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Moving Startups Forward Through Collaboration, Community and Caffeine

At the 2013 Inner City Economic Summit, we heard a group of panelists stress the need to create “organic places” to spur interaction among entrepreneurs. In creating such places, cities could help foster innovation.
But sometimes these “organic” spaces don’t come together so organically. Sometimes, entrepreneurs need a little shove to interact with other like-minded folks.
A growing trend is to create a place where innovators, venture capitalists, city officials and other interested parties gather on a regular basis to connect, collaborate and share a cup of coffee.
In Kansas City, entrepreneurs developed an interesting twist that combines innovation spaces with pitch competitions, or “shark tanks”: each Wednesday, two startup companies get the chance to present their business idea to a group of mentors, policymakers and other innovators. After a 6-minute presentation, the
presenter fields audience questions for another 20 minutes. During this time, the presenting entrepreneur can also solicit feedback from the group. The program, called 1 Million Cups, is run entirely by entrepreneurs and is supported by the Kauffman Foundation.
1 Million Cups is different from traditional pitch competitions – with this initiative, it’s really about connecting people and building meaningful, enduring relationships in which people routinely come together and help one another solve their business challenges. Entrepreneurs that present one week typically come back the following weeks to listen to other ideas and provide feedback to their peers. From PR and marketing help, to accessing alternative forms of capital, the topics of discussion are varied and audience members offer realistic solutions.
In Kansas City, 1 Million Cups has become the place to be and be seen among the city’s startup community.
“Really it’s a good chance to see what else is out there, see what’s moving and shakin’ and connect,” says Brendan Reilly, a frequent attendee. The original 1 Million Cup city now hosts up to 400 people each week.
Nate Olson, the co-founder of 1 Million Cups, had read of a program in Chicago where the startup community routinely met for coffee. And this got him thinking: “We put a hypothesis out there…that there is a culture that surrounds entrepreneurship, 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.”
 Allison Carenza, a professional child photographer, decided she wanted to create a product to make it easier to entertain children during photo shoots. She presented her Looky Loo Light at 1 Million Cups
last summer and has already received $19,000 in funding toward the development of her product. Stories like these are plentiful; with the advice and encouragement of others, budding entrepreneurs gain the
confidence needed to bring their products to the next stage.
1 Million Cups is now operating in more than 20 cities and there’s a list of 90 other cities who are interested in launching their own programs.
How is your city supporting small businesses and fostering entrepreneurship? Can programs be “created” that serve to bring people together “organically?”

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