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1 Million Cups: An Introduction to New Companies in the Colorado Technology Market

1MC_LogoAttending my first 1 Million Cups event last June, I had no idea what I was signing up for. But, inspired by their tradition of asking every single presenter, “what can we do to help you,” I knew I needed to be a part of it.

1 Million Cups started in 2011 in Kansas City, MO by the Kauffman Foundation with the premise that they wanted to build a local entrepreneurial community. They decided that it would take (at least) 1 Million Cups of coffee to do that. Less than two years later they are now in 65+ cities, including the Colorado technology market!

Think Shark Tank, but without the pitch for money and the shrewdness of Mr. Wonderful. Each week, each city hosts two local entrepreneurs who prepare a six-minute presentation for the audience and then open it up for a twenty-minute Q&A session. The entrepreneurs get immediate, candid feedback and gain real connections (much more than just a LinkedIn acceptance). The presenters are founders of start-ups that are ideally under 3 years old, post revenue and/or funding.

Since stepping in as an organizer this past summer, I’ve taken on the role of Recruiter (imagine that) where I am responsible for finding and scheduling local start-ups. Thankfully, we live in a city (Go Broncos!) that is filled with incredibly brave and crazy entrepreneurs that are changing technology and software. While there are many ways to meet people, 1 Million Cups is unique. We happen over coffee, not cocktails. Yes, I know a nice Pinot Grigio in your hand can calm your nerves, but our format doesn’t force you to mingle and awkwardly approach someone with your own elevator pitch. We foster an educational environment where you can passively listen or actively engage

Last summer, I introduced an idea called “Super Star Start-up” – a chance to hear from Denver based start-ups that have already achieved great success, but are still early enough to vividly recall the feelings and emotions of their story.

In August, I was able to secure one of the co-founders of Craftsy, Josh Scott. Craftsy launched in May 2011 and offers hundreds of classes in quilting, sewing, knitting, cake decorating, cooking and more through online video lessons. And get this: it was founded by 4 guys in their late 30s who didn’t have any interest in crafts (in fact, they tried wine tasting and economics classes first)!

A few key takeaways from what Josh shared? 1) It is OK if you are not your customer. But even if you are your customer, 2) get to know your customer; listen and be humble in learning from them. 3) When hiring, be proactive! Don’t hire for your current pain, but for the long term.

Just this week, we had another “Super Star Star-up”, and welcomed co-founder Luke Swanson from Ibotta. Founded three years ago this March, and launched in December 2012, Ibotta is a free mobile app where you can unlock cash back rewards on great products; simply scan your receipt and get real, actual, spendable, cash deposited back in your account. Points are cute but cash buys coffee. Sweet, glorious, coffee. They now have over 6 million users and are one of the most frequently used apps (running stats comparable to the giants like Twitter, Instagram & Facebook).

Some things we learned from Luke are: 1) Don’t Assume! Early on, they were concerned users would be unwilling to take a picture of their receipt to save money; so they tested it. They set up a table outside of Coors Field, and asked people to try it. Gathering feedback showed them that this could work! 2) Technology is awesome: Ibotta founders built their app knowing what technology is capable of, rather than just trying to get a newspaper coupon on a phone like some of their competitors. They also added gamification to increase engagement. 3) Step out of your comfort zone: Luke left two well-paying, stable jobs for careers in start-ups. With risk comes tremendous reward.

While we are currently booked through March, there will certainly be times we have to scramble when a last minute opportunity fills up an entrepreneur’s calendar. Our presenters have given us a lot of feedback and believe 1 Million Cups provides meaningful connections and insightful feedback. You never know when that advice could help them raise that next funding round, connect with a business partner or acquire a new customer that could launch them into Super Star status.

As part of the Kauffman tradition, I will eventually pass the reigns of co-organizer to another bright-eyed audience member who has no idea what they’re getting into. Until then, I will continue my hunt for courageous entrepreneurs willing to share their story. I am so thankful for the inspiration, connections and friendships that the 1 Million Cups community has offered me. Huge shout out to our current team of organizers that make this happen every week- it takes all of us: Breahna Beecher (Lead- entrepreneur, Revive Design Studios), Brent Cutcliffe (entrepreneur, Qwinix), Antoine Valot (entrepreneur), and Martha Brown (entrepreneur, Brown Bear Social). Thank you!

We hope you will join us next week, February 25th for Cheddar Up and Equipment Village!

1 Million Cups is just one way I strive to fulfill the EdgeLink mission “to make a positive impact on the lives and people that we touch”.