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Just a Cup of Joe?

Thom Ruhe

1 Million CupsSome of my entrepreneurially-interested coworkers at the Kauffman Foundation have an interesting article on Huffington Post right now. It dissects the organic growth of 1 Million Cups (1MC) in support of a new finding: that word of mouth networking helps build early-stage startup communities better than social media. How is this so in today’s digital age when breaking news makes its way around the world in seemingly nanoseconds with the aid of Twitter and Facebook? Well, building a startup community is a little different.

It was nearly one year ago that the Foundation posed a question to our community: how many cups of coffee need to be consumed in the presence of entrepreneurs, mentors, funders, and related supporting cast to launch great new companies? Our quest for an answer started very modestly. We informally invited two startups to present at the Foundation of Entrepreneurship on Wednesday morning to a room filled with—back then, Kauffman associates. A few minutes of pitching was followed by audience injected questions, feedback, and thoughts.

Well, this slightly impromptu activity, which originated from within the walls of Kauffman Labs as a way for us to interact even more so with the with KC’s entrepreneurial community, has taken off (you can see just how much in the Huffington Post article I mentioned). What I want to offer is a few thoughts on why this networking idea has helped build a growing social scene for entrepreneurs better than any LinkedIn group ever could.

  1. You can’t drink coffee virtually. There’s something about grabbing a cup of coffee with a colleague or business partner that will never be replaced by technology-based connections. There’s a palpable energy in the room that fuels results-oriented conversation—but you’d have to be there to know it. And it turns out, people who’ve felt it want to share it and people who haven’t, want to feel it.
  2. People were craving this. We of course know that networking is crucial for entrepreneurs. But this kind of format—one that provides a gathering that at the least, gives entrepreneurs a much-desired outlet to just talk about their passion (when it’s all you do and live, you have to talk about it) and at best, offers entrepreneurs that illusive feedback that might change the trajectory of their business—wasn’t happening. When you find something that works you talk about it—via your own social media networks—and you keep coming back. 
  3. It’s transparent—something the Internet almost never is. We all know those online commenters who sit in the comfort of their homes and spend the late night hours taking shots at other people—everything from their hardships and achievements to their company ideas and families. 1MC is nothing like that. We do encourage each entrepreneur’s pitch to be followed by audience questions, ranging from idea inspiration, market research, viability, commitment of the presenter to pursue the idea, but you can bet that no one is there with ill will. Entrepreneurs are there because they want real feedback and mentors, funders and other supporters are there because they want to offer it. The forum is refreshing and it keeps people coming back.
  4. It’s easy. All you have to do is sign up and show up. It’s that simple. And let me say that operating it is nearly as effortless—it’s just coffee. And while writing 140 characters isn’t so tough either, building your social media network is most certainly work. 1MC was the right event with the right feel and the right kind of people—with its doors wide open. And people are walking through them.


It’s this simplistic forum and ease of replication that is leading to the spread of 1MC and we at Kauffman are thrilled to see it grow. It’s already being replicated in cities like Reno, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Houston, and St. Louis. If you’re interested in seeding this kind of startup growth—the kind that requires minimal watering and just a lot of Joe—within your community, just drop an email to our 1MC(MC) Nate “Big Cup” Olson at

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