Two emerging new companies in Billings were featured during the first meeting of 1 Million Cups, a national program that supports entrepreneurs by providing an opportunity to network, share information and solve problems. Launched by the Kauffman Foundation, the program is called “1 Million Cups,” because it’s usually over uncountable cups of coffee that new start-ups hash out their problems and challenges.
Under the auspices of Rock 31, Big Sky Economic Development’s entrepreneurship program, 1 Million Cups invites entrepreneurs, innovators, funders and other interested community members to a free “coffee” each Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Last Chance Cider Mill, 2203 Montana Ave.
Swanky Roots and Flow Form were presenters during the first week.
Swanky Roots is an aquaponics greenhouse producing leafy greens, such as lettuce, kale and swiss chard, founded by Veronnaka Evenson and her mother, Ronna Klamert, in 2016. Utilizing sustainable methods, Swanky Roots produce their vegetables through a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaculture is the raising of aquatic animals, like fish, in tanks. Hydroponics refers to cultivating plants in a symbiotic environment.
Swanky Roots uses blue gill fish, which they also harvest after they reach about ½ to ¾ pound in size. A better fish to use would be tilapia but the state government will not allow them to raise tilapia.
Veronnaka and Ronna do almost every aspect of running the business themselves, from moving plants to marketing and bookkeeping.
Tours of the facility have become very popular and they provide tours upon request and have scheduled tours every Saturday at 1 pm at $10 per person.
Evenson said that one of the challenges they are finding is the uncertainty about the meaning of “grown locally.” It needs to be more precisely defined.
With plenty of room to expand, the primary focus for Swanky Roots is to expand their market, getting more stores and restaurants to use their product. While “buying local” is a very popular trend, the competition they face is often from producers who aren’t really that “local.”
Getting their brand out there, in a way that gets consumers to ask for their produce by name, is the goal. One suggestion they received was to make available, to the restaurants that use their produce, table tent cards that tell their story.
Other suggestions were made about how they might qualify for some grants.
About two years ago, Terry Bybee and Andrew Niemantsverdriet had what they consider a “mid-life moment,” during which they decided that they didn’t want to do what they were doing for the rest of their lives. So they began a collaboration to develop a new technology that would be helpful to businesses and be a good foundation to start their own business.
They developed Flow Form, a software that promises to “streamline your work.”
Many businesses and other organizations - - such as government – spend huge amounts of time scheduling work and moving data from one place to another.
Terry said that he worked for a business in which it took a month of work to manage work flow that Flow Form, will now do in 10 – 15 minutes. The time-saving potential for any business is staggering. For some businesses it could mean saving millions of dollars.
Their biggest problem, says Terry, is: “How do you get people to change what they are doing?”
The other challenges faced by the duo is learning how to run a business. “We can write good software,” said Terry, “but we aren’t good at business.”
Their current focus is just trying to get companies to try the software, which Terry said “works very well.” It is customizable and versatile, working equally as well for small businesses as very large businesses. “The bigger the business the more ‘paper hill’ they have,” explained Terry.
Getting companies to incorporate the software is important in the long run to build data for Flow Forms that will demonstrate what the software can achieve.
The other difficult challenge is to keep from giving away their product. In dealing with a company and seeing their needs, Terry laughs at the temptation he has to say “Hey, just take this. You really need it.”
But, maybe – just being able to present their information to the “1 Million Cups” group will prove to have been a good jumping-off point. One audience member said that she had just texted her husband, who manages a substantial business in town, about Flow Forms, and he asked that they contact him right away.