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1 Million Cups Tacoma nurtures Puget Sound entrepreneurs

1 Million Cups encourages informal discussion, fueled by coffee. | Photos by Cody Char.Above: Greg McLawsen, owner of Puget Sound Legal, presents at 1 Million Cups this December.

A would-be entrepreneur stands on the stage looking out at a sea of expectant faces. A giant grasshopper hovers in the air above, while a series of accordions pinned to the nearby wall look ready to emit plangent chords.

This isn’t a surrealist dream – it’s just another weekly meeting of the local branch of 1 Million Cups.

The venue is the revered Swiss Restaurant & Pub on the UW Tacoma campus – thus the grasshopper, the accordions and a lot of other unique accoutrements that give the meetings a huge amount of character.

1 Million Cups (or 1MC, as its friends call it) is the brainchild of the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation. The Tacoma branch was founded in May 2014, and is the first 1MC venue in the Pacific Northwest.

Simple Concept, Simple Structure

The concept is simple: create a friendly place where aspiring and successful entrepreneurs can gather to share ideas, network, get motivated and support each other, all fueled by coffee. The structure is simple, too: weekly meetings from 9–10 a.m. every Wednesday. Each week, two early-stage start-ups have an opportunity to present their companies to a diverse audience of mentors, subject-matter-experts and fellow entrepreneurs. Each founder gives a six-minute presentation and responds to 20 minutes of audience Q&A.

The meeting, held in The Swiss on the UW Tacoma campus, gathers every Wednesday at 9 a.m.

That structure, created by Kauffman and replicated at 70 1MC locations (and growing) across the country, leaves a lot of room for grass-roots touches—the venue, the coffee, the local organizers. It’s all those assets working together that make the 1MC concept more successful than any other locally-focused entrepreneurial meet-up.

1MC Tacoma’s organizers include Andrew Fry, industry partnerships guru at UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology; Phil Potter, director of the Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship (VIBE) at UW Tacoma; and Barbara Bartolatz-Littrell, community connector extraordinaire in UW Tacoma’s Advancement office. The three of them recently talked about the founding and the intent of 1MC Tacoma:

Barbara: The Tacoma meeting came into being when Mayor Marilyn Strickland heard about the 1MC concept at a conference of mayors. When she got back from the meeting, she got her staff excited about launching it here.

Phil: Ricardo Noguera, the City’s director of community and economic development, shared her excitement and played a major role in the formative stages. We were the 36th location to be started nationally.

Andrew: I’m an entrepreneur myself, and this seemed to me like a great way to fill a gap in the South Sound entrepreneurial ecosystem. I think all of us gladly stepped forward to help create 1MC, because we all saw it as a way of creating camaraderie amongst entrepreneurs.

Barbara: After just six months, and almost no marketing effort, we regularly have 30–40 attendees every Wednesday. We’ve had presentations on dozens of topics, ranging from pre-early-stage to late-stage start-ups.

Attendees stick around after the presentations to share ideas.

Phil: There’s a real synergy. Some of the 1MC presenters, like ChooseVets.com or NuArt Media Group or GreenBox Batteries, are going through VIBE at UW Tacoma. Others have no particular connection to the university, but heard about 1MC and want to become “part of the tribe.”

Andrew: Of course we hope there’s an economic spin-off effect from 1MC. We’re always asking presenters, “Are you going to keep your headquarters here?”

Phil: The audience is always really supportive. It’s a great thing to see the epiphany moment for the presenter: a question comes from an audience member and the presenter makes a connection to a new idea right in that instant. Before 1MC, there wasn’t a space where that kind of epiphany was happening.

Taking the plunge

On a recent December Wednesday, two presenters took the stage at The Swiss for their 6-minute pitches and 20-minute Q&As. The first was Ryan Petty, who recently retired from a 34-year career in economic development (for the City of Tacoma and then for the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County) to pursue his entrepreneurial idea full time.

Ryan Petty shares ideas with attendees. Petty is launching a publishing imprint called Provision House and a series of titles called Enterprising Writer Books.

Petty is launching a publishing imprint called Provision House and a series of titles called Enterprising Writer Books. As he explained in his presentation, recent dramatic changes in the publishing industry have broken the traditional sources of revenue many writers tapped. Petty wants to inspire writers to become entrepreneurial. From the nature of the questions he got from the audience, there’s a thriving community ready to hear what he has to say.

Greg McLawsen, the other presenter of the morning, is a lawyer specializing in immigration law. He has built a small firm called Puget Sound Legal, but he has ambitions to grow the scale of the firm. He has identified a host of inefficiencies in traditional practices and is developing ways of working with clients that leverage mobile devices, apps, and the cloud. Incidentally, another lawyer that works with McLawsen in the firm is Gustavo Cueva, a 2010 UW Tacoma alumnus.

Petty and McLawsen both found the 1MC session energizing. “For me, as an attorney with no formal business background, it’s a great opportunity to get constructive feedback on the vision I have for my firm from 40 smart entrepreneurs and business leaders,” said McLawsen.

That kind of support is exactly what the founders and local organizers of 1MC are happy to hear and hope to stir up.

For more information about Tacoma 1 Million Cups, including information about the schedule, location, past and future presentations, see http://tacoma.sites.1millioncups.com.

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Written by: 
John Burkhardt / December 10, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu