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Q&A: Before 1 Million Cups…meet the host

1 Million Cups Des Moines

Set aside plenty of time before asking Ben McDougal what he does for a living.

Because he’s got a lot to talk about.

Each Wednesday McDougal hosts the Des Moines chapter of 1 Million Cups, a weekly program designed to engage and connect entrepreneurs with their communities. As host, McDougal introduces the entrepreneur each week to present and provides an update with the Des Moines startup community.

But the featured speaker this week—Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds—needs no introduction.

“I think it’s a milestone event and we’ve called it that from day one,” McDougal says. “Having the perspective shared from the governor of our state, I don’t know if you can get a more impactful voice. It’s not only cool for Des Moines but for Iowa. It’s a unique situation.”

Reynolds will present at 8:15 Wednesday morning at the Science Center downtown and join McDougal for a fireside chat on topics that were submitted by members of the community. The theme will be Entrepreneurship in Iowa.

“I’m super excited. I want this to be casual and enjoyable, but want to make sure we are talking about things that matter,” McDougal said. “I hope the topics have people leaving thinking that wasn’t just a fluff fest or a bunch of softballs, but that we had a good conversation.

“And the setup is going to be boss, I’ve even got an electric fireplace.”

1 Million Cups started its first chapter in 2012 based on a notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions over a million cups of coffee. Des Moines started the second chapter and there are now over 170 chapters nationwide, with four in Iowa.

McDougal not only hosts and is an organizer of 1 Million Cups programming each week but he’s the co-founder of FliteBrite, founder of Jet Set Studio and in charge of marketing/innovation at Drake Homes.

Clay & Milk met with McDougal before he sits down with Reynolds to hear more about his story.

Our Q&A is below and has been edited for consciousness:

So you are an entrepreneur?

BM: I have been part of the startup community forever and have been an entrepreneur my entire career, so plugging into the community of fellow entrepreneurs has always been energizing to me. So when 1 Million Cups came around, it was just another event I knew I would go to. It was the way I broke up my week and I think it’s been that way for a lot of people over this entire life cycle of 1 Million Cups in Des Moines.

In the early days, it was more intimate and more grassroots, there was value to that and we enjoyed that environment a lot in Valley Junction. I was just a community member who enjoyed it. Then the organizing team was evolving and I joined, three maybe three and a half years ago as someone just being part of the group. My expertise is building an aligned brand, building connection, spreading the word and making sure people understood what it was.

So I came on board and helped align 1 Million Cups like you would a business. But then we went down to an organizing summit down in Kansas City because it’s fueled by Kaufman, sharing best practices, and we saw what they were up to in Fargo with this circular theatre, it was just church.

It inspired me to realize 1MC could be more for our community. So when it comes to being the gateway, the front porch, call it what you want, we are the way people can enter this community and that’s whether they are building something on their own, in between jobs or an intrapreneur at a company.

Wanting to solidify that piece of our ecosystem, I found the theatre and did the work to evolve it about three years ago. I think that effort kind of bubbled me into more of a lead organizer (with 1 Million Cups Des Moines) and ever since it’s continued to be that way.

Admittedly there’s a lot of organizers that come and go and that’s a good thing to keep things fresh but there’s value in stability and consistency. Our team has found a really nice groove where it is fun and easy while still being consistent and making a big impact.

And when it’s pure volunteer that’s a good combination.

How did this regional leadership role come to fruition?

BM: Most recently this regional rep role has been hyper energizing. This last summer there was a national summit that came together and it was just this brain dump of what 1 Million Cups has been and where 1 Million Cups wants to go. We are up to 170 chapters nationwide, 50 alone in the Midwest and Kaufman has thrown out this goal of being at 500 this year.

So when all these existing organizers heard this big number for growth the most common theme was, growth is important but supporting existing chapters needs to be balanced as well.

The big thing that came out of that was building a new regional way of leadership. Now there’s a regional rep for the five regions around the country and I was chosen to lead the Midwest.

The goal is to support the existing chapters with some of the experiences from my personal work paired with energy and connectivity. There are so many chapters doing something every Wednesday morning that this entrepreneur who rocks it in Des Moines might find value in taking the show up to St. Paul or over to Indianoplis or down to Kansas City or Cedar Rapids or the Cedar Valley.

The network of 1 Million Cups, if done well, entrepreneurs can share their stories and impact, while connecting with those communities.

Talk about that benefit from presenting at 1 Million Cups

BM: It’s a collection of the obvious promotion and awareness but the most important aspect is telling your story under bright lights in front of people. And all the different perspectives that are provided. That’s thousands of dollars worth of consulting in a half hour.

The value of that Q&A is so high and from an audience perspective, not everyone understands the energy that is generated when you accelerate others. So I come from a background of business development so when I was talking to you there’s this ulterior motive. Here it’s not like that, just more pure tell your story and how can I help?

This give-first mentality has been fleshed into 1 Million Cup’s since the get-go.

Now let’s talk about your own entrepreneurial career…

BM: I graduated with a computer science degree from Loras College, I played soccer and wanted to build video games.

Des Moines was a much different community back then so growing up in Iowa—I went to Ankeny—I went to California to work for the video game industry. Then I realized I needed three jobs to support the poverty grade position I was offered.

So I came back to Iowa and built the internet. That was not the early days but earlier days. So I was building this sales/business development role within the web development side. Entrepreneurship wasn’t taught back then, startup wasn’t a word and you were getting a degree to work for somebody else.

While I was working for somebody else, I built a 3v3 soccer tournament using the power of the internet. I created a new website and knew how to do it by being part of it my whole life. I sold it to the Waukee Soccer Club, so I don’t know if you call that an exit, but it was that full cycle of entrepreneurship.

That needed a new leader because I was building Jet Set Studio, which was a social network back when MySpace was cool. It was built to support a gathering of gamers as this social network and started to do live events to connect the two. Taking my experience of connection and event development, I turned it into video games instead of soccer. It’s now a ten-year-old company.

That continues but it definitely sits on the back burner because I went with Drake Homes and home building. That was the moment of evolution, Instead of doing it for hundreds, it was for one. That’s where you see my life transition into doing more with 1 Million Cups and evolving my mind to launch FliteBrite, which is my 100 percent passion.

That’s the world-changing idea. And while it’s been that lonely roller coaster of entrepreneurship, we have a really unique chance of providing smart beer flights within the food tech and food and beverage industry.

How did the idea for FliteBrite start?

BM: It was a Sunday-fun day where we were just annoyed we didn’t know what beers we were enjoying. So it was a customer-centered solution, which provided roadblocks. You need to build something the industry will buy more than just solving a problem. We ended up building a premium electronic hardware product, touch screen paddle that highlights the beers. It’s also expensive, hardware, and we committed all our resources to the manufacturing process.

We realized we weren’t resourceful enough to have anything go wrong. We still have this hardware product that has been somewhat set aside because we have to build this software.

Does that experience help during 1 Million Cups?

BM: I’ve emceed a lot of events so being on stage and having a transparent connection helps, people, tell me they like the way I lead it. So that just comes from experience. But it’s not just a show, I’ve been building for 10-15 years now and part of the community.

When I look back at that web development experience, it was entrepreneurial building the ability to tell their story online. The wide variety of insight that I generated over those years, paired with my transparent vulnerability, pairs well in such a personal flavored event.

Q&A: Before 1 Million the host | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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