1 Million Cups: It’s where black T-shirts meet investors

John Seelmeyer

RENO, Nev. — An investor intent on the financial details of Urban Feat, a startup in Incline Village, pressed to learn more about the company’s operating expenses.

“Well, our T-shirts are our biggest cost,” responded marketing executive Sabrina Belleci, as she waved toward a young team clad in identical black shirts emblazoned with the company’s logo. “We’re doing all of the coding ourselves.”

Black T-shirts and big dreams come together in 1 Million Cups, a weekly hour at a Reno coffee shop in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors.

They hope for funding. As a bonus, they get lots of suggestions.

This session in mid-April — like all of them, at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Swill Coffee and Wine at 3366 Lakeside Court — drew a packed house to hear six-minute presentations each from two companies, followed by 20 minutes of questions from each.

About 50 folks ranging from suspender-and-necktie types to hoodie-clad techies listened as representatives of Urban Feat and SoSu.TV made their pitch.

Urban Feat, a group of Sierra Nevada College students, is developing technology to push marketing messages from bars and restaurants out to the mobile devices of consumers who are in the neighborhood.

Entertainment venues would pay $39.95 a month to deliver eight messages, said Marcus Plyhr, Urban Feat’s chief executive.

Nobody leaped up immediately to write a $50,000 check to take an equity stake in the company, but the onlookers peppered the team with questions.

Why not launch the service in New York City or Las Vegas, with their multitude of restaurants and bars, rather than the Lake Tahoe Basin? Why not launch it in some small cities, where the competition is less? How about teaming with a newspaper publisher?

Had the Urban Feat group learned the lessons of Dibbs, the now-bankrupt Reno-based entertainment app that proved better at generating publicity than revenue? How would the company solve its chicken-and-egg conundrum — it needs a base of consumers before bars buy in, but it needs bars before consumers sign up?

Mark and Dana Hatjakes, the founders of Reno-based SoSu.TV, got fewer questions but a lot more advice as they walked investors through the plans for the video production firm.

SoSu.TV, which livestreams 1 Million Cups events in Reno directly to the Internet, is getting its start as a producer of video marketing materials for local companies to use in social media.

So far, Mark Hatjakes said, the company has signed up about a dozen companies for a service that carries a basic price tag of $149 a month.

“We want to tell compelling stories about business,” said Hatjakes, who defined the company’s productions as “advertainment.”

The company’s longer-range plans — license its production systems, teach entrepreneurs in three days how to shoot their own professional-level video and outfit them with a bag full of gear — stirred one suggestion after another.

How about tweaking the model to teach bloggers and others in the social media space how to make videos? What about summertime classes for bored teens?

Hatjakes said he and his wife get all sorts of suggestions, including a request to livestream a wedding ceremony so out-of-town family could follow along on the Internet.

“But we’re really kept our focus on the small businesses,” he said.

It’s a focus that’s been shared by 1 Million Cups since its inception in Reno in mid-March. The initiative is co-sponsored by Entrepreneurial Minds, a support group for startups, and the Economic Development Authority of Northern Nevada.

The Kaufman Foundation, a nonprofit that works to boost entrepreneurship, established 1 Million Cups in early 2012 in its hometown of Kansas City, and Reno was among the fifth city in the nation to launch its own version of the program.

Other cities with 1 Million Cups program include Houston, St. Louis, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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