Pros gather to build 'fiberhood'

Web entrepreneurs move to Kansas to perfect Google's ultra-speed network plan

Kansas City StarNovember 16, 2012 

— Mike Demarais, who is 20, arrived from Boston to the Kansas City area’s first “fiberhood” with his MacBook, some clothes and an idea.

Call him a homesteader on the Silicon Prairie.

His idea is, well, hard to explain – as often is the case for Internet entrepreneurs drawn to the ultra-speed promise of Google Fiber, soon to be providing next-generation Web and TV service to the Hanover Heights neighborhood.

Suffice it to say Demarais is convinced his little Web-based startup could revolutionize manufacturing, customize products such as clothing to each consumer’s likes, and make assembly lines as we know them obsolete.

At least for the time being, while he massages this idea into something possible, Demarais has an affordable place to hang – in a house that should be pulsing, any day now, with a second-to-none gigabit connection.

“This is all I need,” said Demarais, tapping the lid of his laptop on the coffee table.

He lives here for free – thanks to a local Web designer doing his part to make the region a magnet for gig-hungry geeks of the entrepreneurial variety.

Across this region, civic and government leaders, development groups, colleges, foundations and task forces are rolling out grand plans to capitalize on the first-in-the-nation Google Fiber hype. But the actual doing has begun a half-dozen houses down the street from the modest digs Demarais moved into this month.

Online startups with names that pop – FormZapper, EyeVerify, SquareOffs, Leap2 and LocalRuckus – are clustering in the Hanover Heights area of Kansas City, Kan., creating what’s called the KC Startup Village.

As white Google Fiber vans crawl down residential roads to hook up houses, an aging district once dominated by antique shops, salons, bars and boutiques is becoming a humble nativity for Kansas City’s fledgling entrepreneurial class.

Or so the community hopes.

“The challenge is in tying all of these possibilities into a coherent story line – one that says Kansas City is serious about next-generation technology,” said Aaron Deacon, selected by the Mid-America Regional Council to direct a push called KC Digital Drive.

Deacon pitched the Kansas City story line last week to Istanbul, Turkey, where he was invited to give a talk. About 30 members of the Turkish media quizzed him about Google Fiber.

In the fiberhood, a Google-defined district of potential customers for the search giant’s Internet connections, Ben Barreth is trying his best to make his big idea happen.

Barreth, a local Web developer, drew cash from his IRA and took out a mortgage on a $48,000 house for budding entrepreneurs, including Demarais, to live in rent-free for three months.

A wild impulse, Barreth admits.

Two months ago, when he raised the idea to his wife, “both of us just busted out laughing.”

A home for hackers, Barreth dubbed it – heck, he’d even cover utility costs.

“We want to be an innovative city? Let’s make it easier for these young people to move here and start a business,” said Barreth. He attributed part of his thinking to being a devout Christian, striving to do good, though he acknowledged:

“There’s a cool factor. I’m really pumped about fiber.”

The fiber being installed around Hanover Heights should make Demarais’ laptop operate a little smoother. But he could have stayed in Boston, where his partner in the startup plan remains. Or he could have plunged into debt trying to launch a business in the Silicon Valley.

He thought of going to Chile, known for its broad incentive programs for startups. Then he stumbled upon Barreth’s blog, urging Kansas Citians with spare bedrooms or empty basements to make “Homes for Hackers.” “This allows me to not have to raise money right away,” Demarais said. “We still have a lot of work to do in developing our idea. …

“But I don’t have to work all day at Starbucks just to survive.”

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