Anyone who has seen “Shark Tank,” or shows of its ilk, knows this is an exciting time for start-ups. There are also many challenges.

  • Even though unemployment has fallen and the stock market has been generally robust of late, the latest data from the Census Bureau last September showed the number of new businesses is increasing at a much slower pace than before the recession of 2008.
  • A total of 414,000 businesses were formed in 2015 (the most recent year surveyed), which was a slight increase from the previous year but far off the 558,000 new companies reported in 2006.
  • The share of companies less than a year old in the United States went from about 15 percent in 1980 to 8.1 percent in 2015.

1 Million Cups is addressing this in an exciting and hands-on way, while providing start-ups a true sense of relatability with others and a spirit of community. Self-described as a free national event designed to educate, engage and connect entrepreneurs, the program is an opportunity for start-ups to get crucial feedback from others in the same boat. Each week, two local entrepreneurs get a chance to present their start-ups to a diverse audience of entrepreneurs, mentors, advisers and even civic leaders via a six-minute educational presentation, followed by 20 minutes of feedback and questions.

The coffee is free, the experience priceless. “Presenters often share how valuable it is to receive feedback on their business,” says Jordan Marsillo, 1 Million Cups program associate for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which developed the event in 2012. “Not only are they getting insights, suggestions and knowledge, they are also able to engage in a real dialogue to maximize their time with the community. Building and strengthening relationships within the community is another added benefit.”

‘Great questions, energy’

The new 1 Million Cups location for the Irvine, California, chapter is ironically located in the first floor of the so-called Starbucks building on California Avenue. Erik Melander, who presented for BerryCart—a mobile app used for discovering deals on all-natural foods—said in a 2104 YouTube video that “it was a great crowd of people. Everybody was engaged. They asked a lot of great questions, a very helpful crowd.

“It’s a great energy. You can tell people are here to help.”

The Irvine location is among the more than 160 cities with 1 Million Cups chapters throughout the United States as of early 2018. Marsillo says that during the past five-plus years, 1 Million Cups “has adapted to the needs of the communities offering the program, as well as to what is happening in the field of entrepreneurship. The largest changes have been to keep up with the demand and scale of the program.”

Meeting the needs of the respective communities has been a key to the event’s success. “When the program began, it was being used as a way to learn more about what was happening with entrepreneurs in our back yard,” Marsillo says. “Because learning was the focal point, entrepreneurs were being asked, ‘What can we, as a community, do to help you?’ and that is still true today.

“1MC has always been about helping those who are starting or building something new, succeed. The program started in Kansas City at the Kauffman Foundation by a small team of Kauffman Associates, although we quickly learned that in order to truly help entrepreneurs, we needed to get the community involved. We invited the community to join the sessions and to eventually lead the programs. Today, we have more than 800 volunteer community organizers across the country leading 1MCs at the local level.”

Finding solutions

Although the atmosphere at a 1MC event is generally supportive, participants get the most out of it when they are receptive to alternative solutions. As one participant said: “It’s not just about finding all your good things. It’s like, ‘What’s getting in your way? What do you really need?’”

In that spirit of maxing out results, people applying to present at 1 Million Cups are instructed to watch a series of Kauffman Founders School videos, which provide important information for people starting a business. This helps possible presenters prepare to present and address the most salient aspects when they address the audience.

The program is attuned to the increasing role of social media in all businesses, not just start-ups: “As part of joining the 1MCnation, we provide a Twitter handle to each community as a first stepping stone for marketing and engagement,” Marsillo says. “Many communities build upon that and create Facebook and Instagram pages to further promote, engage and champion their programs.”
1 Million Cups is dedicated to helping start-ups navigate their many challenges. Some speculate that big companies have hurt entrepreneurship by making it easier for incumbent businesses to kill off challengers—or swallow them before they become a serious threat.

Marsillo identifies “the big three” hurdles for start-ups—“access to capital; access to talent; access to networks. Primarily, 1MC reduces the barrier of access to networks, but it has also helped some entrepreneurs secure funding (outside of the event) through connections or presentation practice.

“There have also been cases where entrepreneurs have found their co-founders or first employees via 1MC. As many of the companies that present at 1MC are 0 to 2 years old, we often see entrepreneurs searching to nail down their product-market fit and hone their target audience.”