Like many business ideas, it started with a few passionate people and some coffee.
While working at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., 23-year-old Omaha native Nate Olson noticed that Kansas City was missing something that was present in larger startup communities — a density of people and ideas that forced entrepreneurs to run into one another frequently.
“I ... found that our community was extremely fragmented and the business owners starting new, scalable companies largely didn't know each other,” said Olson, who worked in the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation.
So he organized 1 Million Cups, a weekly program meant to engage and connect entrepreneurs, in Kansas City last year. The model has since spread to other communities, including Des Moines, Iowa City, Reno, Nev., Orlando, Fla., and Houston. Wednesday, it will launch in Omaha, its 20th city, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Mammel Hall, 6708 Pine St. On some Wednesdays, 1 Million Cups will be in Lincoln at software development firm Nebraska Global.
The program's model is consistent in each location. Each Wednesday at 9 a.m., early-stage startups present their companies to an audience of mentors, advisers and other entrepreneurs. Founders present for six minutes each and then field audience questions for an additional 20 minutes. Omaha's first presenter will be Julie Mahloch, founder and CEO of Bloom.com, a social networking site for beauty product lovers and professionals.
The program is run locally by volunteer entrepreneurs, who recruit presenters to participate and organize each event.
“We only work with entrepreneurs, to keep it neutral, to keep it educational for everyone and to largely let the community build itself,” Olson said.
Assuming the leadership roles in Omaha are Scott Bishop, owner of digital marketing firm Crave Engine; Shane Reiser, co-founder of startup community data platform Startup Genome; and Danny Schrieber, who is in marketing for Zapier, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., and automates tasks between web applications.
“After seeing the impact 1 Million Cups has had on neighboring cities, we're excited to bring the weekly gathering to Nebraska,” Reiser said in a prepared statement. “Our hope is it will increase our state's connectivity and knowledge share and, in the end, build better startups.”
The program has also created a “community of communities,” Olson said, which allows an entrepreneur from Denver to present in Omaha, or any other participating city. “We're creating the front door of the startup community in all of these places,” he said.
The Kansas City event started with about 12 attendees in April 2012 and now draws more than 250, Olson said. About 70 cities, some international, are in the queue hoping to get started. Omaha, which joins Tulsa, Okla., and Peoria, Ill., in launching on Wednesday, is the last set of starts for this year.
Next year, Olson said he hopes to improve the way cities join the program. “My goal is based on the process, that if you want to have it, you don't have to wait a year. That's where we're going now,” he said.
Seeing his hometown join the roster is a reward, Olson said. He graduated from Millard North High School and, from there, attended Rockhurst University in Kansas City.
“To come to Kansas City and to use the resources here to build something and home-grow something in the Midwest that will impact my family members ... and the community that raised me, I think that's really gratifying.”