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1 Million Cups: Great Entrepreneurship, One Cup At A Time

With startups -- especially tech startups -- garnering vast amounts of press and enormous sums of money via IPOs and buyouts, it might seem like the business landscape is perfectly primed for a startup revolution. However, appearances can be deceiving, as the Kaufman Foundation learned some years ago. A study using the foundation's methodology coupled to US Census figures and summarized in Inc. Magazine concluded that "the number of companies less than a year old had declined as a share of all businesses by nearly 44 percent between 1978 and 2012. And those declines swept across industries, including tech." That spells bad news for the economy, since those new businesses are major drivers of innovation, employment, and economic benefits for the communities they serve.

The Kaufman Foundation, however, isn't just reporting on this trend as a dispassionate observer. The organization seeks to improve the business climate in the Kansas City area by encouraging engaged entrepreneurship and promoting business growth. One direct outgrowth of this has been 1 Million Cups, a joint undertaking between the Foundation and its recently departed co-founder Nate Olson that was founded in 2012.

The philosophy behind the organization is deceptively simple. As co-founder Nate Olson put it in a 2013 TED talk, "ommunities are built over cups of coffee, over relationships. So we started with the hypothesis that if Kansas City's entrepreneurs could drink a million cups of coffee together, that we could fundamentally change the culture of entrepreneurship in Kansas City."


One In a Million

Drink a million cups of coffee together, in other words, and the culture changes. Olson points to the earlier fragmentation of the Kansas City start-up community, and then looks back further to the first coffee house in London (founded in 1650) as a model for community building and renewal. The stimulant effects of caffeine stimulated the flow of ideas among a group of people from diverse backgrounds who had equally diverse ideas.

1 Million Cups brings this diverse and collaborative ethos forward a few centuries to help people with good ideas test their ideas in a unique -- and uniquely supportive -- environment. Every week for the last year, the nonprofit has partnered two emerging startups present to other startups, funders, mentors and anyone in the community who's interested.

Every week, two startups present six-minute presentations followed by 20 minutes of post-presentation questions and feedback for each. The presenting entrepreneurs benefit from community feedback on critical business issues and become more invested in their communities. Their audience, meantime, gets to learn about business tactics and strategies while supporting businesses that help to build their communities. Rather than pushing the idea of the entrepreneur as lone genius, 1 Million Cups fosters an entrepreneurial ecosystem that promotes success.

What started as a local initiative has proven to be as hardy as a Robusto plant, taking root far from home. 1 Million Cups has expanded far beyond Kansas City to operate in several states, in locations as diverse as Anchorage, Portland, Shreveport, Salt Lake City, Providence, Fargo and Peoria. With representation in Morocco and Puerto Rico, the organization has even begun to expand beyond the borders of the United States, and the organization aims to bring still more communities into the fold. What if you could start more than just your day with a cup of coffee? In a roundabout way, that simple question gave rise to 1 Million Cups, and in the process helped to build a series of dynamic and diverse startup communities that encourages sharing and collaboration, one cup of coffee at a time.

Find Out More:

1 Million Cups on the web: Nate Olson's introduction to 1 Million Cups: Nate's 2013 TED Talk: Brew something interesting over coffee with HiLine's pods for Keurig