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Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the summer issue of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine produced by the Eau Claire Press Co. Go to LeaderTelegram.com/magazines to view the magazine.
Two UW-Eau Claire students stood in front of a group of Chippewa Valley business operators on a recent Wednesday morning and talked about their fledgling coffee enterprise.
When the PowerPoint presentation was over, other local entrepreneurs asked questions, offered advice and shared information about resources that could help the student-run business called Blugold Roast.
This nurturing process — with presenters ranging from Twin Cities entrepreneurs to local residents with potential business ideas — is repeated weekly as part of 1 Million Cups, a national business networking and entrepreneurship group that launched an Eau Claire chapter in April.
Success in business is often about making connections — with customers, the community and other businesses — and the launch of new networking groups gives local business owners more options than ever to forge those connections.
Whether it’s over coffee at 1 Million Cups, over lunch at a Polka Dot Powerhouse social or over a beer at a Musky Tank mixer, entrepreneurs have ample opportunity in the Chippewa Valley to give and receive information that can mean the difference between success and failure.
Following is a rundown of some of these relatively new players in the local business networking scene.
1 Million Cups
With the 1 Million Cups name based on the notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions and network over a million cups of coffee (offered at all meetings), the group’s motto is “caffeinating an entrepreneurial nation.”
The organization, started five years ago in Kansas City, Mo., by the Kauffman Foundation, has spread to 116 communities.
Ann Rupnow, entrepreneurship and economic development coordinator for UW-Eau Claire’s College of Business, said she attended a 1 Million Cups meeting in Fargo, N.D., a couple years ago after hearing about the city’s strong entrepreneurship culture and came away impressed.
“I came back thinking, ‘If Fargo can do it, we can do it too,’ ” said Rupnow, one of the organizers of the Eau Claire chapter.“At its core, the idea is to support local entrepreneurs.”
The concept calls for one or two early-stage businesses to present their companies to their communities at each meeting. In Eau Claire, those meetings are held at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays at The Local Lounge, 2106 N. Clairemont Ave. Attendance has been averaging about 20 people per meeting.
At the recent meeting featuring Blugold Roast, students Nels Mowlem, a junior from Hutchinson, Minn., and Bradley Johnson, a freshman from Lake Geneva, described how the business started last fall and is designed to give students experience with sales, marketing, distribution, accounting, inventory management and other business skills.
The nonprofit company sells organic, artisan, premium quality coffee online, in bulk to local enterprises and brewed at a retail stand on campus.
“What makes us unique is that we are entirely student-run,” Johnson told the supportive crowd.
When the experience was over, Johnson said he thought Blugold Roast could apply some of the tips from the crowd to improve marketing and possibly get more students involved.
“We came here to seek advice because we know the people who show up here are very business savvy and willing to help out,” he said.“We got what we came here for.”
Katy Stevens, owner of N7 Cafe, a cold-brew, nitrogen-infused coffee company in Eau Claire, attended the meeting and was happy to offer some feedback to the students. She hopes to be a presenter in the near future.
For Stevens, 1 Million Cups was her second networking meeting of the day, as she belongs to four such business groups and is a big believer in the concept.
“There’s always something you can learn from other businesses and startups,” she said,“and anything I’ve learned I like to give back so it goes both ways.”
Despite the casual atmosphere at the gatherings, Rupnow said she believes the group will prove beneficial to local entrepreneurs and that in turn will boost the regional economy.
“We’re doing a lot of education on those Wednesday mornings without it feeling like education,” she said.“It’s really kind of of fun, community educational thing— and a free cup of coffee.”
Polka Dot Powerhouse
Eau Claire-based Polka Dot Powerhouse dubs itself a “connection company” that is all about connecting the “Dots” — what members call each other.
The group, which caters specifically to women in business, is different than 1 Million Cups in that it is a private enterprise and charges a membership fee ($299 for the first year and $199 annually after that). Its growth suggests there is strong demand for a group targeting the unique style of female entrepreneurs.
Founder Shannon Crotty of Chippewa Falls launched Polka Dot Powerhouse in October 2012 with a lone paid member and still had only one member several months later, when she acknowledged “it looked like a failed idea.”
But the concept began to take off in 2013 and now has grown to 50 chapters in 21 states, with its first Canadian chapter set to open this month.
“Women are seeking an extra layer in their business relationships,” Crotty said.“The word we use a lot is sisterhood. The group becomes like a second family for us.”
That involves connecting with other businesswomen who push each other to take their businesses to a higher level but also help each other without condition, Crotty said.
“Oftentimes businesswomen feel like they’re on an island by themselves,” she said. “This group makes them feel like they’re not all alone.”
Denise Bender, managing director of the 125-member Eau Claire chapter, put it this way: “Women do networking a little differently than men. We like to get to know each other first. We develop these personal relationships and then we know that when we recommend somebody’s business, they will take good care of the person I recommended them to.”
Bender, a consultant for direct sales company Tastefully Simple, said she got involved with Polka Dot Powerhouse at a time when she wanted to expand her business and was looking for a no-drama way to make connections.
“After two or three months, I couldn’t stop going,” she said. “It was extremely uplifting.”
Members attend one meeting a month where they mingle with other Dots and listen to a presentation on topics ranging from social media and exercise tips to packing for business travel and developing an elevator pitch.
The positive response has Crotty setting her corporate goals high.
“After seeing the impact we have on members, our goal is to reach all of the women across the globe who need us,” Crotty said.
Musky Tank mixers grew out of a desire by the founders of the 2-year-old local consulting firm Musky Tank (a Wisconsin twist on the ABC-TV business reality show“Shark Tank”) to provide another opportunity for local business people to connect and share ideas.
“One of our company’s key recommendations is networking, networking, networking,” said Musky Tank co-founder Pete Marsnik, so the mixers fit right in with that philosophy.
The concept calls for setting aside networking time and bringing in speakers to spark conversation about a variety of topics relevant to startups and small businesses. Among the topics addressed since the sessions started last fall are how to start a business, plan for growth, finance a company and deal with intellectual property.
“Starting a company is really a body contact sport. When you are starting a business, you can lose contact with people because you are so focused on your idea,” Marsnik said.“The whole idea of the mixers is that you might learn something there and you might make a connection that could help your business.”
Musky Tank partners with economic development corporations in Eau Claire, Dunn and Chippewa counties to put on the events, which Marsnik said each have attracted 45 to 65 people, about three-quarters of whom are entrepreneurs. The meetings were held the second Wednesday evening of the month, although organizers are suspending the mixers during the summer.
Attendance at the sessions is optional, although attendees are asked to register through the muskytank.com website. As an added bonus, the networking is often conducted over a beer.
“It’s been fun, and we’re getting good engagement and a lot of energy,” said Marsnik, also executive director of Chippewa Valley Angel Investors Network.
More the merrier
Though Rupnow has been a key figure in founding the Eau Claire 1 Million Cups chapter and Marsnik has played a similar role with the Musky Tank mixers, both attend the other group’s meetings when they can.
The networking sessions are held at different times, offer different styles and attract different people, so they all bring something unique to the boardroom table.
“The more of these things you have, the more you grow and groom this entrepreneurial culture we are trying to promote,” Rupnow said.
Marsnik couldn’t agree more, insisting he doesn’t think the Musky Tank mixers compete with other business gatherings but instead believes all of the groups have value.
“If it brings people together and helps entrepreneurs move on to the next step in their business, it’s a good thing,” Marsnik said.“Ultimately, it’s a lot of work to get an idea off the ground and turn it into a business. If any of these groups can do something that helps, it can’t be bad.”
Retired UW-Eau Claire College of Business Dean Diane Hoadley, who has been involved in organizing the local 1 Million Cups chapter, said the proliferation of business networking groups is a good sign for the local economy.
“The more of these grassroots groups you have in your community, the better off you are,” she said.