What is StartupBus?
It’s a bus driving cross country with strangers on board who start companies on the trip.
Actually it’s been 10 buses this year from New York, Washington DC, Boston, Florida, Mexico, Cincinnati, Louisiana, San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. They all drove three days to Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest Festival.
The people who board the bus are programmers, designers or business people. They mostly don’t know each other before, but certainly haven’t worked with each other closely. All have some sort of background in Startups and know their way around with starting things.
So this is how my experience was for the New York Bus: Boarding on Tuesday at 4am in the morning, after just some few hours of post-pre-party sleep. Rounds of intros and idea pitches. Teams are formed. The teams start to work on the idea by conceptualizing, building a MVP, researching the market and establishing connections to potential customers and business partners.
The buses went all day and arrived in a city in the evening where usually a pitch/networking event, often in combination with other buses, was held. Afterwards people booked into hotels for work or sleep until the buses left in the morning again.
After three days all buses converged in San Antonio and the teams then went to Austin to finish up their works. The conductors decided on which teams may pitch in the semi-finals. From there a jury decided on who advances to the finals the next day, where a winner was chosen.
What is StartupBus really?
It’s about the people, not the products. It’s about building a community. I think only a small fraction of all companies built will continue to live in any way. But I’m sure that a lot of the people participating will at a later point either found their own startup or at least work in one.
The competition is a huge driver for the teams and gives the conductors the opportunity to push the teams to their limits. Sometimes it left us with a shallow feeling when milestones where mostly only needed for the judges but had little real value, but you can always chose if you want to play along or not. It’s a game.
One of my major take-aways was pitching and ‘getting shit done’. From early on, a huge emphasis was put on the pitch. It forced us to limit scope and ‘get real’. Even though my team was eventually able to craft a really nice prototype, StartupBus is less about building something awesome, but more about conceptualizing it and thinking it through as well as how to build well-working team. Another good trait I practised was networking skills, walking up to people and try to figure out the value for each other as quick as possible (but not being creepy about it). Somehow this appears easier to me in the US, where very content focused encounters with little small talk are well accepted.
Things have to suck (a bit)
There were many things that sucked about StartupBus. I get motion sick quite bad. There weren’t enough power outlets in the bus. In general, there wasn’t enough space. Our windows became whiteboards. The floor became extra storage. Other people were constantly in the way. Even though we had a lot of Mifi mobile internet boxes, they don’t work well in the middle of nowhere and crappy internet is worse than no internet, because you sink a lot of time hoping it might work now. Sleep was never enough. The food on the road was bad.
The interesting thing is that I feel that all these things contributed to the experience. Especially in my team a “us against the world” feeling formed that led to high team cohesion. Also as everyone was pushed way out of their comfort zone, decision-making and overall communication were very effective. We spent less time on sensitivities and fears, but focused on making stuff happen instead. We stopped caring and started making.
Given that building a community is the overall goal, giving ways to distinguish your team, bus and StartupBus in general from the world seems to necessary, it enabled me to build strong bonds with the people involved but also I do share a common understanding with all the people I will meet in the future who went through the same procedure.
StartupBus got a lot of attention this year. For example check the articles in The Atlantic Wire and Bloomberg Business Week. Also there are more articles coming up, for example one in Time Magazine by an embedded journalist who rode in our bus. Harvard Business school also did research on entrepreneurship in the context of StartupBus. And I’m already excited for the class of next year. And one more thing: StartupBus is coming to Europe this year. It will be awesome. You should be on it!
Bonus: How did I get on the bus?
I heard about StartupBus about a month before the bus started. To be able to apply you have to be invited by an alumni and luckily i got help. I had a 15-minute Skype interview with Mike, the conductor of the New York bus, where I had to answer two questions: “Why do you want to get on the bus?” - “What was your most successful project”. I actually prepared that interview well and even hustled some testimonials from Dave, Eric and Henrik (thanks guys!). Some days later I was confirmed. To be on the bus every participant paid $300 which is a fair price looking at the overall calculation of having the buses run cross-country for several days. I arrived in New York some days before the bus departure and participated a bit in the pre-hackathon for setting up the StartupBus website and stock exchange game. The night before departure we had a small pre-party to get to know each other and then Boom, the fun started.
Update: Time Magazine posted a nice video about the trip …