The premise is simple… and a bit crazy. Spend 3 days on a bus going to Austin, TX with people you don’t know to conceive and build a startup company. It’s not like I don’t have anything else going on and I can just pick up and leave at a moment’s notice, but for the second year in a row I found myself in a seat on the Startup Bus.
To get on the Startup Bus you have to first be invited by someone else who has already been invited. Once invited you fill out an application telling why you think you should be on the bus – the application is a blank canvas – be as creative as you need to be. After that comes interviews with the bus conductors (this year there were 7 buses in total). And you may or may not be asked to complete a task/produce work before getting the final decision.
I wasn’t anxious to do it again, but this year one of the buses would be a “master’s” bus – just for alumni, with different rules. I was also told that a pilot for a TV show would be filmed on the master’s bus. I thought it would be a fun opportunity to get on the bus again and be part of this. Last year I pitched an idea and had helping building it – this year I wanted to jump on a team and help someone else who already had the idea and vision.
With the filming being set up our departure was delayed over an hour. Some of us already started sharing ideas and tried to get a feel for who we might want to work with. One of the first things that happens on the bus (Ray, our conductor instructed us to call them motor coaches not buses. His company provided many of the buses for this event) is everyone gets to introduce themselves, sell their skills, and then pitch an idea if they have one.
The next thing that happens is we are given time to form teams around the ideas/businesses we would like to work on. I decide to work with two guys that I talked to before we got on the bus – Dave and Stu. Stu pitched this idea for a personal safety app called Yaank, where when you yank the headphones out of your smartphone, the app sends text and emails to your emergency contacts informing them that you may be in trouble. We’ve got the back end development covered by Dave, and the planning and design by myself and Stu. We are short on a native app developer. We decide that we want to be competitive, since it IS a competition, but we will take time to sleep if given the chance.
We were informed that over the course of the three days we would need to cut the 7 teams on the bus down to 2. I wont say too much about how that happened because it will be revealed on film – eventually. The level of uncertainty, confusion, and stress in this process was very high.
But a few interesting things happened on the bus. After 15+ hours on the bus the first day we pulled into a water park at 2AM in Knoxville, TN. We begged them to open up just one water slide for us but it didn’t happen.
On the second day we stopped at a rest area somewhere in Alabama. A “wayward traveler” asked if he could hitch a ride. He auditioned for us by playing his guitar and we voted to take him with us to New Orleans, our next stop.
The next day in New Orleans we formed an impromptu choir around a street performer playing a saxaphone and sang a rendition of “Oh when the saints…” We prefaced it by telling the crowd we were competitive singers and had been practicing for months. You can imagine the look on their faces when we absolutely SUCKED it.
We made a harlem shake video. We lost power on the bus about 7862 times. We lost internet access 2546203 times. Not the greatest conditions for working.
On the third day we arrived in San Antonio where we were hosted by Rackspace for 2 days – a great sponsor that definitely rolled out the red carpet for us. Here we worked on our app and pitch. We ended up bartering services with another group – I did some design work for them and one of their developers did some app development for us. We also used elance – another sponsor this year – for app development.
At Rackspace there was a series of tech and marketing pitches each of the groups had to do which helped solidify the final two groups which would compete in the finals against the other buses. We had a working app and I was excited when Yaank was chosen to be one of the teams in the finals.
The finals were to be an event at Rackspace’s location at the SXSW conference. We spent the last day of the competition writing a script for our pitch, practicing, refining, practicing, and rewriting and refining on the spot.
The final pitch was probably one of the most stressful and intense public speaking things I have ever had to do – a small presentation stage, a live crowd standing basically right on top of you, untested technology, cameras, lights, and some well-respected judges in the startup world.
The full pitch is below. We were told ahead of time that we had 5 mins to present and 5 mins for questions. As soon as I stepped on stage they decided to cut them down to 4 mins. F*ck. Even as fast as I talked, I still got cut off at the end. We did not win, but here is the feedback we got from the judges.
- Love the idea, it’s important, don’t understand how you will charge for this, need a woman on your team.
- Dave McClure said “You want to prevent sexual assault, but your name is Yaank?” Considering he normally curses people out, I consider this a win. We expected that this comment was coming.
- Our market is too small and we don’t have the right team, need someone with a marketing background.
- Robert Scoble said “It’s too negative. I wish there was a way to associate something positive with the yanking.”
All of these could have been addressed, but just like that we were out of time and it was over.
Over the course of three days you become so obsessed with your idea and what you are working on. What you are doing is the most important thing in the world. Nothing else exists outside of the small workspace you had on the bus. When it finally ends, you don’t know what to do with yourself. There is a sense of relief, but also disappointment.
It takes days to decompress (and catch up on sleep) after something like this. I’m really glad I decided to take on the challenge again. It’s things like this that inspire you and make you realize how much you are really capable of. Most importantly, I am completely humbled by the talented people on the bus. Would I do it again? I’m going to hold out for the Startup Boat.