Just a year after the first 1 Million Cups forum landed in Little Rock, local officials are encouraged by the emergence of the program as a key player in the state and region’s flourishing startup community – yet they’re hopeful for an even bigger payoff in the future.
Started in 2012 in Kansas City, 1 Million Cups (1MC) is a weekly national program designed to “educate, engage and connect entrepreneurs” that has expanded to 66 cities as of January 2015. Developed by the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation, the weekly events across the U.S. build on the idea of bringing entrepreneurs together to brainstorm, discuss business plans and network over a cup of coffee.
Jordon Carlisle, who has emerged as the face and informal voice of the Little Rock 1 Million Cups chapter, currently has dual roles as director of entrepreneurship programming for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, and director of community engagement for the downtown Venture Center.
In his role as the facilitator for the Wednesday morning coffee club, Carlisle told Talk Business & Politics recently that his “cups” journey over the past year has been an amazing learning experience for him and other regulars who attend the weekly caffeinated forum. During the last 12 months, each week a local entrepreneur, a new startup or early-stage company gives a presentation about an idea, product or service they’ve created.
“When coming to 1 Million Cups every single week, there is one amazing thing that happens. You learn through osmosis by being a part of the community, and you are giving yourself an advantage by the relationships you build and by being around other smart people that are doing things and solving problems in the community,” said Carlisle.
“You can’t help but to pick up things along the way,” said the startup guru, whose bio says he hope to create over $1.5 billion in value for others “before I die.”
Susie Cowan, executive director of local event planning firm Legends of Arkansas, is another 1 Million Cups participant who has attended all of the events of the past 52 weeks. She started attending quite by accident after a friend invited her to come and see what the event was about it, she said.
Since then, Cowan has not missed one of the weekly business pitches, and says she comes away with something new each time because many of the attendees and presenters are experts in a particular discipline or area that may benefit her own business.
“It has taken my business to a new level. My presentations are a hundred times better, and my network of local businesses and the contacts I’ve made are incredible,” Cowan said. “Now when I have a question, there may be someone from an advertising agency, or an intellectual property lawyer in the room … to answer every question (I) may have.”
Like Carlisle, Cowan is now one of the local “community organizers” for 1 Million Cups in Central Arkansas. In that role, she serves as an independent licensee and local ambassador for the 1MC trade name, promoting the community on social media and by word-of-mouth.
Besides Carlisle and Cowan, the other two organizers for the Little Rock group is Mike Steely, a local startup entrepreneur and founder of digital analytics startup Sparkible Idea Co., and Nicolas Norfolk, the ever-present social media guru and co-founder of ConnectDots Media and HARK.
Cowan and Norfolk also recently attended the 1 Million Cups “organizer summit” at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City that brought together 1MC devotees from over 30 states across the country — from such communities as Little Rock, Fargo, N.D. and Peoria, Ill. to large urban areas like Chicago and Tampa, Fla.
Cowan said the summit allowed organizers to discuss everything from how their local startup communities compared to others to how they could aid entrepreneurs they meet on a weekly basis. The Little Rock event planner said she learned that the Central Arkansas entrepreneurial and tech community is starting to gain a national reputation nationally as an emerging leader in the startup world, but still has strides to make in areas such as local business support and seed funding.
Meanwhile, Carlisle said one of the “coolest stories” that has emerged during the first year of the program was a presentation given last summer by Lucas Deem of RetroCat Media, a local creative media firm that caters to artist, musicians and small businesses. At the time, the business was located in Fayetteville where Deem was contemplating a move back to Central Arkansas to be nearer to his family.
“The Lucas Deem story kinds of weaves in and out so many different programs that goes on in the Little Rock startup community,” Carlisle said. “At the time he was on the fence about whether or not to stay in Fayetteville …, but when he came down to present – he got so much business that he decided to move back to Little Rock.”
Since then, the pipeline of connections that RetroCat made nearly 10 months ago has grown several-fold though relationships initiated from Deems’ first 1 Million Cups presentation, Carlisle said. “He made connections upon connections from this entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said.
The Venture Center staffer went on to describe several other similar stories of local entrepreneurs that have grown their businesses, emerged beyond early stage development, or gained access to investors or venture capital through 1 Million Cups. On the other hand, he also admitted that a number of the local startups that presented have faded away, gone out of business, or developed into something totally different.
However, he argued those varied experiences, including the high percentage of early stage companies that will, struggle, fail or fall by the wayside, also play an important role in the success of other companies that learn from the mistake of others.
He said that the exciting part each week is to hear a story about a local business that is at first barely able to survive from week to week, and then later on makes the leap to hiring their first employees or finding early stage funding to grow to the next level.
“Success is important we definitely want to see that, but the purpose behind (1 Million Cups) is education,” Carlisle said. ”We say that each week to remind everyone here, but we want to create an environment where everyone learns from each other.”
“You are going to get something out of it every single time,” he promised.
Carlisle said the key to the growth of the program is to attract more people who are not running a company, developing a business, or calls themselves an entrepreneur, as well as getting support from the local business owners who allow employees to attend to learn and network.
What he hopes to see, Carlisle said, is a Little Rock version of 1 Million Cups that grows to the size and involvement of similar programs in Kansas City, Fargo and several other cities where attendance each week at the coffee-fueled events has swelled to more than 1,000 people.
And like other communities that have gained reputations for a particular style, culture or thriving business sector such as tech-centered and knowledge-based communities like Austin, Silicon Valley, or Fargo, Carlisle believes that the growing influence of data technology companies like Acxiom, Merkel, HP, PrivacyStar and Inuvo will ultimately shape the local startup culture.
The Little Rock startup disciple said tech-savvy, socially-conscious nonprofits will play a major role in creating a unique startup and tech culture in Central Arkansas
“One idea that I haven’t heard much about is the idea that a public servant is just as much an entrepreneur as the next founder,” he said. “By pairing tech engineers with the leadership from the lineage and legacy of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like the Clinton Foundation, Winrock international and the Heifer Foundation – they have a lot of power to change the world.
“By colliding NGOs with the tech ecosystem, we will see a lot more come out of that because Little Rock already has both of them,” said Carlisle.