Paying It Forward Never Felt So Good

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Guest post from Ben Barreth from Homes For Hackers, a 6 week old program to lure startups to Kansas City with 3 months of free living/working space and free Google Fiber.

Truth be told: I never wanted to actually do this idea. I wrote a blog post about it, thought someone might find it interesting, then promptly forgot about it. Three weeks later I found myself invited to a free lunch with Cameron Cushman & Nate Olson from the Kauffman Foundation.

Free lunch? I’m there.

They told me quite plainly, “We love your idea Ben. Now you just need to do it.”


That was a Monday. I launched the site Thursday morning.

It is quite possibly the ugliest site on the Internet since Craigslist. It’s so ugly, it drives right through the realm of being cool and out the other side to just being really ugly, all over again.

I told myself I didn’t want to put all this effort into something I had no idea would take off. As I’m learning more about startups, I realize now that I inadvertently created my minimum viable product. Not because I needed to get the product to market quickly, or get feedback from real life users early, or to fail fast. But simply because I’m lazy.

Here’s the idea: What if 10 generous Kansas City homeowners that have Google Fiber would let startups live with them, rent-free, for 3 months at a time? We could seed 40 new startups into KC in a single year.

People really started rallying behind this idea. Someone posted it on Hacker News. I was interviewed by ArsTechnica and a bunch of small business publications. About 20 startups and 4 homeowners registered in the first 24 hours. I felt overwhelmed, fearful and euphoric all at the same time.

Then suddenly Google Fiber released their rollout schedule.

None of the homeowners in my program were getting fiber until summer 2013. The startups wanted fiber and I didn’t have it. I truly believed in the potential of the program. I had received so much encouragement and support that I knew the idea contained true merit, not just my own fantasies of greatness.

On Wednesday, September 19th, I looked up from the computer and said to my wife: “You know, we could just buy a house… right in Hanover Heights where the fiber is coming first.” We both laughed (hard). What a ridiculous idea.

Four days later we put down an offer on 4428 State Line Road.

Crazed again by euphoria, it was a week later when I found I needed a 20% down payment (instead of only 10), because of the investment loan. So what does any entrepreneur do in a tight place with a cause they believe in? They calculate the risk… then they double down. I took another crazy leap of faith and liquidated a retirement account to fund the down payment.

I keep asking myself: How did I even get here? All I did was write a stinking blog post! People keep asking me: “Why are you doing this?” and I just stare dumbly. Then tonight I happened to read this:

“… entrepreneurial leaders follow a ‘give before you get’ philosophy: They have no idea what they are going to get out of providing this leadership, but they expect it will be more than they invest. In some cases, the results are tangible and immediate; in other cases the results are vague and take a long time to materialize. Regardless, the short-term emotional satisfaction of helping to mobilize, grow, and evolve a startup community is substantial.”   Startup Communities by Brad Feld, pg 33.

Thanks Brad, that really helps. Seriously.

In fact, I wish I had read all that before staring dumbly at a bunch of people this week at Thinc Iowa.

You know what the best thing is? The startup community in Hanover Heights is already way ahead of my Homes for Hackers idea. I haven’t even closed on the house yet and startups like Local Ruckus, Leap2, FormZapper and EyeVerify have already moved their operations into this new KC Startup Village of Hanover Heights. CHWC is looking to buy condemned homes in the area to fix them up specifically for use by startups. The Compute Midwest Hackathon is coming to the Google Fiber Space just 1 block away. Red Nova Labs continues to have great startup Meetups across the street from the neighborhood.

I can truly rest easy knowing that if Homes for Hackers died off tomorrow, this new fledgling KC Startup Village will continue to grow exponentially. My greater satisfaction comes from playing my small role in bringing this startup community to life.

Paying it forward never felt so good.

Ben Barreth
Cell: 816-332-9770

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Entrepreneurial Attitudes In Kansas City

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I’ve gotten many emails about how startup communities grow and develop completely separately from Silicon Valley. Following is an overview of what’s driving the Kansas City startup community right now, written by Herb Sih, the co-founder and managing partner of Think Big Partners.

The founders of Think Big Partners toured the startup scene in Silicon Valley before they launched their Midwest business incubator and startup accelerator.  And although the Think Big team uncovered helpful tips during a tour of the Valley (like the impact of coworking spaces, the need for local funders and the importance of a tech culture), they seemed to learn one lesson that was much more impactful after returning back to their home of Kansas City:  You don’t need to be like Silicon Valley in order to get Silicon Valley-esque results.

And that’s where Think Big Partners started.  They asked themselves, “How can we make a Silicon Valley impact with our own Midwestern roots?  How can we make a dent in the startup and tech worlds in our own city, on our own watch?”  The team answered these questions by developing one of Kansas City’s first coworking spaces, which has been the second home to over 50 entrepreneurs and their startup companies.  Think Big Partners also developed a business incubator and startup accelerator model that has helped to launch and grow some of the most successful Midwestern businesses today.  With collaboration from other Kansas City entrepreneurial superstars such as the Kauffman Foundation, KCSourceLink, Kansas PIPELINE, the University of Kansas City-Missouri Bloch School and others, Think Big Partners helped to make entrepreneurial success one of the city’s main focuses.

And Think Big Partners’ launch was timed just right.  Because soon after the launch of TBP, Kansas City (and the Midwest for that matter) underwent an immense entrepreneurial transformation.

Since the launch of Think Big Partners, entrepreneurship seemed to explode in and around the Kansas City area.  Startup companies such as Zaarly, Dwolla and LiveOn have flourished in the Midwest.  There has been so much startup success that the Midwestern region has become known as Silicon Prairie.

But it isn’t Silicon Valley that has defined the terms for Silicon Prairie.  The Silicon Prairie area is an entrepreneurial movement in its own right.  For instance, Silicon Prairie has become the home of the nation’s first Google 1-Gigabit Fiber Network, has been named the IT hub by The Wall Street Journal and is gradually becoming known as The City of Entrepreneurs.  This has all been on Silicon Prairie’s watch—not Silicon Valley’s.

But how has this entire region grown its startup scene without help from Silicon Valley?  The answer is obvious: with entrepreneurial attitudes.  Silicon Prairie is all about collaboration.  At one moment, you’ll see that H&R Block has rejuvenated its entrepreneurial mentorship program and the next, you’ll find that The Kauffman Foundation has invested in Kansas PIPELINE initiatives.  In one instant, you will learn about Think Big Partners’ Gigabit Challenge business plan competition and the next, you’ll see five new coworking spaces pop up around the Midwest.  Everyone is working on entrepreneurship together—making the Midwest one of the nation’s up-and-coming entrepreneurial hubs to date (we like to also call this “coopetition”—where competitors end up cooperating together instead of competing against each other.  This is one of the main reasons that Kansas City and the Midwest have become so entrepreneurial.)

It’s not about having a Silicon Valley attitude—it’s about having an entrepreneurial attitude.  It’s about partnering with other organizations in and around your area.  It’s about thinking big with entrepreneurs that sit next to you in your coworking space.  It’s about collaboarting with tech gurus, social media wizards and community leaders at cool business events.  It’s the people that make a community an entrepreneurial one—not the location—and it’s up to you to contribute.