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With Google putting Fiber in Austin, Kansas City Startup Village confronts an uncertain future

Kansas City Startup Village entrepreneurs hope to keep a good thing going.



Oh, it was a shit show," Alexa Nguyen will say later.

Nguyen, a 22-year-old entrepreneur with a 3-D home-printing startup called Handprint, is recalling a recent tense meeting of Kansas City Startup Village.

The village has been under way only a short time. It started in October 2012, when the startups Local Ruckus and FormZapper moved into a building at 4454 State Line to be among the first hooked up with Google Fiber. Others followed, filling homes along the border between Kansas City, Kansas' Hanover Heights and Spring Valley neighborhoods and the Missouri side's West Plaza. About 20 startup founders, business owners and entrepreneurs are in the village now.

And at this April 10 meeting, they're not happy.

It's just an hour after Kauffman Labs' weekly showcase of startups, 1 Million Cups, has finished celebrating its first anniversary with bagels, coffee and a stream of success stories, when 30 members of the village sit down to discuss their future. The day before, Google said it would offer its ultrafast gigabyte Fiber to Austin, Texas. (A week later, the Internet goliath will announce another expansion city: Provo, Utah.) These developments have left the villagers feeling uneasy and in a less-than-celebratory mood.

"We want to talk openly about ideas and how we can re-energize the movement, especially with Austin getting Fiber," says Matthew Marcus, CTO of Local Ruckus, who's trying to build a better online events calendar. Marcus was among the first villagers, but he's not the village's leader. The village has no hierarchy or guiding board, and inhabitants call themselves "co-leaders."

Marcus, 40, admits that Startup Village is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the last couple of months, he says, the village has become the de facto point organization for all startups considering a move to Kansas City.

"The problem I see is that we're muddling lines here," Marcus says. "This started as a village, an entity, an area. And now we're talking about Kansas City as a whole, which I love. But do we want the Kansas City Startup Village to continue to be that entry point for the whole of Kansas City?"

Marcus shifts the discussion to sponsorships. Is it time to involve major corporations — Sprint, Garmin, Hallmark and others — to grow the village?

"Put your money where your mouth is," Marcus says. "You guys love what we're doing; get involved. It feels like that is a missing component."

Ray Barreth disagrees.

"Don't desert your organic roots," says Barreth, whose son, Ben Barreth, owns the Hacker House communal work and living space in the village. The older Barreth, who has a decade or two on most in the room, has spent the meeting carving out a role as a quirky elder statesman and business adviser who is quick to dole out kicks in the pants with his crusty voice. "This whole concept of a village is a beautiful thing."

The concern shouldn't be Austin getting Fiber but maintaining the communal atmosphere here, Beth Sarver argues.

"Google Fiber is not the wholeness of what we have here," she says as about a dozen people nod in agreement. "It's a huge piece, but it's like a cornerstone or something. It's not the foundation. The foundation is our human connectedness and great ideas."

The hourlong meeting winds down with no plan or decision on how to refocus the group's efforts. Cross talk and chitchat pollute the room. Sarver raises her voice, likening Startup Village's moment adrift to her experience with the local artistic community.

"One of the biggest problems we've had in growing that epic artists community is a fear of systems," she says. "Our whole world is full of systems. So we can have systems and still be organic. I propose that we build a strategic visioning event ASAP and figure out, 'What is this vision, exactly?' "

Petite one- and two-bedroom bungalow homes line narrow, potholed streets in Kansas City's Startup Village, in the area of State Line Road and 45th Street. The houses, most with full-size ground floors and modest second stories, are bunched together. Antique shops dot the neighborhood.

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