The concept of StartupBus sounds like a joke, or at the very least a Survivor-esque test of wills and challenges, sans the camera. Twenty to 30 people on a bus, a tour of several hundred miles ending in Nashville while we form teams, build viable products and compete with other teams from other buses also driving cross-country? Sounds a little scary, to be honest.
I didn’t go into this as a starry-eyed newbie, but as a Gen-Xer who’s been around since before the first tech bubble burst. Hype surrounding a crazy idea is in no short supply, and it’s hard to get sugarplum visions about 72 hours on a bus. Would we be eating at truck stops? Could we shower? Where would we sleep? Oh, and add in that our Midwest bus, coming from Chicago, is the first hardware, rather than software, product bus. That means a viable physical product, not just a cool app.But then, StartupBus has produced partnerships and startups that are well-known: Instacart, Wastebits, Lisnr, Smart Host, Bridgefy and Branch (sold to Facebook for $15 million). So why not take a chance?
Frankly, I’m glad I did: It’s a journey I won’t soon forget, nor will I forget the amazing people I met along the way. Here are my takeaways from StartupBus 2015:
Organized chaos is your friend. We had a sense of cities, hotels and timing, but it was often a last minute hotel grab. The perk of this was finding a hidden gem in a BBQ joint near Brookline, Ohio outside a truckstop, but our bus driver also dealt with Taylor Swift tween fans screaming at all hours outside his hotel room in Pittsburgh. The unexpected is usually what occurs, for better or worse.
Compromise happens. Maybe it’s that we’re going 70mph, but tensions run high and there are many smart, accomplished folk looking to get their ideas heard. My team talked through feasibility and re-approached our value propositions reluctantly—and we took second place, so it must have paid off! Playing to one another’s strengths makes a huge difference in the end product.
Time and sleep are important but renewable resources. Cranking out laser-cut or hand-hewn prototypes and connect tempermental electrical components while traveling is rough. There was soldering at bus stops and ideas pivoted many times. Sleep is a precious commodity and it’s easy to lose focus, but you figure out the best you can accomplish in the time given. Did I mention many of us didn’t know each other before it began?
Due diligence is… important. Our startup went through three name changes, eventually ending up with PillyPod. But StartupBus legend will hold that we purchased and launched our website and social media on a name shared with a .com that’s essentially a porn site. Live and learn. And I’ve got a domain for sale with some unique marketing opportunities…
I’ll never forget it. I heard it again and again before we began, but it is true. A lack of sleep and close quarters, along with pressure to build a viable product in 72 hours, bonds teams and bus mates. We rallied behind each other’s teams and projects, and every team from our midwest Maker Bus made it to the semifinals; two made it to the finals (PillyPod and ReflectMe; PillyPod, my team, took second place!). I’m sure that more than a few viable startups began on those buses, along with plenty of friendships and partnerships.
Ask me again in a few months if I would do it again—and that includes getting on a bus. But if you’re considering doing it, definitely take a chance. You won’t regret it.
Featured image courtesy of Chris Bue.