1 Million Cups gives entrepreneurs a boost

2013-11-17T16:00:00Z 1 Million Cups gives entrepreneurs a boostBy JESSICA HOLDMAN | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK, N.D. _ One business owner needs a manufacturing location but doesn’t know where to look. Another is thinking about expanding but is unsure if she’s ready.

A new group in Bismarck-Mandan, 1 Million Cups, is addressing those challenges and more for local entrepreneurs.

“Being (an) entrepreneur is hard and starting your own company is tough,” said Ellyn Rost, one of the founders of the group in Bismarck-Mandan. “This gives them a better opportunity.”

The 1 Million Cups program started in Kansas City, Mo., in 2012 and has since launched branches in 16 communities, including Bismarck-Mandan. It was started by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private entrepreneurial education foundation endowed by Ewing Marion Kauffman.

Diana Roloff, the co-founder of the Bismarck startup Sanada Innovations, and Jackson Bird, owner of Action Jackson Comics, delivered six-minute presentations to an audience of about 20 people about their businesses Wednesday at the University of North Dakota Center for Family Medicine in downtown Bismarck. A 20-minute feedback and question session followed, offering ideas on how they could improve their businesses.

Roloff, a former nurse-anesthetist, is trying to launch a concept for a medical device that keeps patients needing an endotracheal breathing tube during surgery from biting down on the tube and cutting off the oxygen supply.

Roloff needed help automating the manufacturing process, finding supplies and a facility. From her presentation, one attendee suggested she contact Innovative Solutions in Bismarck for automation and another suggested Dakota Pharmacy for space.

Bird wanted advice on how to make his store more visible. He’s working on a billboard or a lighted sign. Attendees suggested he partner with a nearby baby store on story times, start a comic club or use a bookmobile to gain visibility in other ways.

The weekly event is free and open to the public. Another founder, Marlo Anderson, said there have been 20 to 30 people coming each Wednesday at 9 a.m. and about half the room is full of people who have attended more than once. Organizers hope to expand the group to 50 or 100 people.

Several months ago, Rost attended a 1 Million Cups event in Kansas City. She said she loved the idea and thought it would be successful in Bismarck. The program, which is a little more than a year old, has grown in its founding city, starting with 12 people to now more than 300 attendees each week.

Those who speak at 1 Million Cups in Bismarck can also speak in any of the other cities with a group, helping reach a broader audience.

Melissa Ahonen, owner of BBT Style, was one of the speakers the first week of the program’s launch in Bismarck and said she would recommend it to other entrepreneurs.

Ahonen had started wholesaling to some larger retailers but didn’t want to switch to manufacturing her hats by machine.

“I’m handmade,” she said.

She added that she would like to expand the business into a full-time job for herself.

Ahonen didn’t think she could afford other employees, but one attendee told her, “You kind of are at your tipping point right now.”

After leaving the session, Ahonen, who makes hats and headbands out of her home, took others' advice and hired part-time employees to help with her business.

Because Bismarck is one of the smallest communities 1 Million Cups has launched in, Rost said organizers decided to pair more mature businesses like Jackson’s and Ahonen’s with startups like Roloff’s. The ones who have been in business longer can share what has worked for them. The audience learns that way as well.

Mark Menge who attended the session for the first time, said he thought the two-way format was a great concept and thought it was helpful to business owners to have a variety of resources in one spot. He said he will definitely be a return visitor to the group.

Erica Hager has been an attendee and a presenter. She said she has enjoyed being an audience member, too, coming almost every week.

As a business owner, she said, the most important thing she got from it was a lot of encouragement. She said it would have been helpful to get the non-biased feedback years ago when she started making and selling children’s booties out of her home in Mandan.

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com.

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