven.
In Fargo, one company that got a boost from 1 Million Cups was Botlink, which develops software for flying drones. After its four founders launched the company with very limited resources, Botlink caught the attention of several local angel investors at a November 2014 presentation with Fargo’s 1 Million Cups. The investors infused $500,000 into the fledgling company, which was then able to hire seven developers and increase its customer base. Five months later, the expanding firm raised an additional $5 million. Botlink now has 17 employees, has dramatically increased its capabilities and has been featured in both Fortune and The New York Times. Its founders credit 1 Million Cups for jumpstarting their success.
Research makes it clear that startup companies drive job and economic growth in America. In fact, young companies provide virtually all of the net new job growth in the United States. Recognizing this, policymakers and local leaders across the country have long sought ways to accelerate entrepreneurship. Yet, government-driven strategies that rely on public seed funding or on traditional incubators have often proved ineffective.
1 Million Cups, however, relies on a different strategy, based on long-running research by the Kauffman Foundation on how to foster entrepreneurial success nationwide. Based in Kansas City, Missouri, Kauffman has extensively researched entrepreneurial companies’ impact on the U.S. economy’s long-term health. The Foundation supports research that informs policymakers, sponsors education programs for entrepreneurs and provides grants and partnerships targeting metro areas seeking to strengthen their entrepreneurial communities. 1 Million Cups was born from Kauffman’s work indicating that startup companies do best when founders can engage in local entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Kauffman launched 1 Million Cups in 2012, inspired by an article authored by Technori founder Seth Kravitz. A startup community “doesn’t come from cramming 50 startups into a space together or bringing in a major keynote or having a billion dollars in investment,” Kravitz wrote. “A true community is built upon a million cups of coffee …. A million meaningful interactions between people in which all sides walk away feeling they were heard, learned something, and built a meaningful bridge.”
Each 1 Million Cups event helps to foster those interactions and build those bridges.
Before making their presentations, the entrepreneurs who speak at each 1 Million Cups event incorporate lessons from the Kauffman Founders School “Powerful Presentations” series, featuring a seasoned presentation coach. Afterward, the presenter engages in a 20-minute question and answer session with the audience. Finally, each founder receives feedback via an audience survey and from its city’s local organizers.
The presentation process gives entrepreneurs a chance to discover challenges and opportunities in their business models and to hone their speaking skills. The feedback the presenters receive gives them perspectives they wouldn’t otherwise find in a single setting, and they take away new connections and insights for improving their businesses.
1 Million Cups’ impact cannot be measured by traditional methods, but its remarkable growth – driven almost entirely by word of mouth – demonstrates its relevance and impact in cities nationwide.
By the end of 2012, after eight months of operation, 1 Million Cups had already kicked off in a second city. By the end of 2013, the initiative had spread to 23 cities, and then to 66 cities in 2014. Each week, some 3,000 people in 37 states and one U.S. territory attend 1 Million Cups events. In 2015 alone, more than 2,250 founders shared their companies’ stories. It’s taken only three short years for 1 Million Cups to reach the more than 80 communities we have today, from Anchorage to Atlanta.
The program’s website also continues to receive three to six applications from cities weekly, reflecting entrepreneurs’ hunger to leverage the environment 1 Million Cups creates as they tackle the complex task of starting a company. Many civic leaders now view having a 1 Million Cups program in their area as a key component of building an entrepreneur-friendly city.
“The thing I find most compelling about 1 Million Cups is the simplicity of the model in this ‘ever-on, ever-connected’ era,” says Greg Hilton, the organizer of 1 Million Cups in Columbia, South Carolina. “It truly is like a welcome mat for your startup community. You don’t need to know a soul to get plugged in, get connected and access talent and resources. You just show up.”
In his book, Startup Communities, serial entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist Brad Feld says the most effective entrepreneurial programs are run by local entrepreneurs, who best understand the needs of startup founders in their own communities. The success of 1 Million Cups validates Feld’s theory. Rather than franchising or hiring staff to run 1 Million Cups events, the initiative is community-centric.
Local volunteer organizers, now 400 strong, run their events following the program’s original framework. 1 Million Cups costs communities nothing. Organizers find a venue willing to provide meeting space and a sponsor who covers the cost of coffee. The Kauffman Foundation provides local organizers support through emails, phone calls, site visits and summits.
The best examples of 1 Million Cups’ impact are the experiences of the entrepreneurs who participate.
Casey D. Sibley, whose startup designs and markets original fabric accessories, credits 1 Million Cups events in her city of Reno, Nevada, with helping her focus on the business side of her operation.
“1 Million Cups definitely helped me to start taking my business more seriously. While preparing for my presentation, I actually looked at my revenue for the first time,” she says. “Now, I am making big plans for my business and tracking everything, from business finances, to the types of customers buying from me.”
Dana Bruce, founder of In a Pickle, a mobile app for finding last-minute childcare, calls 1 Million Cups an “empowering platform” for her venture. “The feedback I received not only helped point me in my next direction of development but also opened doors to potential partners,” she says.
As 1 Million Cups evolves, it serves as a laboratory of sorts that teaches lessons about the value of local entrepreneurial ecosystems. “When we presented in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, it felt as though everyone in the community had our back and wanted to help us succeed,” says Matthew Rooda, founder ofÂ SwineTech, a startup that has developed a low-cost way to improve pork production yields.
But the biggest lesson from 1 Million Cups might be this – that doing more of what works is the secret to growing entrepreneurship in America.
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