My StartupBus experience was a crash course in innovation and entrepreneurship.
In 1992, this soon-to-be iconic intro was uttered for the first time on the groundbreaking reality show “The Real World”: “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real…”
I heard this countless times as a teenager. Sixteen years later, those words bubbled to the top of my brain as I set foot on a dull teal coach bus on a muggy spring morning in Tampa to start my epic journey to compete in the hack-a-thon road trip called StartupBus.
Like that first cast of “The Real World,” I didn’t really know what I was getting into. Five days later, I was a founder of a start-up company called Sak Labs with our product—the Dad Sak, the world’s first fully integrated infant carrier and backpack. I wrote and filed my own provisional patent application, formed some amazing friendships, shook my booty on Bourbon Street at 2 a.m. on a Monday (shhh..don’t tell), and ultimately won second place in the start-up competition.
This is the true story (Part 1) of 13 strangers picked to ride a bus from Tampa to New Orleans, build companies, launch products, and have their pitches recorded. This is what happens when people dream big, drink an awful lot of Red Bull, and get down to business.
All about the challenge
I heard about StartupBus a few months before the journey. I am a faithful listener to the StartUp podcast from Gimlet Media, and between Seasons 6 and 7 host Eric Mennel ran a five-part miniseries about the 2017 competition. Mennel rode the bus from New York as it made its way to New Orleans. Ten minutes into the first episode I was obsessed, and I knew this was an experience I had to have. Travel + competition = sign me up.
By the time I finished listening to the podcast about StartupBus, I knew the basic premise. Contestants, (primarily developers, designers and business specialists) board nine buses in different cities all over the country and one from Mexico. Over the course of three days, they form teams and start companies while the bus bounces down the highway. By the time they reach the final destination in New Orleans, each company needs to have a fully launched product and a refined pitch for the three-round pitch competition. The winner is the team with the best product and pitch. The prize? Absolutely nothing.
As there was no bus from my home state of North Carolina, I chose to apply for the Florida bus departing from Tampa. I went through the three-step application process and won a golden ticket to be on the bus about a week after I started the application.
Shortly after, I spoke to the conductor of the Florida bus, Robert Blacklidge, a Buspreneur (as alumni of the experience are forever called) from the Florida bus the year before. He started a company on the bus called Course Align, which helps universities match their curriculum to the needs of the marketplace. He mentioned that doing physical products on StartupBus is not common, because developing something tangible is so difficult in that environment and timeframe. Most teams develop apps or other digital products and services. This only served to whet my appetite for pitching a physical product.
No turning back
Truth be told, the week before the competition my enthusiasm for the experience was waning. The reality of being away from my family for so many days started to creep in, and it was a bit of a puzzle to pull together travel plans to get to Florida and back from New Orleans. I was also starting to doubt the value of the experience. Like the infamous Groucho Marx quote, I was about to send a note that read “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
I was also wracking my brain trying to come up with a good product to build on the bus. Days before departure, an email mentioned that the first thing we were going to do was pitch an idea. I really wanted to build an IoT device, so I sketched out a novel idea for an IoT faucet that I dubbed Skoga after a waterfall in Iceland. I bought a bunch of sensors and IoT development boards from Adafruit, packed up four boxes of electronics supplies, solder, wires, breadboards and numerous electronic gadgets. Then on April 26, I headed to the airport fully expecting my box of gadgets to land me on the “no-fly” list.
The night before the bus departed, the Florida Buspreneur and alumni held a meet-and-greet at a bar along the waterfront. This was my first chance to meet the other riders and see who else may be interested in working on a physical product. After a beer or two, the conversation was free flowing and my excitement for the journey was re-ignited. The cheapskate that I am, I did not book a hotel room that night; fortunately, my future teammate Walter Matthews offered me his couch for crashing. I fell asleep that night watching a playoff hockey game where the Vegas Golden Knights, in their inaugural season, destroyed the San Jose Sharks. I smiled and thought this was a good sign that new teams can have a big impact.
The next morning, our chariot was waiting at the convention center parking lot. The riders sleepily gathered around the coach, loaded their luggage in the belly of the bus and set off west toward Orlando. The bus driver read us the rules, one of them stated with particular gruffness: “No open-top beverage containers.” (He also owns the bus and had a keen interest in keeping it clean.)
As we made miles through the Florida lowlands, Buspreneur Robert gave us an enthusiastic welcome. Then it was time to pitch.
Idea takes a quick turn
One by one, riders went to the front of the bus, took the mic, introduced themselves and pitched their product idea. There was Rich from Seattle, who had an idea for a political app; Jah’Tia, an event manager with an idea for an entrepreneur ecosystem; Lance, the software developer from Atlanta, with an idea for a daycare web service; Kyle, the real estate pro and podcaster with an idea for the “tinder for golf”; and the memorable retired gluten-free cafe owner Kim, who had an idea for a line of healthy snacks and encouraged us to “Keep it Simple, Sexy.” This was a motley crew with some great characters, and I knew we were set for a memorable ride.
Around noon on that first morning, we stopped at Full Sail University to pick up a couple of more riders and on-board some cases of Red Bull (aka “open-top containers”). Then it was time to get down to forming teams.
All of the riders piled into the middle of the bus and began discussing which ideas to pursue. It was all very polite discussion, but in a way it was like watching a group of penguins on an iceberg waiting for the first one to jump so the rest can follow. Eventually, Walter and I decided to pursue my faucet idea and pulled in a Marine veteran named Vanel; software developer Lance; and Geovanni, the podcaster and self-proclaimed “Minority Prince.”
As we brainstormed ideas of what the product should be, Lance found a similar concept on Amazon and pitched our group an idea for an infant carrier that would zip into a backpack. Like a Kubrick-esque jump-cut, we pivoted hard and jumped headlong into working on the infant carrier. The product was immediately dubbed the “Dad Sak”; by 2:30 p.m. we had registered the domain and were off and running.
Elsewhere on the bus, two other teams formed. A foursome came up with “Buddy Bunker,” an app to pair solo golfers together for a round of golf. The remaining team of four created “Polititrust,” with a goal of building a system to bring transparency to the masses about politicians’ stances and records.
Somewhere near the front of the bus, the first partially finished Red Bull was spilled, the tributaries of energy oozing into disparate corners of the bus. The driver fumed over the mic to a sea of deaf ears, and we got to work.
Part II of this series will post in August. Stay tuned!