From DDR to VC, First 1 Million Cups Milwaukee Event Sparks Fun Talk
Milwaukee is considered a mid-tier city with a relatively tiny tech startup scene that has started to pick up some momentum over the last three or four years. But despite the small scale, the local startup community still seems isolated at times.
That’s something Brian Taffora would like to help turn around with the creation of a 1 Million Cups chapter in Milwaukee. The national program features weekly chats among entrepreneurs over coffee, typically with two startups soliciting feedback and sharing war stories with a room of fellow entrepreneurs, mentors, advisers, and curious community members.
The program was started a couple of years ago in Kansas City, MO, by the Kauffman Foundation, which is based there. 1 Million Cups is now in 56 cities nationwide.
The first Milwaukee version was held Wednesday. About 50 people, including local investors, entrepreneurs, and third-party service providers, showed up to hear presentations by Okanjo president Brendon Thomas and Scanalytics co-founder and CEO Joe Scanlin.
Usually, when an entrepreneur speaks to a room full of people, it sounds like an elevator pitch aimed at investors, complete with financial stats and projections. Although some of those elements were present in Thomas’ and Scanlin’s talks, it felt more like a laid-back discussion—not only of their businesses, but of the challenges that startups face.
Thomas pointed out that even though Milwaukee has a high concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters, there’s little corporate venture investment activity. But he thinks local access to capital is getting easier overall.
Scanlin, meanwhile, scored laughs when he talked about Scanalytics’ prototype device for measuring foot traffic at places like retail outlets and trade shows. Scanlin built the first version by ripping apart and repurposing a mat used to play the “DanceDanceRevolution” video game, which he nicked from his sister.
The event’s “non-threatening,” anti-pitch vibe was by design, says Taffora, a co-organizer of 1 Million Cups Milwaukee and a managing director of the $10 million micro-VC fund CSA Partners.
“We want you to share your experience, see if we can help one another,” Taffora says. “It’s a great way to bring everybody together.”
The size of the city isn’t always an accurate predictor of attendance at 1 Million Cups, Taffora says. He attended an event in Chicago that only drew eight people, while 400 people showed up for one in Fargo, ND.
Milwaukee already has a steady stream of networking events for techies and entrepreneurs, organized by groups like Startup Milwaukee. Taffora thinks 1 Million Cups will find traction here in part because of the routine, being held every week at the same time (Wednesdays at 9 a.m.) and location (the Historic Pritzlaff Building).
“Most people stop and get coffee on their way to work anyway,” Taffora says.
He’s hoping the events will bring tangible value beyond a friendly exchange of ideas and business cards, perhaps even leading to entrepreneurs joining forces on a new startup. That has happened elsewhere, including in Des Moines, IA, where the co-founders of Men’s Style Lab connected.
Only time will tell if 1 Million Cups Milwaukee inspires those types of collisions. But if nothing else, Wednesday’s audience was treated to some fun anecdotes and thought-provoking statements from the presenters.