We all used the word launch a lot on this trip, and it’s a fitting metaphor for the experience itself. If running a company is space travel, the StartupBus is the first 3 minutes of the trip. You’re facing the unknown, enveloped by sound and fury, the forces of the universe against you, moving faster than you ever have in your life….
I feel like I’ve lived about 6 months in the last 6 days.
It started with all sorts of anticipation and excitement as I ran around trying to prepare for the trip. Monday I was trying to wrap up work in time to get over to Tampa for the “launch party” where everyone got to meet each other before getting on the bus.
Tampa managed to turn out a good crowd of startup and social media folks to talk to in addition to all of us “buspreneurs”.
I’m an introvert by nature, so throughout this experience I’ve been pushing myself to get over it and just walk up to people and talk to them. I’ve gotten better at it. It’s easier on the StartupBus because there so many ready topics of conversation.
The Tampa Mayor seeing us off
Tuesday morning we all got on the bus, and the mayor of Tampa saw us off. At the same time, busses left from Boston, NYC, D.C., Cincinnati, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, LA, Vegas and Mexico City. It wasn’t until much later in the trip that I realized exactly how big this all was. When everyone gets in a room, it’s an impressive crowd.
Once we were rolling we introduced ourselves and our skills and then began pitching project ideas. By the end of it we 30 ideas out of 20 people. We stopped for lunch at the Florida Innovation Hub at UF in Gainesville. I talked up my idea, but it wasn’t a great one, and there wasn’t much interest.
Stacey Monk pitched an amazing idea that spoke to me very strongly and after lunch I connected with her, She was already in discussion with Rosalie de Canaga and Mike Anadiotis and we all agreed to go ahead with it. That project is Invest Your Heart, a social-change crowdfunding platform with love.
We got back on the bus and headed to Atlanta. AT&T gave us all little cellular WiFi hotspots, so each team had a decent internet connection for most of the trip. Griffin Technology gave us great little USB battery extenders which came in handy once we got to SxSW. We got to work breaking down functions on the site, picking a name and designing the logo. We started with GivLuv, but gave it up in favor of Invest Your Heart the next day.
In Atlanta, we stopped in on a local startup meet-n-greet that they have every month at 5Seasons brewery. Great beer, killer food and lots of talking to people I didn’t know. Mailchimp sponsored our rooms for the night, which was great. I got 8 hours of sleep, which was by far the greatest amount of the trip. I thought we were ahead of schedule, little did I know.
The next day we drove to Baton Rouge and made decent progress. We had a lot of discussions about the structure of the company, and the equity split. We met the Cincy, D.C., Boston and NYC busses there at yet another booze-fueled networking fest. Then 6 hours of sleep.
Had we proceeded like that, things would have gone better for out project. But the next morning, we found out that our bus had been sent home, and the florida teams were distributed amongst the other busses.
This meant that we ended up in the back of the Boston bus, with no tables to work on and an overwhelming stench from the bathroom. We did not get a lot done that day. We arrived in San Antonio late, unloaded and were hustled out to a bar for more networking. We were told that we would be disqualified if we worked on code instead of going to the networking event. We had planned to try and catch up on our work and were pretty pissed.
The high point was that Stacey convinced an investor to give us money. We were one of the first on that milestone, and it eased the stress of later days.
Is this a real place, or are we having text-mex in fairy land?
The bar was a few hundred people over capacity and the food had run out. All the other busses had arrived there as well. So we walked a few miles through deserted downtown San Antonio with a slight drizzle and 45 degree breezes in order to find a 24 hour tex-mex place. We arrived there about 1am and left about 2. More walking back to the hotel got me into the room about 3am. Also, I had no coat.
Because we had not made much progress during the day, I stayed up another hour working on code. We all agreed we would still be OK if we worked all morning and at the co-working space they were dropping us off at in Austin. 3.5 hours of sleep.
What we found out about midnight was that we were going to visit the headquarters of Rackspace, and that we would have to pitch our idea to get feedback from actual investors on stage when we got there. We had an idea of what our pitch would be, but we hadn’t solidified it, or practiced it, so we weren’t ready.
The highlight of the morning was getting off the bus and walking into the building, where several hundred employees had gathered to clap and cheer for us. We freaked out when we saw this elaborate stage with lighting and everything set up that we’d have to go up on. The pitch was to be a 2-3 minute spiel where we concisely describe what we do, who it’s for and how we intend make money.
We were let off the hook because many of the other teams wanted to do it, and there wasn’t time for everyone. We did feel better after seeing most other pitches though because they weren’t as ‘far ahead’ of us as we thought. A lot of work for everyone still to be done.
What it's like on the bus, 20 people, 15 laptops, getting things done
So, we got 3.5 hours of sleep, were cranky at the state of the code and then we got to waste 5 hours of prime coding time standing in an uninsulated warehouse on a cement floor.
We got a little bit done on the way from there to Austin, but not nearly what needed to be done. We were dropped of at what was described to us as a “co-working space” where we could all plug in and keep working.
What it actually was was a barn, a leaking corrugated warehouse space fill of woodworking equipment and folding chairs. It was 48 degrees and rainy, we had to stand around there for two hours before finding a ride to more hospitable climes. I believe I used the word “heinous fuckery” to describe the situation. Bathrooms were port-a-potties located out in the rain behind the hacked-together geodesic rave tent. I’m not making this up.
The Home Stretch
By that time we hadn’t eaten for 8 hours, so we got food and a place to work. It was 10 pm and we had two hours to script, shoot, edit and submit our pitch video to the judges. This caused a bit of a freak-out and necessitated renegotiating our equity stakes for an hour (long story). A bit of advice for future teams: figure out the equity early, but expect it to change at least once. Also, figure out as a team how invested your are in the actual contest. If some of you desperately want to win or place, but others don’t care that and are thinking long term it causes a lot of friction. Be clear on that up front.
We managed to get an extension from the judges until “they wake up in the morning” and we worked until 5am on polishing the home page code and pitch script. Unfortunately we were so fried by that point that whatever we tried to put on video was just embarrassing. We gave up on continuing with the contest. By this time we had all agreed that we wanted to work on this project for the long haul, so the immediate rewards of the startup contest weren’t very important to us. It would have been nice, and had we another week, I’m sure we would have made the finals, but we let it drop.
Still, it was bittersweet, nice that we could relax and get some sleep, but the publicity we would have gotten from being in the contest would have been great.
So, Brandon Myers, my local cohort, and I slept till noon and then headed to ScreenBurn, a video game mini-expo adjacent to SxSW. There were some cool demos and a giant screen showing a StarCraft 2 tournament. We did not go into the anime princess zombie slaughter bus (it was an actual schoolbus).
That completed, we sallied forth to the semi-finals back at the Barn of Dismal Chilliness. It was great to see the progress various teams had made on their pitches. Some really great ideas presented there. There were products there that I’d like to start using now: TaxCast, Happstr, BumperCrop and OpenWallet. I got to explain my idea to a non-startup person who had wandered in because he saw the crowd (how else do you find things at SxSW?). He liked the idea and it’s always nice to have someone “get” your idea who isn’t immersed in the startup world.
Post Bus, SxSW
After that we headed downtown since we had basically no more obligations other than the finals the next day. This was my first chance to see SouthBy and it was pretty cool. We hit upon Moonshine, the first restaurant we saw near the convention center and decided the 2.5 hour wait was worth it, and wouldn’t be any better anywhere else.
Mega Jenga of Doom!
The food was great, roasted garlic bulbs and goat cheese, green chili mac & cheese and some good drinks made for a very satisfying experience. We heard rumors that other buspreneurs were at Google Village just down the road so we wandered over there. It was a row of bars that Google had taken over with posters and graphics and such. We played giant Jenga, I practiced walking up to people and talking to them. That shit’s hard.
There weren’t many bus-folk left there, but word came in they were at “Empire Automotive”. So we drove in that direction and Brandon grabbed us a sweet nefarious parking spot. We arrived at what was until very recently an actual car repair garage. It had been cleaned out and filled with a rave.
There was a killer sound-system, elaborate video/led screens, colossal DJ setup and piles of beanbags. The DJ was spinning sweet grooves and so I got a little dancing in. This was the first (and only) music I’d experienced at the con, so it was extra cool. I’m not sure the others were as into it as I was. Then a new DJ took over spinning DubStep, it was good DubStep, but I didn’t groove on it as much. After a while we headed out, got back to the apartment at 3am.
At this point I began debating as to whether I was going to go to the one panel I had signed up for, since it was at 9am. It was a discussion amongst some entrepreneurs I like and respect (Andrew Warner and Noah Kagan among them) about getting your first hundred customers. I figured I’d learn a lot, as well as meet some interesting people from the audience.
The deal I made for myself was this: I’ll do another night with 4 hours of sleep if I basically hang it up after the finals. One more day of hustling and then I won’t worry about it for Sunday evening or Monday.
That turned out to be a good deal to make. Brandon and I got up a few hours later and found some food and coffee. We made it to the panel at 9:45, but they had just started since everyone was screwed up over the daylight savings time change.
I did in fact learn some good things about getting customers, so from that angle it was a success. I also got to meet a few of the panelists and pitch a few of the attendees. More of that “walking up to people an saying hi” thing.
Then Brandon and I wandered around town, checked out the convention center and went to the Hilton to see the finals. The weather finally stopped sucking so it was an awesomely warm spring day. Most of us buspreneurs didn’t get official SxSW badges ($950!), and the con organizers decided to be dicks and not let us into the room where the event was happening. Even the ones pitching had to be escorted out directly afterwards.
The StartupBus organizers quickly found us a nearby bar where we could sit down, have a beer and watching the live stream of the event. We got to see the one of the other Florida Bus teams BumperCrop do their pitch (they got runner-up). But we were kicked out yet again. The group moved to CoyoteUgly, but Brandon and I decided to bail and head for the Alamo Drafthouse.
The press was at CoyoteUgly interviewing people, so I may have missed out, but I was so fried that I doubt I would have done well. And, keeping my promise, I was officially done.
The thought of sitting in a theater and not having to be ‘on’ was a glorious one. We saw John Carter, which was meh, and far too earnest for a pulp tale. I do love the drafthouse though, their selection of old and new movies is amazing. We would have gone to the Office Space quote-along but it was sold out. They have a Princess Bride event coming that will be inconceivably awesome.
After that I went home and went to glorious glorious sleep. I got 10 hours before getting up to meet Brandon and head to lunch at Torchy’s Tacos for epic taco win! Then I headed home and packed up.
Conclusions, such as they are:
It’s hard to point to anything definitive at this point, since I will be processing all of this for the next few months. But here as some unordered reflections.
Many people on previous busses had said that it was a life-changing experience, and I would have to agree. I have learned a colossal amount about myself, about running a business and about people. Very little of that can be articulated at the moment though. Most of it will come out in actions I take from now on.
I feel very proud of what my team and I accomplished given the problems we encountered. Had things gone smoothly we could have done more. However, bus companies are like real companies and things don’t go as smoothly as we want them to. Dealing with adversity is part of this, sometimes you don’t make your dates.
One of the things that we were having to constantly balance was the internal work of building the product with the external work of publicity and seeking funding. The “rules” of the startup bus help keep this in everyone’s mind by asking for progress reports on naming, social media traction, mock-ups, email collections, pitch development, video production and product demos.
We ended up focusing on the product much more strongly than the publicity – I’m not certain the was the right choice, and I would probably balance those differently in my next venture. What’s great though is that I now have a very visceral experience of what an imbalance in that area feels like.
I’ve made new friends and business partners; People I hope to work with for a long time. I’ve connected much more deeply with the Florida startup community. I think it’s great to be a part of a community like this, so that we can share knowledge and help each other out. The hackathon/startup-bus is a new model for building businesses that cuts out all the bullshit and make sure you focus only on what’s important.
I now know what I’m capable of in a short amount of time, and that’s a great source of confidence.
I want to personally thank Greg Ross-Munro and Jessica Barnett and the rest of the StartupBus organization for busting their asses to make it happen for us.
–John K Sawers