Fargo is Competing with Silicon Valley to Build a Startup Community

April 3, 2015

7:00 pm

For fledgling startup communities, the shadow cast by Silicon Valley can seem overpowering and magnetic. The pull to up and leave for that Tech Mecca can be irresistible for the young minds of a community. This is exactly why we, an organization called Emerging Prairie in Fargo, North Dakota, started asking questions on what makes an attractive startup community – one that is able to retain the brightest minds. And the answers we are finding are having active results.

Last winter in the frozen depths of January, we organized the city’s first 1 Million Cups event. A handful of curious attendees showed up, enticed by free coffee and by something new and mildly interesting to do on an early Wednesday morning. One year later, the 1 Million Cups in Fargo event reached a record-breaking event size of 365 people.

Gathering Entrepreneurs Over Coffee

1 Million Cups —known affectionately as 1MC—was originally initiated in 2012 by Kauffman labs, as the brainchild of Nate Olson. As Olson attempted to network with the local startups from their headquarters in Kansas City, he thought: “Why not have an event where all the local startups can gather, present their ideas, and tell us how the community can help them grow?” Better yet, why not do it over coffee?

Thus, 1 Million Cups was born. And it is now rocking in over 70 cities throughout the nation. Of all those cities, the event in Fargo, ND – despite being tucked away up north in freezing temperatures – held the highest attendance record at 350 until recently breaking its own record at 365.

So how does 1 Million Cups work? The basic premise is this: attendees gather for (free) coffee and mingle – everyone from CEOs to college kids. One or two startups in the community then give a quick 6 minute-long presentation of their company. After the presentation, there is 20 minutes of feedback from the audience in a Q&A session.

How Fargo Makes 1MC Unique

To mark 1 Million Cups’ very first birthday in Fargo, all 365 attendees celebrated with cupcakes, coffee, a live rendition of Happy Birthday, and of course, two presentations of local startups. The room was so packed that people were forced to stand in the back.

Fargo

Photography by Dan Francis.

In Fargo, we add our own unique twists to make 1MC fun and a real event: our stage has held at various times a local theater group’s candlelit musical act, serenades from an eccentric accordion player, the company of a black Labrador dog, and even a bring-your-drone-to-1MC-day.

Those who have attended ten times are awarded a mug on stage, and they give the feedback that illustrates why so many people are willing to come every Wednesday morning, from 9:15- 10:15 AM, and sit together in an overcrowded theater.

“It’s like a church for entrepreneurs,” say many of them.

A Community Transformed

“It gives support to local entrepreneurs,” said Kari Peterson, who is currently getting her startup Sky Blue Technology off the ground. “To have 1 Million Cups in the community is huge.”

The recent record-breaking attendance showed that 1 Million Cups is not just a nice event for the occasional entrepreneur. This weekly ritual is transforming the community in a tangible and positive way.

The energy of innovation has spread to the younger generations as well: college students attend nearly every week and groups of high school and junior high students have shown up with their teachers. Last month, high school girls organized a conference on entrepreneurship for their fellow students. And recently, a 12-year old boy pitched his sports app idea, as the youngest presenter ever to take the 1 Million Cups stage.

Perhaps as a result of this energy, more and more innovators are deciding to stay in North Dakota and in Fargo. There is a collaborative energy, locals say – a team effort at making this city a place where people want to live.

At 1 Million Cups Fargo, the last question every time is “How can our community help to support you as you grow your startup?”

The thing is, that support is already present. When that many people consistently show up week after week, it sends a clear message to the city’s brightest and most innovative minds: you are wanted here.

 

Image Credit: Rick Abbott

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A California native currently reporting on the transforming startup community in Fargo, North Dakota.

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