Cups Runneth Over: Startups Get Ideas, Encouragement At 1 Million Cups

By Jim Offner
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa.


Startup expert Andy Stoll brought some encouraging words to a gathering of about 100 entrepreneurs and community leaders Wednesday at a 1 Million Cups event at the Waterloo Center for the Arts.

He also brought some news: “The Industrial Age is over; we’re now in the — really, there’s no word for it yet — Connected Age, let’s call it,” he said.

It’s a new era that is under the control of entrepreneurs — somebody who will get a “crazy idea” and run with it, he said.

Stoll co-founded Cedar Rapids-based Seed Here Studio, which focuses on “building entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems.”

He also co-founded the Iowa Startup Accelerator, which takes early-stage tech companies through a 90-day “boot camp” that prepares them for launch.

Stoll also is an entrepreneur who developed a global view of business by taking a four-year solo trip around the world after he earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa.
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“Andy Stoll is like a startup savant,” said Trevor Carlson, who helped organize Open Coffee sessions for would-be entrepreneurs at Sidecar Coffee Shop in Cedar Falls. Carlson has been involved with numerous startups and currently is in the Startup Accelerator with another venture.

Stoll is seen as a key influence behind the growth of startup communities in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

He said he has seen similar progress in the Cedar Valley.

“We spend a lot of time discussing how you build the entrepreneurial capacity in the state of Iowa, and a lot of activity has been going on in the Cedar Valley for a number of months,” Stoll said.

There’s “an explosion” of what Stoll calls “grass-roots activity” in the Cedar Valley startup community, Stoll said.

“Entrepreneurs themselves are leading initiatives to try to make it easier for them and their peers to build entrepreneurial endeavors in their region,” he said.

That should come as no shock to anyone who has been paying attention to local startup activity, Stoll said.

“It’s exciting to see the engagement of the grassroots entrepreneurial community with the traditional community and business leadership,” he said.

Indeed, University of Northern Iowa President Bill Ruud was in the audience, as were Cedar Falls Mayor Jon Crews and Visual Logic Group partner Andy Van Fleet, who was one of the first tenants in UNI’s Regional Business Center in 2002.

Maureen Collins-Williams, former longtime director of entrepreneurial outreach at UNI, stood just down the hall from the auditorium that served as the venue for Wednesday’s event a few minutes before the program got underway. She flashed a broad smile as people ambled past, headed for the room.

The local “entrepreneurial ecosystem” has come a long way in the last 10 years or so, she said.

“We had a total lack of innovation and creativity, and people who were doing innovative things were maybe hidden in living rooms and home offices or camping out at coffee shops,” said Collins-Williams, who trains community economic-development groups to work with — not against — startups. “Now, we’re seeing a sharing of ideas and innovation, and it’s happening all over the country.”

Collins-Williams said she was no different from other 1 Million Cups attendees: she was looking to glean ideas, perhaps for her own venture.

“There are a lot of people like me who are in their 50s that have some ideas and some creativity,” she said.

Trace Steffen said he wished 1 Million Cups had been up and running a couple of years ago when he and business partner Kenny Stevenson were developing the idea for their new company, HowFactory, a Waterloo company that created a way for manufacturers to manage training materials digitally.

“Really, this program is for small businesses so people can understand there is a path, there are people that can help them get there and basically have the tools that we didn’t have two years ago when we had the first idea and it took us over a year to get started with HowFactory,” said Steffen. “So this is a way for us to give back and also to create this ecosystem here that can help change a portion of the economy of the Cedar Valley. It’s a great kickoff. Instead of having 20-25 hard-core people show up today, now we expand that out to a much larger net to bring more people in.”

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