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One Million Cups, The Heartbeat Of Kansas City's Startup Community

Laura Ziegler

One Million Cups, a weekly showcase and get-together for Kansas City's startup community, has become the place to be and be seen. Every Wednesday morning at 9 a.m., the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation opens its doors, puts on coffee, and some weeks, welcomes as many as 400.

Last week, a few of the regular entrepreneurs, Brendan Reilly, Jonny Kot and George Brooks, join others hovering around the Kauffman Foundation’s long coffee bar before presentations begin. Engrossed in excited conversations, they trade twitter handles and the occasional business card.

Kot and Brendan Reilly say 1 Million Cups has become a regular event for budding and established entrepreneurs alike — a town square for geeks.

“One Million Cups is a platform where people can come, connect, engage, and collaborate,” Kot says.

“Really it’s a good chance to see what else is out there, see what’s moving and shakin’, and connect,” Reilly adds.

Cali England recently presented her concept for expanding the health food company she launched in California. It’s called Cali’s Living Food.

Here’s how it works: presenters like England apply to 1 Million Cups. Community organizers review the applications looking for startups with potential to have an impact on the community— to create jobs, solve problems, or “pain points,” as the entrepreneurs call them.

England had cracked the competitive California market and local feedback told her there was room to grow in Kansas City. Her audience was enthusiastic, offering suggestions about how to solicit funding, or market her product.

Brendon Reilly has a virtual reality software company for football players and coaches. He says he got terrific suggestions from his presentation to 1 Million Cups.

“Oh Man, everything from PR help, marketing, SEO…..…Search Engine Optimization. People were willing to stick out their hands for a handshake,” says Reilly.

But it seemed weird to me that you would go before hundreds of other chomping-at-the-bit, super smart would-be entrepreneurs and not worry someone would steal your idea.

Kot said a lot of people wonder the same thing.

“So, that question comes up quite a bit. In my eyes, there’s billions and billions ideas if not trillions of ideas, but there’s only millions who go and try and execute on that ... hundreds of thousands … actually make something of it," says Kot.

"That doesn’t come from sharing it with one person, but comes from seeing it through the whole process.”

Since it started in April 2012, 1 Million Cups has developed a distinct culture, and like any culture, there are things that the members have in common. Like what they wear. Not many suits, for example. Jeans, T -shirts and Converse tennis shoes are more the norm.

And there’s the way they talk. For example, a lot of people begin their sentences with “so,” and they often pepper them with the word, "right?"

Nate Olsen, a co-founder of 1 Million Cups, says the idea for the meeting came from an online article called A Million Cups, about how coffee helped grow the Chicago startup community. He says it sparked an idea.

"We put a hypothesis there... that there is a culture that surrounds entrepreneurship," says Olsen. "A culture of togetherness, that you give before you get, and if we could get Kansas City’s entrepreneurs to drink a million cups of coffee together we could fundamentally change the culture of entrepreneurship in KC.”

Twenty-three cities so far have started their own 1 Million Cups meetups. Olsen says he’ll soon be traveling to some of the 90 additional cities that are in line to do the same.

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