Startup Vil­lage, a Google Fiber in­spi­ra­tion, is gone. But it wasn’t a fail­ure

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY RICK MONT­GOMERY rmont­[email protected]­star.com SHELLY YANG [email protected]­star.com

No­body’s in a huge hurry these days around the nar­row cross­ing of State Line Road and 45th Street, where cars take turns at a four-way stop.

On the north­west cor­ner, an up­hol­sterer is clos­ing in on 50 years of metic­u­lously stitch­ing new life into old fur­ni­ture.

But for a time be­gin­ning in 2012, the world’s largest news op­er­a­tions de­scended on these porches. They came to re­port on a grass-roots push to at­tract young, lap­top-armed en­trepreneurs to the fastest in­ter­net speeds any­where.

It was the first neigh­bor­hood in the coun­try to re­ceive Google Fiber in­ter­net ser­vice. Then it be­came home to Kansas City Startup Vil­lage. Amer­ica’s “fiber­hood,” some de­clared it.

To­day, Google’s his­toric gi­ga­bit con­nec­tions re­main. But the buzz of a vil­lage is no longer, leav­ing be­hind a cou­ple of faded “KCSV” flags flap­ping in the wind.

“I knew a lot of them would fall on their faces,” said Gary Boyce, the cor­ner up­hol­sterer who man­ages An­drews & Abbey-Ri­ley Inc. “What were they ac­tu­ally pro­duc­ing ... an idea?

“They just did this all day,” and Boyce wig­gled his fin­gers as if peck­ing a key­board.

But the end was bound to come, for­mer vil­lage peo­ple say.

“This was kind of a magic king­dom for star­tups ... but there was never a grand plan,” said co-founder Adam Arredondo. He now helps run the down­town-an­chored Kansas City Startup Foun­da­tion.

“Peo­ple still talk about the spirit of the vil­lage,” he said, “even though the vil­lage it­self doesn’t re­ally ex­ist any­more.”

So what’s be­come of the so-called Sil­i­con Prairie that so many imag­ined would ac­com­pany Google Fiber?

As civic and busi­ness lead­ers now con­cede, Google Fiber never did turn the metro into a tech par­adise. One rea­son: Google scaled back plans to wrap the na­tion in gi­ga­bit fiber, mak­ing Kansas City’s on­line ties to other busi­nesses no more up-to-speed than the com­puter sys­tems on the re­ceiv­ing end. But it was a cat­a­lyst. “Startup Vil­lage was a won­der­ful study in the so­ci­ol­ogy and psy­chol­ogy of the en­tre­pre­neur­ial mil­len­ni­als,” said boomer and one-time Kansas City may­oral can­di­date Mike Burke. “The city ben­e­fited by hav­ing that lab­o­ra­tory here.”

VIL­LAGE RISE AND FALL

In 2011, the can­di­date who beat Burke, Mayor Sly James, tapped him to help lead a bi-

state com­mis­sion as­signed to rec­om­mend strate­gies for adopt­ing Google Fiber and fu­el­ing the growth of web star­tups.

Nowhere in the com­mis­sion’s pro­pos­als was the seed­ing of Startup Vil­lage, started by en­tre­pre­neur­ial dream­ers who rented space and even bought homes in the neigh­bor­hood with­out lo­cal gov­ern­ment fund­ing or spe­cial tax breaks.

Their sol­i­dar­ity grabbed the no­tice of a na­tion cu­ri­ous about the hype over Google ser­vice, which was said to be hun­dreds of times faster than other homes at the time had. The vil­lage’s nar­row streets swarmed on oc­ca­sion with tour buses, cars in search of slots to park, 20-some­things tot­ing lap­tops, and CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal and in­quir­ing vis­i­tors from 80 coun­tries.

“It’s an au­da­cious and un­proven ex­per­i­ment,” re­ported The Wash­ing­ton Post, call­ing Kansas City’s fiber fan­fare “the equiv­a­lent of re­plac­ing coun­try roads with the Au­to­bahn speed­way and then as­sum­ing For­mula One race cars will ma­te­ri­al­ize.”

Google, with lo­cal head­quar­ters a short stroll north to 43rd Street, had just threaded its first lines through the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods of Hanover Heights, the West Plaza and Spring Val­ley, the lat­ter be­com­ing Startup Vil­lage’s home base.

“It was loosely put to­gether on the fly by these younger, as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs,” Burke said. “The fas­ci­nat­ing part was watch­ing how they all shared and col­lab­o­rated to­gether.”

Those en­trepreneurs in­cluded Arredondo, then in his late 20s, and Matthew Mar­cus, a Gen-Xer who owned a home in the vil­lage. They saw new com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties in the an­tiques dis­trict, de­spite its wedge-in houses, park­ing prob­lems and in­fra­struc­ture that pre­dates the Plaza sev­eral blocks east.

Mar­cus con­verted his late mother’s res­i­dence and de­sign stu­dio at 4454 State Line to of­fice space and leased to as many as eight web star­tups at a time. The minds be­hind ven­tures such as Leap2, For­mZap­per, Rivet, Lo­cal Ruckus and SquareOffs stocked of­fice re­frig­er­a­tors with beer, fired up out­door grills and shared trade tips.

“Be­ing able to walk across the street and talk with some­one who might know mar­ket­ing or could point to a grant you’d never heard of was su­per im­por­tant for us as a young com­pany,” said SquareOffs’ CEO Jeff Rohr.

An early vil­lage booster, John­son County web en­gi­neer Ben Bar­reth, shelled out $48,000 for a va­cant, rac­coon-in­fested house that he rewired and ren­o­vated to lodge starry-eyed techies for up to six months — mostly rent­free.

Be­fore open­ing his non­profit “Home for Hack­ers,” Bar­reth sat at his home com­puter and emailed a hand­ful of other gi­ga­bit buffs.

“This is go­ing to be a smok­ing hot lit­tle startup area,” he typed that night in 2012. “I think it’s go­ing to get some na­tional at­ten­tion fo­cused on our city. “

The first oc­cu­pant of Bar­reth’s hacker home, a 20-year-old Bos­to­nian named Mike De­marais, lasted a year be­fore high­tail­ing south­west with his MacBook, clothes and bi­cy­cle. He ul­ti­mately wound up back in Bean­town, the sto­ried birth­place of Face­book.

De­marais was frus­trated mostly by Kansas City’s spotty pub­lic tran­sit, its lack of uni­ver­si­ties to drive high-tech re­search and a Mid­west ret­i­cence among ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists to gam­ble on bold ideas.

“There’s not enough of them will­ing to pull the trig­ger,” De­marais later told The Star. “Kansas City in­vestors are riska­verse.”

And as the the geek in­va­sion in­ten­si­fied, gen­er­a­tional ten­sions flared be­tween long­time home­own­ers and am­bi­tious young techies.

In 2015, nearly 70 res­i­dents in the Spring Val­ley dis­trict signed a pe­ti­tion that called for greater co­op­er­a­tion among the un­fa­mil­iar new­com­ers and go­ers, zon­ing of­fi­cials in Kansas City, Kan., and the neigh­bor­hood’s sin­gle­fam­ily prop­erty own­ers. Vil­lage or­ga­niz­ers urged the startup staffs to ra­tion their park­ing needs and keep lawns tidy.

Soon, how­ever, their as­pi­ra­tions would suc­cumb to eco­nomic re­al­i­ties. Once num­ber­ing 32 bud­ding firms across 19 vil­lage prop­er­ties, the vil­lage slowly shrank.

Bar­reth couldn’t sus­tain his “Home for Hack­ers” past 2016.

Too many re­pairs, too much mow­ing and too few oc­cu­pants led him to pitch his phi­lan­thropy and sell the house to a busi­ness part­ner.

Still, as Startup Vil­lage brought fresh voices into the lo­cal con­ver­sa­tion about at­tract­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of en­trepreneurs, sev­eral in­sti­tu­tional play­ers stepped up, too.

Ini­tia­tives to pro­mote star­tups now in­clude the Univer­sity of Mis­souriKansas City’s “Dig­i­tal Sand­box,” Sprint Ac­cel­er­a­tor, the Kauff­man Foun­da­tion’s weekly “1 Mil­lion Cups” gath­er­ings (now a na­tion­wide ef­fort) and com­pe­ti­tions spon­sored by LaunchKC of­fer­ing cash prizes to the most in­no­va­tive con­tes­tants.

“Those re­sources weren’t avail­able in the early stages of Startup Vil­lage,” said civic leader Burke. “The vil­lage helped make it hap­pen.”

ONEHQ, EYEVERIFY

In Au­gust, dozens of of for­mer vil­lagers re­united at a farewell event in the for­mer Vil­lage Square, which once of­fered shared workspace hookups but has since lost its sig­nage to a new busi­ness ten­ant.

One for­mer oc­cu­pant toasted at the cel­e­bra­tion was EyeVerify, now Zoloz Inc., Startup Vil­lage’s big­gest suc­cess story.

In 2016, EyeVerify and its retina-scan­ning and face-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy was ac­quired for more than $100 mil­lion by Alibaba, the Chi­nese ver­sion of Ama­zon. Zoloz is now lo­cated in a sprawl­ing down­town of­fice at 18th and Bal­ti­more streets.

Eight or nine other out­fits gained enough trac­tion and in­vestor sup­port to grow their staffs and re­lo­cate into trendier digs around Kansas City.

Mar­ket­ing up­start Rivet moved into a two-story space in the River Mar­ket; OneHQ , serv­ing in­sur­ance com­pa­nies with ex­ten­sive data plat­forms, grad­u­ated to an el­lip­ti­cal ed­i­fice of glass and mar­ble in Lea­wood.

Founded by vil­lage en­thu­si­ast Kyle Gini­van, OneHQ sprung from the claus­tro­pho­bic base­ment of a Cam­bridge Drive A-frame, where a half­dozen techies re­ported daily. They in­cluded Kelechi C. Anu­foro, a Cal­i­for­nia trans­plant who be­came known as “K.C.” in a nod to his new home­town.

“We were not ex­perts (in busi­ness), but learned by be­ing so close to one an­other,” he said in a re­cent visit with co-work­ers back to the com­pact house.

OneHQ re­cently broke into In­gram’s Mag­a­zine’s list of the 50 fastest-grow­ing com­pa­nies in Kansas City.

Vil­lage co-founders Mar­cus and Arredondo helped form the Kansas City Startup Foun­da­tion, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion now rent­ing space at the busy Pl­ex­pod build­ing in the Cross­roads dis­trict. The group over­sees the on­line Start­land News and an ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nent to pro­mote en­tre­pre­neur­ial learn­ing among K-12 stu­dents. The foun­da­tion’s mis­sion is to “ac­cess the pas­sion, in­ge­nu­ity and col­lab­o­ra­tive spirit of the Kansas City startup com­mu­nity.”

But the vil­lage they cre­ated is not en­tirely dor­mant.

To­day, SquareOffs’ Rohr and part­ner Rachel Smith are the lone oc­cu­pants of Mar­cus’ on­ce­bustling prop­erty. And their startup, an in­ter­ac­tive menu of news threads and top­i­cal de­bates, con­tin­ues to grow. SquareOffs drew 50 mil­lion page views in 2018 and nearly 3 mil­lion pay­ing users.

In re­cent weeks, Bar­reth’s for­mer prop­erty sold again to Bran­don Schatz from Spring­field, who has star­tups of his own.

He al­ready has spent six fig­ures buy­ing the per­fect URLs: One is Sport­sPho­tos.com, now em­ploy­ing pho­tog­ra­phers na­tion­wide to shoot am­a­teur sport­ing events that par­tic­i­pants can down­load for free; Road­Trip.com lets trav­el­ers plan cross­coun­try out­ings.

He op­er­ates the sites around the clock, won­der­ing why it’s taken so many years for his ven­tures to take off.

“It is qui­eter around here now,” Schatz said from his home, in a neigh­bor­hood back to be­ing Spring Val­ley. “But I don’t have plans of get­ting out.”

SHELLY YANG [email protected]­star.com

Kelechi C. Anu­foro, who came from Cal­i­for­nia to work in one of the Startup Vil­lage houses in 2013, stands in the base­ment of the A-frame house where he lived and worked for over two years and re­calls the ex­pe­ri­ence of shar­ing the space with five other de­vel­op­ers as an of­fice.

The A-frame house at 4454 State Line Road used to be the home base of the Kansas City Startup Vil­lage. Now as the vil­lage is fad­ing away, the prop­erty is up for rent for other uses.

SHELLY YANG [email protected]­star.com

Founded by vil­lage en­thu­si­ast Kyle Gini­van, OneHQ sprung from the base­ment of a Cam­bridge Drive A-frame and grad­u­ated to a cushier and more vis­i­ble of­fice in Lea­wood.

DAVID EU­LITT [email protected]­star.com

In 2016, Emanuel Thomas, aka DJ Many, lived and worked in the Startup Vil­lage to grow his mul­ti­me­dia ca­reer. He now lives in Ge­or­gia and has more than 450,000 fol­low­ers each on In­sta­gram and Twit­ter.

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