Internet Startups At KC Area’s Home for Hackers: Five Tales Of Hits And Misses

By Rick Montgomery
The Kansas City Star

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Interesting article focusing on the “Home For Hackers” in Kansas City.  Yep, these homes full of techie hopefuls living together bursting with dreams do exist beyond Silicon Valley.  This article gives a nod to women entrepreneurship with the inclusion of Synthia Payne an entrepreneur who moved to Kansas City For 90 days to use the “Home for Hackers” as her launch pad.

The Kansas City Star

At a house on State Line Road, dozens of passers-through have penned their signatures on the living room wall.

They write their Twitter handles — @We_b_hackin, for example — rather than their names.

This, after all, is the Home for Hackers. It’s a crash pad for techies who come to Kansas City’s Startup Village with hopes of scoring an online hit or inventing software nobody can live without.

“Hackers” in this case implies nothing nefarious. Rather, it is a term of geek endearment, a title bestowed on those talented enough to craft computer codes, whip up apps and design websites in their sleep.

Many have done so in the Home for Hackers for up to three months, rent-free. For them, the affordability is just part of the home’s appeal as it had become one of the first residences anywhere to be wired with Google Fiber, providing ultrafast Internet connections.

Thinking that gigabit speed might give their startup ventures an extra jolt, tenants have come from as far away as Boston, Beijing and Bangladesh.

A modest A-frame has been their shared portal into startup culture, where for every Mark Zuckerberg exist a million strugglers.

Some here found success and moved their companies to larger quarters. Others could not secure funding and shuffled out of town, leaving only their Twitter handles on the wall.

They’ll keep coming, thanks to the house being recently acquired by a new owner committed to keeping hackers happy.

“I wouldn’t have sold otherwise,” said the creator of the Home for Hackers, a local Web engineer named Ben Barreth.

Google Fiber’s ballyhooed arrival to the Kansas City area in 2012 spurred Barreth to buy the building near 45th Street and State Line in Kansas City, Kan., for $48,000. He’s a man of Christian faith who wanted to provide starry-eyed entrepreneurs a place to plop their laptops and get started.

So, digging into his retirement account, Barreth renovated the once dilapidated structure to house up to five tenants at a time.

Some pay rent and some don’t. Nightly rates are available for the curious wishing just to spend a weekend in the gigabit world.

But then Barreth, who has young children, grew weary of spending his own weekends making repairs.

Having recouped most of his investment, he sold the house to Jeff Durbin, a co-worker in software engineering.

Durbin said he intended to keep it a place where teams of techies can collaborate.

Here are five hackers who have tried:

DJ Many is sole proprietor of a production company called MANYCreative. Having dwelt for a time in the Home for Hackers, he still lives in the Startup Village neighborhood.

He was born Emanuel Thomas in the Virgin Islands. But to 1.1 million Twitter followers, he is DJ Many.

His followers include the singer Donny Osmond, though they’ve not yet met in person. Through the magic of the Internet the two collaborated on a song titled “Know,” composed and engineered by DJ Many in his bedroom.

“Nobody’s going to believe this,” said DJ Many, sole proprietor of a production company called MANYCreative. Sure enough, on Osmond’s Twitter page is a plug for “Know,” with a photo of DJ Many beaming beneath a Tiger stocking cap, “my trademark.”

On his smartphone he called up an iTunes site that last month showed his song charting among the top 100 downloads in Finland.

“I’ve never been to Finland in my life,” he said. “Technology is amazing, isn’t it?”

DJ Many, 22, has quite the backstory.

At 13, he got his start in Virgin Islands radio as an audio production intern. By 16, he was disc jockey for the top drive-time show in St. Croix.

Constantly mining social media for connections, DJ Many answered a Twitter invitation by rap artist Soulja Boy to game with him on Xbox Live. Within months, DJ Many was working for Soulja Boy’s record company.

Last year he produced and posted to iTunes a downloadable rap album by NFL defensive end Greg Hardy. The Dallas Cowboys star said the release was unauthorized; DJ Many blogged that Hardy reneged on paying him $40,000 for production work.

After arriving in Kansas City last year, DJ Many coaxed Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure into letting the young man produce an online ad. Soon the online magazine profiled him as an entrepreneurial “inspiration,” a “combination of persistence and talent.” Having dwelt a spell in the Home for Hackers, he still lives in the Startup Village neighborhood.

“My personality is what makes me,” he said. Then he asked: So why is DJ Many not yet a huge success?

“I’m still not mainstream. I’ve got a song out there that never gets played on the radio. That’s a frustration. … I want to get signed to a record label. You’d think that would’ve happened by now.”


Synthia Payne: Customers didn’t line up

Synthia Payne’s idea for using supersonic Web connectivity struck all the right notes.

A musician and trained vocalist from Colorado, Payne envisioned musical artists jamming together online.

Made sense, right? Because the gigabit speed of Google Fiber eliminated pauses in video linkups, band members living at opposite ends of town could practice as if they were in the same room. Musicians could even set up online recording studios.

So Payne moved to Kansas City. For 90 days she used the Home for Hackers as her launch pad.

She created, a site designed for subscribers interested in remote jam sessions. Investors early on were intrigued, telling her they might provide financial support, but only after the subscription service generated some customers.

But customers didn’t line up.

She visited nightclubs and networked with musicians through social media but learned that most preferred jamming in person.

And there was the technical hurdle of needing all players to ramp up their upload speeds for the sessions to ring true.

Most puzzling to Payne was the number of local musicians who resisted Web technology altogether. “Almost like Luddites,” some thought the Internet delivered as much bad as good, she said.

“Perhaps I am too early,” Payne continued, “but my experience has determined that there is not a critical mass of musicians who want to participate in live online music sessions.”

A private music school in Denmark was interested, though, and she flew there twice to teach live jamming on the Web.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City also tapped her to compose and produce from her apartment a real-time session between UMKC students and musicians at Stanford University’s Bing Studio.

“Anytime I meet a female entrepreneur, I’m always intrigued,” said Kelly Sievers Pruneau, network manager for the locally based Women’s Capital Connection, which analyzes and invests in startup proposals. “But it’s hard for anyone to gain traction.

That’s why everybody doesn’t become an entrepreneur.”


Soumik Aswad of Bangladesh won an international entrepreneurial contest that sent him and three partners off to sample U.S. startup culture. He has fond memories about his time at the Home for Hackers.


Aswad came away with an appreciation that young entrepreneurs thrive in clusters, where ideas might collide and create inspirational sparks.

By living close to one another, working off the same coffee table or just waving to neighbors passing the Home for Hackers, Aswad sensed a community on his side. Taking similar risks, facing similar setbacks.

“We don’t have that kind of ecosystem here,” said Aswad, 22, in an online video interview from his home in Bangladesh.

“There’s a lot more happening in Kansas City than we thought. You have startups like EyeVerify, SquareOffs, Local Ruckus…”

From memory he rattled off about a half dozen ventures with which he collided during his 2014 stay.

One morning he and others from the startup Panacea, co-founded by Aswad and his older brother, gave a talk at the weekly 1 Million Cups gathering of techie types at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center. They said Panacea aimed to develop mobile apps that scan drug labels and protect consumers from buying fake pharmaceuticals.

Dozens who attended gushed encouragement.

“Great idea! You can really do this,” they told Aswad. And now Panacea is working with the fifth-largest drug company in Bangladesh.

Hackers and their ilk often speak of “the three C’s,” said Matthew Marcus, a Startup Village co-founder who lives on the Missouri side of the neighborhood.

“Collisions, collaboration and connectedness,” Marcus said. “The next person you encounter might be a new customer, a technical person, an investor.

“It’s often a random thing. You’ve got to leave some of it to fate.”


Mike Demarais: ‘Kansas City investors are risk-averse’

Mike Demarais left the Boston area, birthplace of Facebook, when he was 20. Beantown boasted too many types like him, techies elbowing one another in pursuit of the next big thing.

Thinking he might stand out in Kansas City, he became the first tenant of the Home for Hackers. For a short time he slept on the floor and rested his head on a towel.

That was in the fall of 2012, when the rollout of ultrafast Google Fiber promised to give Kansas City a Web-based entrepreneurial momentum that Demarais hoped to ride.

At his laptop he punched codes for software that he and three partners were developing to help bring 3-D printing into the mainstream. Their idea was to make the build-it-yourself technology more accessible to households and small businesses.

Kids, even, might design their own toys.

“We were pretty early into that (3-D printing) concept — maybe too early,” Demarais said in a telephone interview from Boston, where he has returned. “We were building the software and that part we could do.

“But the hardware wasn’t ready for the consumer market. It’s still not ready.”

Fortune did smile on his startup, called Handprint, in its early, heady days. The company in 2013 took top honors in the Brad Feld Fiber House Competition, sponsored by a Colorado software investor offering free shelter in a Startup Village house he owned kitty-corner from the Home for Hackers.

Demarais’ three Boston partners joined him in Kansas City and lived rent-free for a year.

But having had no luck securing the financing for their idea, they have since dispersed.

The city proved lacking in venture capitalists, Demarais said. The investor class here talks the trendy talk of backing high-tech bets, but “there’s not enough of them willing to pull the trigger,” he said. “Kansas City investors are risk-averse.”

Now working for a Boston-based startup, Demarais said he misses the download speeds of Google Fiber. “I’d come back there in a heartbeat” if his own ideas drew sufficient venture capital.

“I’d probably buy a place in the West Bottoms,” he said, “and commute to the coasts.”


Brandon Schatz: ‘An idea alone is … like 1 percent’
He so wanted the Web address for his business, Brandon Schatz sold his car and bought the URL from a photographer who owned the rights.

In an upstart galaxy cluttered with wacky company names — the sensible ones are all taken — Schatz chose a moniker direct and simple.

But is no simple endeavor. Schatz, 33, contracts with hundreds of photographers across the country to shoot images of amateur sporting events. The pictures are uploaded to the website to be shared for free with the participating athletes and their families.

He moved the operation from his home in Springfield, Mo., to take advantage of high-speed Internet in and around the Home for Hackers. He now can upload hundreds of photos in a fraction of the time it once took.

Event sponsors put up the money and slaps their logos onto the pictures online. Extra revenue is made by customers ordering print photographs, in which the sponsors’ names are removed.

Good idea? Maybe. But Schatz contends ideas are overrated.

“An idea alone is (expletive). It’s like 1 percent of what makes a successful startup,” he said. “The rest is all about execution, marketing, having the right equipment, making the right connections.”

A frequent lodger at the Hacker House, Schatz now lives in the home across the alley. He is renovating rooms to serve as Airbnb overnight sites.

“What Brandon has done since coming here is impressive,” said Startup Village organizer Adam Arredondo. “He’s made a ton of progress.”

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