When Sprint Met Startups
Sprint jumped into Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem two years ago, and according to Kevin McGinnis, very accidentally.
At the time, McGinnis, now vice president of product development and operations for Pinsight Media, a division of Sprint, was managing Sprint’s Google partnership when Google Fiber announced they were coming to Kansas City. He called them up and asked what was going on, why they chose Kansas City and what Sprint could do as their partner.
“They really didn’t have an answer,” says McGinnis. Instead, they encouraged Sprint to get involved on the ground in Kanas City.
“What we found out is that Sprint was not very present in Kansas City. We were doing a great job from a philanthropic and community perspective. Most companies do. But in economic development and technology advancement, in helping other business in our community, we were persona non grata.”
Sprint started taking steps to change that.
Grow bigger ears.
So McGinnis donned a hoodie and started attending hackathons. He dispatched his team to Startup Weekend. He started attending 1 Million Cups. And it was there, just about two months after 1MC launched in Kansas City, that he had an epiphany.
At the time, he was going to 1MC, hosted by Kauffman Foundation, primarily as a scout: to see if there were any startups that in some way could partner with Sprint.
Each Wednesday at 1MC, the format goes like this: two startups present their companies to an audience of, now, about 250 people. They each give a 20-minute pitch and then face the crowd for questions.
That morning, Nathan Benjamin took the floor and started talking about his startup, Plant Reuse.
“I instantly tuned out,” says McGinnis. “It wasn’t in our market, it wasn’t in our sweet spot.”
Nathan finished his presentation and the famous question of 1MC came up: “What can the community do for you?”
Nathan’s answer caught McGinnis’s attention.
Nathan said they had a founder and a technologist, the hustle and the muscle. They had built their product. They’d done their customer and market validation. They had actually gone out and found their first customer.
But Nathan wondered if anybody knew anything about customer service because they did not have a clue.
“I’m sitting there thinking to myself, I’ve got about 400 people on the Sprint campus who would love to help them understand what customer service looks like,” says McGinnis. “It was incredible for me to hear and it changed my perspective on how corporations can help startups.”
That epiphany begged the question: if corporate engagement is not just about scouting for new business development, what exactly could Sprint could do?
Ask: “How can we help?”
The expected answer: hand out money. But McGinnis found that Sprint’s engagement could go much deeper and be much more meaningful.
“There’s a lot of support organizations that are already helping entrepreneurs, like those in the KCSourceLink network. Corporations can step up and start by supporting the winners, the ones who are already putting the effort out to help entrepreneurs.”
He sat down with some folks in the community who were already involved in economic development and entrepreneurship—folks like Maria Meyers and Thad Langford, among others, and asked how Sprint could help.
Together, they came up with six imperatives required to build a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem:
- entrepreneurial infrastructure to support entrepreneurs
- idea pipeline to cultivate and support ideas
- talent pool to feed new startups and advance new ideas
- financing and capital to help those companies accelerate
- national microphone and spotlight to tell and share the stories
- commitment of corporations to mentor, lead and engage
So what could Sprint do?
How could Sprint provide access to resources and contacts? How could Sprint, as a corporation, help stimulate the quantity and quality of entrepreneurs in the ecosystem? How could Sprint be a catalyst to grow business, develop ideas and retain talent? How could Sprint participate in and influence the local venture capital market? How could Sprint use its large microphone, national audience, PR team, and national brand presence to help tell the story of and advance KC entrepreneurship? How could it use its influence to help other companies get engaged?
The questions themselves hint at the answers, and paved the path Sprint would take over the next two years to promote, engage and advance KC entrepreneurship.
Sprint did a lot. And with very little human bandwidth. (McGinnis did this with a team of three.)
The first thing on the list: create a network for entrepreneurs. Sprint repositioned its infrastructure, products and services and made it more readily available to startups.
Second, McGinnis went out and found the folks who were already doing amazing things to support entrepreneurship. Rather than throw money behind marketing sponsorships, he created partnerships with the likes of Silicon Prairie News and KCSourceLink Resource Partners Pipeline, Startup Weekend (notably the week before they signed up with Startup America) and UP Global, who established their third regional office in Kansas City.
Third, Sprint started sponsoring entrepreneurially focused events: BigKC, 1WeekKC, Global Entrepreneurship Week. They were small marketing movements, McGinnis admits, but they got the message out that Sprint was involved.
Fourth, Sprint created and launched the Sprint Accelerator in the Crossroads District of Kansas City as a physical manifestation of what Sprint does for entrepreneurship.
“We didn’t want to build it on the Sprint campus because we wanted to ‘hunt where the ducks were’ and be where entrepreneurship is actually happening,” says McGinnis. “This might be a stretch for a lot of companies, but we thought it was really important for us to get engagement in the community and give us a physical landing spot for some of the programs and other companies we wanted to engage.”
Bringing in Techstars to power the mobile health accelerator was an additional opportunity to pull a national brand (and national awareness) to help elevate Kansas City entrepreneurship.
With its feet on the ground and its resources firmly engaged, Sprint is showing other corporations in Kansas City and beyond just what it means to be engaged and what that can mean for a corporation and the community.
View the presentation McGinnis gave on corporate engagement at last spring’s U.S.SourceLink annual conference, Four Corners of Entrepreneurship.