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A Conversation With … Sterling Huff

Co-founder, 1 Million Cups Springfield

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What is 1 Million Cups?
It’s a program created by the [Ewing Marion] Kauffman Foundation to connect entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs almost by nature are pretty independent. Kauffman saw the idea for pulling entrepreneurs together so they could connect not just with themselves, but also with the community and people who wanted to support entrepreneurship. The name is a play on the fact that in one way it takes a million cups of coffee to get anything done, and then hopefully that communities can be changed over a cup of coffee. It started in 2012 in Kansas City. We started working on (Springfield) at the end of 2013; it didn’t open until February 2014. There are over 180 locations across the country right now. Other than the in-kind support that Kauffman provides, there’s not a dollar budget. We don’t charge admission, the presenters are not charged and the organizers volunteer.

How does the program work?
We’ve run approximately 400 companies through the 1 Million Cups platform here in Springfield. Entrepreneurs apply to present on our website. The organizers approve those presenters. We’re looking for two entrepreneurs every week. We give the presenter some suggestions as to what to cover. On Monday afternoons, we invite those presenters to come in and do a dry run. We run through their six- to eight-minute pitch, and then we’ll have 20 minutes of Q&A from the audience. That’s a good way for them to share about their business, connect with other entrepreneurs and supporters, people looking to invest, distributers and vendors. One issue we hear a lot is that people are afraid of public speaking. That’s why we do the dry runs. No other 1MCs do that. We like to think we help people get in front of a crowd and sell their business. We’re a really nice “Shark Tank” without the sharks.

Why bring 1MC to Springfield?
Devin Dillon, Rick Thomas and myself were the original co-founding organizers of the event. Each of us either was or had been an entrepreneur. I’ve been primarily in the banking business, but for a few years I was the CEO and part owner of a manufacturing company. We all were familiar with the space and knew how difficult it could be to run your own show.

What are some success stories of entrepreneurs who have participated?
Josh Holstein’s company, CellARide. He has presented two or three times at 1 Million Cups, and I know he credits us with helping him getting some initial funding for the company. He’s done really well. Ken Coleman, who started Guerrilla Signs. He has used the 1MC platform, he’s gone to over 50 1 Million Cups in the United States to present his company. I think he was one of the first people who figured out this is a free event with people coming in that want to hear about new companies. He saw it as a great way to market his company.

What’s the climate like to start a business in Springfield?
This is an entrepreneurial community. The difficulty is the traction. If you are in an area that is really entrepreneurial, you’re going to see, probably, a pretty high failure rate. There’s compelling data that says as far as net-new job growth in the United States, it’s not dependent on large firms or small firms, it’s new firms. If in five years, (1 Million Cups) can somehow make the environment a little more cohesive, offer more support and if all those people take away something from this event that somehow or another keeps a business operating, helps a business scale, helps a business make the right moves, then we’ve been successful.

Sterling Huff can be reached at sterling.huff@simmonsfirst.com.

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