1 Million Cups

On any given Wednesday morning at 9am Central time, I invite you to show up at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, “the Foundation of Entrepreneurship,” in Kansas City, Missouri.  Ask the receptionist to direct you to 1 Million Cups (“1MM Cups”).  No reservations necessary.


Last year, my colleagues in Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation dreamt up 1 Million Cups as a means to engage entrepreneurs in the local community. Each week, two startup founders are invited to pitch their companies to the audience.  They get about six minutes to present followed by up several minutes of Q&A and advice from the audience.


When the program first started, the audience consisted purely of Kauffman Foundation associates and affiliates (like my own Kauffman FastTrac).  Metaphorically speaking, of course, 1MM Cups refers to one million cups of coffee.  Those of us who office at the Foundation worried that we were going to have to down all that coffee ourselves.  Times have a-changed!


What happened?  Word got out.  More entrepreneurs wanted to present their companies; more community members wanted to hear the startup pitches.  The doors were thrown open and the audience poured in.  Now when the entrepreneurs present their companies, it is to a diverse audience of mentors, advisors and entrepreneurs.  Low and behold a community formed around 1MM Cups.  It is no longer a weekly gathering hosted by Kauffman Labs; it has become a movement and the entrepreneurs have taken over!


I encourage many people to attend 1MM Cups.  Sure, I encourage them to come for a cup ‘o joe, listen to the pitches – they are certainly interesting and worthwhile to get to know.  However, the most interesting part of 1MM Cups has nothing to do with the presenting entrepreneurs themselves.  No; instead, the most interesting part of 1MM Cups is the amazing networking!  Networking that happens before the presentations, networking that happens during the presentations, networking that happens in between presentations and at the break, networking that happens long after the coffee urn has been put away and the crowd disperses.


A few months ago, my husband, Marc Hammer, who is a financial planner with HighPointe Financial Group, mentioned that he was itching to find authentic networking opportunities.  On a whim, I casually mentioned 1MM Cups.  To my delight, that Wednesday morning, he said, “See you at the Foundation,” and headed over to his first 1MM Cups event.  He’s been back every week since.  To him, it is a great way to keep his finger on the pulse of what is going on in the entrepreneurial community, he’s meeting tons of people and learning about their businesses, he’s identified several promising business prospects and he’s made a bunch of friends.  On Wednesdays, he knows far more people in my office building than I do!


At 1MM Cups, connections and ideas are made and shared.    It’s this sharing of ideas and exposure to different perspectives that help facilitate more sharing of information, resources and contacts by all attendees.  Plus, helping the presenting entrepreneurs to more quickly advance their businesses and take them to the next level is particularly gratifying for audience members.   This is business at the grassroots level, this is how business gets done and how community is built and it’s all about networking.

The 1MM Cups phenomenon is not limited to Kansas City.  Last week, during Global Entrepreneurship Week, 1MM Cups launched in Des Moines, Iowa.  It is set to take off in several other communities in the coming weeks and months.  It is an amazing, low budget, non-threatening, supportive, incredible way to build community and it is so easy.


Years ago, when I interacted with the music industry as part of my role in Sprint’s wireless data entertainment team, I recall marveling at Pandora Radio’s Tim Westegren.  This is a guy who single-handedly built community around him.  He traversed the country hosting “town hall” meetings to present his thesis for the “Music Genome Project.”  At the first town hall, marketed solely through word-of-mouth (like 1MM Cups), which took place in New York City, only two people showed up.  Not defeated, he continued to host town hall meetings wherever he traveled.  Incredibly, more and more folks started showing up.  Word spread like wildfire!  We hosted him once at Sprint – for Sprint employees only – and at least 600 people tuned in in person and via webcast to listen to Tim talk about Pandora.  I read that at his most recent town hall session in NYC, held last month, more than 1,000 people opted in.  And, Pandora now boasts more than 150 million registered users.  His grassroots approach to building community has paid off.  Not only is Pandora a hugely popular application, but its very life has been saved from potentially damaging regulations time and again by the community that supported its creation in the first place.


You can recreate 1MM Cups or town hall meetings… call them whatever you will… in your city, too.  Pick a location – a coffee shop would work well for starters (be prepared to quickly outgrow your space!).  Invite a few friends, pick a few presenters – be they entrepreneurs or just people with good ideas to share (e.g. TEDx style) – and you’ve launched!  Commit to showing up every week… or every month… or however frequently you choose (the more frequency in the beginning, the more word-of-mouth will help to drive engagement) and to inviting a few more friends, colleagues, strangers to join you – have them bring others, too.  Voila!  You’ve built a well-networked community from scratch!


Go on… what are you waiting for?

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