Think Big Partners is a local startup accelerator that takes good ideas and helps them grow
Story by Kathryn Jones
Powered by a vast network of resources—which includes backing from global accelerator Microsoft Ventures—Think Big Partners is a KC-based early-stage business incubator and startup accelerator that has a lot of love and pride for entrepreneurship in Kansas City. Herb Sih and Tyler Prochnow have worked with more than 400 startups since they founded the company in 2009. Sih and Prochnow recently shared their story with KC Business.
KCB: How does the Think Big Accelerator (TBA) differ from other accelerator programs in KC?
SIH: It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur in our town. There are more resources available to startups in KC than ever before, including several “accelerator” programs that have launched in the city. Most of these follow the traditional 90-day “build your proof-of-concept” model that’s designed to assist companies with building a first-generation product or service and quickly determine if there is a potential market opportunity. But the dilemma comes on day 91 when the companies find themselves on their own wondering, “Now what?”
PROCHNOW: TBA is more like a graduate school for those 90-day programs or any company that has progressed beyond the “idea on the back of cocktail napkin” stage. Once you have proven the product and a potential market, Think Big focuses on the fundamentals of building a scalable and sustainable business around that product or service, ensuring that when the company leaves our accelerator, they have the core business strategy in place to grow effectively, efficiently and strategically.
KCB: What was your vision when you started Think Big Partners and how has it evolved?
PROCHNOW: We wanted to build more than just a company, but rather create a community where early-stage businesses could find the necessary elements to launch, grow and succeed. While much of that original vision remains intact, the tremendous growth of the startup ecosystem in Kansas City has forced us to grow and adapt as well. Today, we offer a much wider range of services and have a much more mature network of resources to assist startups. Additionally, our reach has extended beyond KC, and we find ourselves involved in more industries than we initially expected.
KCB: How do Microsoft Ventures and Think Big work together to help startups succeed in the marketplace?
SIH: Microsoft has been a leader in providing a wide range of support to early-stage companies around the globe. We worked with them for a little more than a year on a basic arrangement that many accelerators around the country have with them. Over the course of that year, we were able to highlight the strengths of the KC startup community, and in 2013, Microsoft selected Think Big as the very first Microsoft-sponsored partner accelerator in the U.S. As a result, Think Big companies have unique access to assistance from Microsoft, including technical, marketing and general support.
KCB: What qualities do you look for in a Think Big member?
PROCHNOW: While we do not completely discount the power of a great idea…an idea only gets you so far. Thus, the majority of our evaluation is based on the entrepreneurs themselves. We want entrepreneurs who understand how hard it is to build a successful company and demonstrate a willingness to put forth the effort necessary to succeed. We’re rolling up our sleeves and working with them, and we expect them to do the same with us.
KCB: Tell us how Think Big Coworking (TBCo) works.
SIH: Think Big Coworking is office space that allows companies to scale without breaking the bank on real estate. It allows the entrepreneur to get out of Starbucks and into a professional office environment with all of the necessary startup tools (high-speed internet, conference rooms, white boards, coffee, etc.), surrounded by other entrepreneurs who are available for advice, collaboration and conversation.
KCB: Why do you think it’s vital for startups to have an open, collaborative space to share ideas?
SIH: The power of collaboration and the network of like-minded individuals were two of the underlying principles upon which Think Big was founded. Of all the elements of our business, the belief that entrepreneurs are better when they’re around other entrepreneurs sharing their experiences and lessons learned has proven to be one of the most powerful contributions to the community.
KCB: Out of all the companies you’ve touched, which one is your most memorable success story and why?
PROCHNOW: We take great pride in what we have done for almost every company we have touched at Think Big. However, if we were forced to pick one success story, it would be our work with Phone2Action, a mobile application that provides management tools for issue advocacy, political and other similar campaigns. It won the National SXSW Interactive Award in the News Technologies category in March 2013 while a member of Think Big Accelerator.
SIH: Co-founders Jeb Ory and Ximena Hartsock applied to be part of the inaugural TBA class, and when accepted, moved the company headquarters from California to KC. They used our program and network to assist them in legal, technical, marketing, fundraising and strategy development. Working inside our office space, they were a great part of the Think Big community, often giving their time and advice to other entrepreneurs. It was here they met Patrick Stoddart, who at the age of 19 had founded his own technology company, RevDel. After a couple of months of collaboration, Jeb hired Patrick as the CTO for Phone2Action.
PROCHNOW: Given its political focus, in order for the company to achieve its full potential, it had to move to Washington, D.C., to be close to its customer base. While we were sad to see them go, it was the necessary move for them. Since their relocation, they’ve been back to KC on several occasions and continue to be vocal cheerleaders for all that KC has to offer entrepreneurs.
KCB: In 2012, Think Big partnered up with KC Chamber to create iKC, which is quite different from the standard annual networking conference. Tell us why.
PROCHNOW: What was originally a one-day networking and educational conference for entrepreneurs is now an “unconference,” which is an open format event without a preset agenda that facilitates activity, conversations and collisions between individuals. The attendees themselves submit ideas for topic sessions and actively create the day’s agenda with the assistance of skilled facilitators so that all the sessions become relevant and engaging. We have held traditional conferences in KC and elsewhere and have never seen the kind of engagement and response we saw from the unconference model last year.