Grassroots KC Startup Village fuels high hopes amid uncertain outcomes
The house shared by startups Form Zapper, Leap2 and Local Ruckus drew a crowd on the day last month that the house's Google Fiber installation was completed.
Mike Farmer has spent time in Silicon Valley and New York, but he says he hasn't seen anything quite like what's springing up along State Line Road in Kansas City.
Farmer is the founder and CEO of Kansas City, Kan.-based mobile search startup Leap2, and his company is part of Kansas City Startup Village (KCSV), a grassroots community of startups situated within a few blocks of the state line, roughly between 43rd Street and 49th Street (right), in Kansas City, Kan. and Kansas City, Mo.
Many of those companies were drawn to the area by the lure of Google Fiber; the Hanover Heights fiberhood, which is located in the heart of KCSV, last month became the first neighborhood in the metro area to get Google's one-gigabit internet service.
As Farmer watched a technician install Google Fiber in the house Leap2 shares with startups Local Ruckus and Form Zapper, he offered an analogy in an attempt to capture the significance of the moment. As an occupant of one of the first houses in Kansas City to get access to Google's network, which is about 100 times faster than standard broadband, Farmer said he was reminded of his grandparents' house in Diepoltsdorf, Germany, which sat near the water wheel that for years provided the town's power.
"What was going through their minds when that was installed — everybody wanting to leverage it?" Farmer said. "You know, you're seeing that (here), those types of things."
No one has a firm grasp on what the power of Fiber, or the cluster of startups cropping up on account of it, will mean to these companies and their home city over the long haul. But that has done little to slow the flow of ideas, efforts and imagination among entrepreneurs in this neighborhood.
A grassroots cluster
The house at 4454 State Line Rd. occupied by Form Zapper, Leap2 and Local Ruckus is one of the hubs of activity in Kansas City Startup Village.
According to Kansas City Startup Village organizers, 16 startups either have a presence in the neighborhood now or are scheduled to move there within the next 60 days.
A couple of young tech companies called this neighborhood home before the KCSV brand was born. Many others have relocated in the last couple months. Two hubs of activity within the neighborhood have emerged as particularly prominent parts of the equation.
First is the Form Zapper, Leap2 and Local Ruckus house, which is owned by Matthew Marcus of Local Ruckus. Marcus joined Local Ruckus in late September, and at about that same time the three startups first discussed moving into the house. By early October, all three had relocated.
Six doors down sits the Homes for Hackers house, which is owned by Ben Barreth and occupied by an ever-changing cast of entrepreneurs from across the country, who are staying there for up to three months of rent-free accommodations and high-speed internet.
Barreth (left) didn't envision it like this when he first conceived of Homes for Hackers. But what started as an idea turned into a blog post, then into a website to connect hackers to homes with extra space. It wasn't long before Barreth had liquidated a Roth IRA to make a down payment on the house.
"Certainly it didn't happen overnight," Barreth said. "It was just sort of like these little baby steps that we kept taking, and I just kept pushing on doors and they just kept opening."
Barreth didn't realize the Local Ruckus house was on the same block when he made an offer on his house, but he bumped into Marcus shortly thereafter. That speaks to KCSV's organic nature, which has been both blessing and challenge.
Today, efforts are more organized, with more people pushing on more doors. KCSV efforts now involve a website, email lists, shared documents and weekly Wednesday meetings that typically draw 20-30 people. Last week, Joe Reardon, the mayor/CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., and Rick Usher, the assistant city manager of Kansas City, Mo., were among a handful of civic officials in attendance.
In the name of KC's startup scene
It's one thing for entrepreneurs to relocate to a neighborhood for access to gigabit-speed internet, another for them to devote hours outside of work to forming a community around that and still another to cash out a retirement account in support of that community. The settlers of KCSV have invested varying levels of time, energy and resources to the cause. But all seem to have similar, and generally altruistic, motivations for their involvement.
"I just really wanted to see the startup scene in Kansas City take off," said Barreth, whose full-time job is as a software developer for Geeks With Blogs. "And I really thought it could be a good thing for Kansas City."
Marcus delivered a similar message to a throng of media that packed into his house on the day Google Fiber was installed. "We're trying to further the startup community in Kansas City," he said. "There's this mindset — on the coasts, especially — that Kansas City is this flyover town, that it's a cow town, that nothing's going on here. Well, that's clearly not the case. There is a lot of startup action and a lot of (entrepreneurship) going on, so we wanted to just showcase that and do our part to help that community."
But in the same breath, Marcus said he wasn't sure what gigabit-speed internet would mean to Local Ruckus. "But the fact that we have it at our fingertips now will allow us to kind of come up with some ideas and see what can we do next," he said.
Undeterred by uncertainty
Form Zapper's Danielle Stine and Andy Kallenbach work out of the basement they share with Local Ruckus.
That uncertainty about the power of Fiber is a sentiment that was shared by many residents of KCSV when the area was first connected to Google's network. A month later, the startups seem to be figuring things out.
"It definitely helps … our developers when they're pushing to and from the server," Adam Arredondo, Marcus' Local Ruckus co-founder, said. "It's instantaneous. So any lag time is eliminated. From that perspective, it's very helpful for them."
Also helpful, Arredondo says, is the attention media outlets — a list that includes the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Mashable — have lavished on KCSV and its companies. He said the uptick in press has led to more consistent traffic for Local Ruckus.
As FormZapper founder Andy Kallenbach stepped away from the media horde the day Fiber was installed to his office, he expressed a similar sentiment. "Media coverage for startups is just awesome," he said. "Because Danielle (Stine, the other half of the Form Zapper team) and I can spend all month calling 1,000 doctors offices and wrangle up, you know, five or 10 new customers, but nothing like this."
Still, there's no direct correlation between media buzz and the bottom line, no way to know for sure what may come of all this. But embracing uncertainty and navigating the unknown is part of the job description for startups, and a murky outlook doesn't deter the entrepreneurs of Kansas City Startup Village.
As he talked about KCSV on Monday night, Barreth mentioned a new Homes for Hackers resident due to arrive at the airport around midnight. Other Homes for Hackers residents were headed to the airport — in a car they were borrowing from Marcus— to pick up the new arrival. "So you can already see how people are pitching in and helping each other out," Barreth said.
"I still believe in it real strongly," Barreth said of Homes for Hackers. "I don't know what's going to come of it. I'm hoping down the line these entrepreneurs coming to Kansas City will pay it forward to Kansas City somehow."
For more on Kansas City Startup Village, see our interview with Adam Arredondo and Matthew Marcus, recorded last month on the day Google Fiber installation was completed at the Local Ruckus house.