Ideas and coffee were flowing freely last week, when more than a dozen entrepreneurs got together at the Mason Enterprise Center in Leesburg.
The occasion was one of a new series of local gatherings organized under the banner of “1 Million Cups,” a national initiative started by the Kauffman Foundation to promote development of new businesses. Every Wednesday, entrepreneurs meet from 9 to 10 a.m. in cities across the country to network and share ideas for improving their businesses.
The initiative’s name was inspired by the idea that businesses are built on a million cups of coffee. Deborah Roder, small business and entrepreneur manager for Loudoun County’s Department of Economic Development, brought the idea to Leesburg after seeing 1 Million Cups in action when she was at a conference in Kansas City, Mo.
“It was so inspirational to see a room full of entrepreneurs working together to help one another,” Roder said, adding that she knew right away that she wanted to bring the program to Loudoun. She said that the Mason Enterprise Center, a business incubator in Leesburg, was “the perfect spot for it, since we have an existing entrepreneurial community there.”
Other organizations quickly agreed to help kick off the program in Leesburg, Roder said, including the town’s Economic Development office, the Loudoun Small Business Development Center and the Mason Enterprise Center. The first 1 Million Cups gathering in Leesburg was in May. The organizers’ intent is that the entrepreneurs who participate will eventually run the program themselves, Roder said.
A session typically features two speakers who have recently started a business. Each gives a six-minute presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session.
Dan Haecker, founder of a civic engagement Web site called Electorate.Me, was the speaker at last week’s forum. Haecker, 32, opened the meeting by describing the Web site he launched a year ago that provides a forum for members to discuss local, regional and national issues; post information about civic and political events; and communicate with elected officials.
After his presentation, Haecker answered questions from other entrepreneurs: how the site would generate revenue; how many visitors would be needed each month to make the business profitable; whether all content posted on Electorate.me has to be original, or whether it can include links to other sites or excerpts of copyrighted material; whether the site would accept advertising; and how Haecker analyzed Web traffic to his site.
Roder then asked what she called the standard 1 Million Cups question: “How can we help you?”
Haecker said that he works with outside Web developers and had been wondering how to motivate them to be more responsive to the needs of his business. He asked whether offering an interest in his profits might gain him a higher position in the developers’ pecking order.
Ryan McGeary, founder of BusyConf, a conference management software company, had some immediate suggestions and the pair made plans to discuss the matter further. Afterward, Haecker said that the opportunity to ask the group for help was the most useful part of the forum.
“My question’s . . . specific, in terms of how much profits interest can I give away, or should I give away,” he said. “Ryan’s going to be a good resource for that, so we will take that discussion offline. I’ll probably have lunch with him today.”
Entrepreneurs who have spoken at past forums said they also appreciated having a supportive group of like-minded people with whom to trade ideas.
“It’s a very friendly environment. I compare it to a Toastmasters group,” said Bonnie Sewell, who started a divorce planning business last year. “Everybody’s there to learn and get better. And it’s nonjudgmental; it’s helpful. I think that part’s terrific.”
Sewell said she received valuable advice about pricing her services. She had written a book about divorce planning, “just to get the idea out there,” and made the Kindle version available at a special price of 99 cents, hoping that more people would buy it.
“One person was very convinced that that was the wrong approach. They said, ‘I would not even look at a book that was [that cheap]. I would assume it was worthless,’” she said. After the session, Sewell raised the Kindle price of her book to $9.99. “And sales spiked,” she said.
Gurpreet Brar, founder of AssurSec, an information technology consulting company, said that 1 Million Cups helped him learn from others who have faced similar challenges.
“A large business has a lot of intellectual capital built into their company that they can reach out to for a new strategy, or to change a strategy if something’s not working,” he said. “As a small business, I don’t have that. So I seek that intellectual feedback from similar entrepreneurs . . . who are facing the same challenges or similar challenges I’m facing.”
Owners of start-ups can register for 1 Million Cups at the Loudoun SourceLink Web site, www.loudounsourcelink.org.