When 19-year-old entrepreneur Bill Tracy stood in front of a room of 56 people to present his natural energy drink, he didn't know what to expect. All he knew was he was “sweating bullets.”
But Tracy didn't have anything to worry about. After a six-minute presentation, he received 20 minutes of feedback and detailed questions from an engaged audience of St. Petersburg small business advocates.
Perhaps even more powerful were the connections he made after his presentation, as he continued to network and discuss his venture in the St. Petersburg Greenhouse, a facility specializing in entrepreneurial education and business development events.
Tracy was drawn to the Greenhouse for the weekly meeting of 1 Million Cups, a Kaufmann Foundation program built on the idea that businesses can be born over 1 million cups of coffee. The program is currently held in 19 cities across the U.S., with two locations in Florida: St. Petersburg and Orlando.
The program follows the same criteria for each of its cities. Each week, two entrepreneurs approved by the local program organizers are invited to present, ask the community for assistance, receive feedback and network. Also, the program must sign on a coffee sponsor to provide free coffee each week.
The St. Pete chapter of 1 Million Cups launched Oct. 9. Its cofounders include Danielle Weitlauf, client services manager at the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, Sean Kennedy, manager of the St. Petersburg Greenhouse, and supporter Richard Wood, chief operating officer of Eagle Diagnostics. Weitlauf was working to bring the program to the Gulf Coast when she heard that Kennedy and Wood were attempting to the do the same thing across town. To coordinate the weekly event, the trio now works with two other organizers, local entrepreneur Reuben Pressman and Gazelle Labs cofounder John Morrow.
St. Pete-based Kahwa Coffee provides the free coffee each week, and the Greenhouse, co-sponsored by the city of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, donates the space. Other than time, no additional investment was necessary, according to Weitlauf. The Kaufmann Foundation provides all of the back-end support, including the website and marketing.
“We are trying to connect the entrepreneur community; we're also trying to showcase it,” Weitlauf says. “It's our mission to grow the startup community and make an economic impact.”
“It allows people to just see innovative ideas and make connections that couldn't be made” elsewhere, Kennedy says. He's been impressed at the diversity of program attendees, including local investors, politicians, business professionals, service providers, and, of course, entrepreneurs. One Million Cups provides “a way to find new customers, new funding, and new ways to grow in St. Pete,” Kennedy says.
During one of the program's first meetups, Ty Mathen, 32, presented UpValet, a mobile app that assists car salesmen. Mathen told the crowd he was looking to connect with angel investors and auto dealership owners interested in becoming beta product customers. Within a week, an attendee of the event introduced him to a dealership owner, who signed up as one of the beta testers and invested in the product. In addition to the business opportunity, Mathen says 1 Million Cups attendees helped by “validating my product and the market out there.”
Tracy is hoping his presentation at 1 Million Cups can share a similar success story. Tracy was introduced to the weekly event through one of his entrepreneurship classes at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, taught by Murrow. He started the business two years ago, after experiencing kidney failure from drinking a conventional energy drink.
Although he's already produced 21,184 bottles of his Rage vitamin-enriched energy drink, and his product is on the shelves of several convenience stores in the area, he believes in the power of local connections, word-of-mouth marketing and constructive feedback.
After dishing out a handful of business cards at 1 Million Cups, Tracy said he was excited about the connections he had made. Less than two hours after his presentation, he had set up an introduction with one of the top club owners in Tampa, received an offer to co-sponsor a campaign with a local nonprofit fighting DUIs, and met a number of professionals offering various services and counsel to young companies.
Tracy said the event prepped him for his next appointment of the day — a meeting with the owner of the majority of 7-Eleven convenience stores in the Southeast. “I might have just been sweating because it was hot,” he said.