First it was Kansas City. Then Des Moines. Then St. Louis and Houston. Then 115 — soon to 116 — cities in all.
A modest proposal in 2012, made by two entrepreneurship experts at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, now bears business fruit from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Williston, N.D.
The idea was to create weekly local gatherings of people who are starting or growing young businesses, to connect them with business advisers, to expose them to financiers, and to exchange ideas with others who’ve been in their shoes or even the simply curious.
The concept born at Kauffman’s headquarters was christened 1 Million Cups, based on the idea that communities are created over a million cups of coffee. Now, at its fifth anniversary in Kansas City, that community continues to gather every Wednesday morning under the idea of “caffeinating an entrepreneurial nation — one city and one cup at a time.”
“1 Million Cups is definitely a launching pad for us and other small businesses,” said Ben Jackson, co-founder of Bungii, one of two new businesses that presented to the crowd on Wednesday. “We’re blessed to have the opportunity it provides.”
Last year Jackson and fellow Kansas State University graduate Harrison Proffitt started a company that provides on-call truck pickup and delivery service via an app. The concept, similar to Uber or Lyft, uses contract drivers who supply their own pickup trucks when summoned by people who need something moved that doesn’t fit in their own vehicles.
The Kansas City organizing team at 1 Million Cups each week selects two applicant startups to present at the Wednesday meetings. Each is asked to review Kauffman’s “Founders School” preparation guidelines and prepare a six-minute business summary. Each presenter is offered a 15- to 20-minute question period to get feedback from the audience and Kauffman leaders.
“This was so helpful, to step back from the day-to-day business and look at it from a higher level,” Jackson said. “It was great to do the prep, to figure out what would be most relevant to the audience.”
The biggest pre-presentation help to Bungii, Jackson said, was the revelation that their per-consumer acquisition costs were less than they’d thought.
“We’re very happy we’re on the right track,” Jackson said. “We launched in November 2016, and since then we’ve maintained a 25 to 30 percent monthly growth rate. That’s huge. Last week we expanded into Lawrence. Within three years we hope to be operational in every major city in the Midwest. Within five years, we hope to be in the top 250 cities.”
There’s no shortage of lofty goals like that at week after week of 1 Million Cups meetings. Enterprises that pitch their startups have ranged from hand-made jewelry crafts to ultra-sophisticated software and electronic products.
Despite high hopes and community support, some of the presented ideas have withered, unable to find markets or money. But believers abound.
Around the country, 1 Million Cups meetings register about 3,500 weekly attendees. Gatherings generally range from about 40 to several hundred. In Kansas City, weekly attendance runs between 100 and 175 a week, according to lead organizer Courtney Windholz.
Nationally, about 700 community organizers keep the coffee pots hot and the presenters lined up. Organizers figure that by the end of last year, more than 23,000 people had heard 3,632 business presentations around the country.
“In every city, local volunteers organize the meetings,” said Jordan Marsillo, the program’s national coordinator based at the foundation. “We work with the community organizers to help them dig into the Kauffman culture and 1 Million Cups format.”
Windholz said Kansas City, as the founding venue, draws presenter interest from around the country. “People want to get on our stage,” she said. “Some see it as the most prestigious.”
Currently, the Kauffman team is exploring ways to encourage more diversity in finding and choosing startup presenters, Marsillo said. Other than that, she said, feedback surveys indicate that the meetings are serving the needs of presenters and satisfying attendees.
“We’re giving people real-world feedback that they otherwise might not get,” she said.
Kauffman doesn’t attempt to track business success or failure rates among the presenters, Marsillo said. But she’s convinced there’s value in connecting startups with their target markets and helping them pivot based on feedback from the meetings.
Jackson said he and Proffitt felt comfortable last Wednesday when they had their 1 Million Cups time in Kansas City. They’ve made similar presentations before.
“All the questions were basic. We’ve handled these things,” Jackson said after the event. “But after hundreds of conversations, no one had suggested this one thing to us before. Someone came up to us afterward and suggested a marketing niche that we hadn’t thought of before.”