Filling up Fargo’s startup cup

There are about three dozen 1 Million Cups programs throughout the country, but Fargo’s program has quickly become a standout. Since launching a couple of months ago, the gathering has already outgrown two venues and now regularly attracts more than 100 people to its weekly Wednesday morning gatherings to share coffee, inspiration and advice with the area’s startup community.

For those not familiar, 1 Million Cups was developed by Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation and is designed to be run by and for entrepreneurs in individual communities with the intent of activating and supporting startups. Events are always held on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. and there is always free coffee (provided by a sponsor) to keep the group caffeinated and social. Each event features one or more startup companies, which deliver brief presentations to not just pitch their business but to talk about what issues they are struggling with and ask for advice or help in overcoming those hurdles. The remaining time is devoted to Q&A, which gives attendees the chance to learn more about the business and offer help and encouragement.

I finally had the opportunity to attend 1 Million Cups this morning and entered the venue, coffee cup in hand, ready to be inspired and amazed by Fargo’s avid entrepreneurs. I wasn’t disappointed.

The presenter, Scott Anderson, is the founder of a unique children’s furniture company called Melville Kids Studios. Originally from Canada, he initially launched the company while living in Washington State. After moving to Fargo about a year and half ago he re-launched the company and produces his product in Fargo. His problem: He would like to expand sales and marketing as well as the company’s product line, but he’s not sure how best to do it. He also wanted to know whether he should or could patent his product’s design. Could the 1 Million Cups crowd help?

Hands shot up around the room and attendees ranging from fellow entrepreneurs to civic leaders and members of the business community offered helpful bits of advice. And sure enough, a patent attorney was even in attendance and was pointed out as a potential source of help.

Before long, the hour was up and the event officially ended, but hardly anyone in the theater budged, choosing instead to stay and network, collaborate and just visit with like-minded individuals. Maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was spring fever, but everyone was enthusiastic and welcoming of newcomers and suggestions.

Or maybe it’s just Fargo’s vibe these days.

Organizers of Fargo’s 1 Million Cups program include Ashley Hahn, Greg Tehven, Jon Walters and Lisa Gulland-Nelson. I spoke with Gulland-Nelson following this morning’s event and she shared that the Fargo program has grown more quickly than even the organizers expected. They initially planned to launch the program as a six-week pilot to test the waters, but within just a couple of weeks it had grown to a standing-room-only crowd and organizers had to find a larger space. A few weeks ago, they had to upsize the venue again to accommodate the growing number of weekly attendees. The program’s current temporary home is the Fargo Moorhead Community Theater.

It’s hard to point a finger at any one reason why Fargo’s weekly gathering has grown so quickly and become so large. There are other 1 Million Cups programs in the region – Bismarck and Sioux Falls each have one – but neither seems to be as popular as Fargo’s program. One contributor could be the fact that Fargo has three universities in its metro, so there is a large population of young and enthusiastic supporters of startups. But as I saw today, many of the program’s attendees are established members of the business community and simply want to help foster the city’s growing entrepreneur base. It seems that Fargo’s willingness to support 1 Million Cups is more likely a representation of an overall mindset shift that has been building within the community over the past couple of years. People are more openly supportive of new businesses and ideas, which is encouraging potential entrepreneurs to give their concepts a try, whether it be a tech company, a clothing store or a manufacturing business, knowing that they can find support and encouragement when it’s needed. It’s an exciting time for entrepreneurs throughout our region, but Fargo is setting the standard for creating a vibe that takes startup support to the next level.