Greenhouse serves up 1 Million Cups of coffee, 1 meetup at a time

A year’s worth of weekly meetings at St. Petersburg’s Greenhouse has helped 1 Million Cups engage entrepreneurs and members of the local community alike.

From first-time ventures to successful startups like Reuben Pressman’s Check I’m Here, two up-and-coming companies take the stage each week while attendees enjoy free Kahwa coffee.

At 1 Million Cups, cups of coffee - and ideas - are free. Come early, find a parking spot in downtown St. Petersburg, and join around 90-100 peers for an hour of inspiration inside the cozy, energetic atmosphere of the Greenhouse.

Fellow attendees include entrepreneurs and investors, but they are just as readily students and curious members of the community, interested in learning what’s new and what’s next for the city’s quickly growing startup scene.
Each week, two presenters spend 26 minutes sharing their startup ideas and fielding audience questions. About 1/3 of the weekly audience are first-time attendees. Local business Kahwa Coffee provides free coffee. 

“We’re very lucky, they’ve been very generous with us. Because frankly, without the free coffee, nothing moves,” jokes Sean Kennedy, Economic Development Manager for the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce.
Napkin math from Kennedy: “Conservatively, we’re at about 7,500 cups.”

Cultivating a startup community around coffee

In April 2012, the Kauffman Foundation, a global nonprofit focused on entrepreneurial and educational success, initially developed 1MC as a way to learn more about the entrepreneurs in their own backyard of Kansas City, MO. 

“As it turns out, that’s something we can all use – to find and promote the startups in our communities,” Kennedy explains. “It’s awesome on two sides: for the entrepreneurs themselves, it’s a great way to make connections. For the community, it’s really great to come hear about the cool things being built in our community. It just gives you a good energy – it makes you feel good about Tampa Bay, because we have so many cool, dynamic startups here.”

The meetings are not meant to serve as a “Shark Tank”-like platform for startups to seek funding from investors, Kennedy says. Instead, the events are an opportunity for young startup companies to present their ideas to a highly engaged audience for feedback, and to possibly make connections.
“There are a lot of people who are anxious to help, and that for me is the takeaway – that there are 100 people coming out every week,” Kennedy says, “that’s 100 people who really want to help the two startups who are presenting.”

1 Million Cups is currently established in over 60 cities around the country. Host venues range from coffee shops with 20 audience members to a TV studio that broadcasts the program through a local PBS affiliate. In Kansas City, 1MC takes place in the Kauffman Foundation’s 300-seat auditorium. St. Petersburg, the 19th city to begin a program back in October 2013, is on the high side for attendance. 

St. Pete’s past presenters have included SavvyCard, The Iron Yard, Fittr, and many other local startups who are seeing success.

(Side note: The busiest 1MC is in North Dakota. Lots of energy companies.)

Some cities have panelists ask questions of the presenters, but in St. Pete, an active audience asks about an array of subjects and even offers occasional advice.
“We have a lot of decisive, strategic questions. It’s an inviting platform,” Kennedy says.

“How can we as a community help you?”

As each startup founder who presents at 1 Million Cups reaches the end of his or her Q&A session, Kennedy asks this final question: “How can we as a community help you?”

It is a fitting representation of what 1MC intends to do for the local community – bring citizens and small business developers together to talk about Tampa and St. Petersburg’s startup businesses and growing entrepreneurial footprint.

“We like the energy that comes with a packed room – it’s cool and vibrant,” says Kennedy.

Matt Spaulding, a University of South Florida graduate with an MS in Computer Engineering, attends 1MC almost every week for three reasons: “Number one: Kahwa coffee. It just blows Starbucks away. Two: The community -- I like to talk to all the other entrepreneurs. Three: I want to see how people pitch their ideas.”

Spaulding, a developer who plans to present his own startup at 1MC in the future, says “the organizers all have a presence in the startup community. These are good people to get to know.”

Kennedy, who is also the Greenhouse manager, originally teamed up with Danielle Weitlauf, manager at the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, and Richard Wood, chief operating officer at Eagle Datagistics, to bring 1MC to St. Petersburg. They then brought on entrepreneurs Reuben Pressman and John Morrow as organizers; along with Murray Anne Bowers, founder of DeSales Connect and cofounder of Collaborative Technologies of Tampa Bay. The volunteers run 1MC on a no-cost, no-budget basis.
Check I’m Here, a campus success story

Pressman estimates that half of the people who attend 1MC each week aren't entrepreneurs. “One of the goals is to share the awesome companies and founders with the whole community, and to get new, different types of feedback as a founder,” he says.

Pressman developed the idea for Check I’m Here while serving as VP of Student Government at USFSP. “Experiencing some of the pain points the student government and student affairs pros have in retaining students, allocating funding and assessing success” led him to creating a seamless online interface for engaging students at campus events.

After initially presenting Check I’m Here, Pressman returned to the stage six months later to offer attendees an update on what he’s learned and how the company has grown. For one, the revenue-producing company has more than doubled its team size in the last few months. They’ve also received external funding and have at least one international client.

Higher Ed will continue to be the focus for Pressman and Check I’m Here, for now. “Our plans are to continue to grow across the nation and internationally, and all that comes with that -- hiring great talent, building better technology, and solving core problems for customers,” Pressman says. But no plans to relocate. “We're excited to be based in St. Petersburg!” 

For presenters, the Check I’m Here startup founder offers this advice: “Keep it simple and high level; there's a huge range of people in the room. Use the first 6 minutes to present the basics, and use the 20 minutes of questions to get into the details.”

Business services for the modern entrepreneur

The Greenhouse, a joint partnership between the Chamber of Commerce and the City of St. Petersburg, is a reimagining of former business services with a modern-day flair. Each Wednesday from 9-10 a.m. (or however long attendees choose to linger in the lobby over last bits of conversation and coffee), the Greenhouse plays host to 1 Million Cups.

“We have a really forward thinking board at the Chamber, who understand that investing this time in local companies that are not necessarily Chamber members yet is what grows them. We really think the backbone is helping the people start here,” says Kennedy.

In addition to hosting 1MC, the Greenhouse offers services like skills-based training, one-on-one business counseling from SCORE, the Small Business Development Center, and a 10-week entrepreneurial academy that teaches students how to develop a business.

“I think both Greenhouse and 1MC are having an impact on us thinking of ourselves as a tech community,” says Kennedy. “We have TEC Garage down the street, Tampa Bay WaVE in Tampa, so many things at USF St. Pete – we can now take a step back and really start to look at Tampa as a great entrepreneurial community, something that most people wouldn’t have done even 3 or 4 years ago. It’s not Silicon Valley, but we are building great things here in Tampa Bay.”

Justine Benstead is a freelance writer who can usually be found walking her dog in her South Tampa neighborhood, drinking far too much coffee, tweeting @JustineinTampa, and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.