The Heartland Innovation Road Trip wrapped up it’s tour on Friday with a stop in Kansas City to discuss the city’s efforts to lift the startup and entrepreneurial profile of the city.
Five or six years ago, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce launched The Big Five initiative aimed at taking 500 community ideas and reducing them to five that would help guide the city towards a more prosperous future. One of the five goals was to turn Kansas City into America’s most entrepreneurial city.
Matthew W. Marcus, Chief Engagement Officer at Kansas City Startup Foundation, said that the goal was “kind of lofty and silly in a way, but it put the flag in the ground.”
Shortly after, Google Fiber announced it would be coming to Kansas City, and The Kauffman Foundation started getting more involved. Marcus said the city’s startup community went from low-key and “in the basement,” to the spotlight.
That phase also marked the rise of the Kansas City Startup Village.
“As far as the Village goes, it was very serendipitous,” said Marcus. “There was this one tech entrepreneur operating in a commercial space. He raised some funds and wanted to bring his team under one roof, and saw that I had a place for rent [across the street from where he was].”
The space was a house, but he asked Marcus if he could house the tech startup there. Coincidentally, a couple of days later, Marcus joined a tech startup, too.
“He didn’t know I was a tech entrepreneur as well so I got really excited,” said Marcus.
Marcus ended up with three startups in the house, including his own in the basement. Shortly after, two other properties on the block were housing startups, including Homes for Hackers.
The decision was made to name the group of houses Kansas City Startup Village and invite more startups to move into houses along the street. Within two years there were 15 properties housing 35 startups in the Village.
“Over the years it’s ebbed and flowed, but the cool thing about the Village is that none of us were seasoned community builders,” said Marcus.
Marcus said they picked up a copy of Brad Feld’s book “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City” and based their plans off that. Feld found out what they were doing and bought a house on the street to support the Village and its efforts.
The Village was built entirely on volunteer efforts, which Marcus said eventually posed a problem.
“We realized after a couple of years that this is not sustainable through volunteer efforts alone,” said Marcus. “Organizations and individuals wanted to support what we were doing but [we] weren’t a business entity.”
They decided to formalize their efforts by creating Kansas City Startup Foundation, a nonprofit to assist the development of the Village but maintain the feel of a grassroots, organic effort.
The model of what Marcus and other leaders did in Kansas City Startup Village can be replicated in other cities as a way to encourage organic growth in new and diverse areas. He said that is isn’t so much a matter of manufacturing a plan; rather it’s about finding a spark.
“You’ve got to find the natural leaders, the ones who are impassioned by their community, their movement, whatever it is, and you let them go,” said Marcus. “You’ve got to have the spark, but once it happens, it takes on a life of its own.”
Christine McGuigan, Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News with on-location reporting by Brian Lee, Managing Director of Silicon Prairie News.