protoTYPING: StartupBus Part 2 – And Here’s the Pitch

protoTYPING: StartupBus Part 2 – And Here’s the Pitch

StartupBus journey ends with surprises, tech disaster, and new friendships

After three long, stinky, Red Bull-fueled days on the bus, we finally rolled into New Orleans. Most of the buspreneurs were groggy from lack of sleep and wearing pajamas.

My experience on the 2018 edition of the hack-a-thon road trip StartupBus mirrored the classic reality show formula of “The Real World.” However, instead of the typical cast of jocks, potheads and tortured souls, there were talented developers, engineers, marketers, podcasters and entrepreneurs ready to change the world.

My favorite reality show “Jersey Shore” was all about “Gym. Tan. Laundry.” StartupBus was all about “Pitch. Pitch. Pitch.”

Last month, in Part 1, I revealed how I found my way onto the bus and the first few hours of how the teams were formed. Now I will delve into how my team, Sak Labs, developed our infant carrier backpack, the dadSAK. On a bus. In three days. Oh, and where we finished in the pitch competition.

Overcoming a roadblock

I was stunned by how much progress my team made on the first day on the bus. Once we had our idea in hand, we started to work on the fastest way to prototype it. We had the bus driver make a stop at a Walmart Supercenter in Georgia.

In just half an hour, my team split up and purchased a backpack, an infant carrier, a sewing kit, a duffle bag and our baby doll that we named Frank. The energy and enthusiasm was high as we boarded the bus, but then we hit a roadblock.

Two of my teammates, Lance and Vanel, discussed with me how to execute the prototype, and there was a clash of ideas as to how to proceed. We spent about an hour brainstorming how the panels of the pack and infant carriers would come together, and how to most effectively get the zipper routed.

Lance Robinson and Vanel Marc discussing how to prototype the dadSAK.

Eventually we found a path forward, and Vanel—our sewing expert and owner of his own backpack brand called Flypak—set to work sewing under the tiny overhead lights inside the bus.

Vanel Marc (left) and Geovanni Suplee modeling the Dad Sak with “Baby Frank” at an impromtu photoshoot.

By the time we stopped for the night, the prototype was well on its way, our e-commerce site was nearly up and running, and our social media expert, Geovanni, tucked Frank under his arm and fell asleep.

We had two more days before reaching our destination in New Orleans. Despite our great start, we still had hurdles to overcome and a pitch for the product to refine. Vanel continued work on the prototype, I started working on a provisional patent filing, and the rest of the team worked on the launch strategy.

Vanel Marc doing some prototyping at a rest stop.

The main stop of the day was the Microsoft regional office in Nashville, where each member of each team had to give a one-minute pitch to the entire group. All of us were ill-prepared and very nervous, but we muscled through. I chose to use a lot of humor in my pitch to grab the audience, but the judges really gravitated to Lance’s pitching style. We nominated him as our primary pitch man for the product for the rest of the trip.

Pitch Pitch Pitch! Lance Robinson hones his pitch on the bus.

Late-night preparations

Once the bus stopped for the night, we all had a bit of a rest. I jumped into the hot tub and a couple of the riders did a late-night Bible reading. After an hour of recovery time, the work continued. At 1:30 in the morning, Lance, Geovanni and I ripped apart my bed, made a softbox out of the sheets and did some photography for the website.

Meanwhile, the other two Florida bus teams continued work. Tatyanna, the developer for the golf app “Buddy Bunker,” shot quite a few Red Bulls and continued coding through the night, while the Polititrust team worked on its social media strategy. Many people didn’t sleep that night.

After three long, stinky, Red Bull-fueled days on the bus, we finally rolled into New Orleans. Most of the buspreneurs were groggy from lack of sleep and wearing pajamas. This was our final stop and where the pitch competition would commence. The dadSAK was fully-launched, the patent was filed and we had even sold one unit on our e-commerce site. I was feeling great about the product and was desperate to win the competition. I didn’t leave my family and work responsibilities behind to take this bus and not have a good showing.

The pitch competition was broken into three rounds over two days. In Round 1, all 25 teams would give their one-minute pitch. The final rounds were held on Day 2, when the top 15 teams would give three-minute pitches, and the final round was a 10-minute pitch for the five best teams. The winner would be decided by a panel of judges and receive no prizes. Just hugs.

Team Vicinity doing their one-minute pitch.

Sadness, then gladness

All three teams from the Florida bus were nervous before the first round, and with good reason. Moments before the start, we found out that in addition to the team-elected pitcher, the judges would choose one other team member at random to deliver the one-minute pitch. So each of us had to be prepared.

Tatyanna Cobb from Buddy Bunker in deep thought before the one-minute pitch competition.

When it was Sak Labs’ turn, Lance gave an awesome pitch that was really funny and riled up the crowd. I had been practicing in my head and was amped up to do a pitch, but the judges chose my teammate Walter—who, despite his severe nerves, did an awesome job. At the end of the night, Dad Sak was one of the 15 teams invited to the second round the next day. Unfortunately, our Florida bus mates, Buddy Bunker and Polititrust, were eliminated.

The following morning, we walked to the New Orleans Jazz Market for the final rounds. In the second round, each team had to do a three-minute pitch with a slide deck. I was the lead for building the deck, and Lance and I shared the pitch duties. He showed the product and provided some comedy while I dished out the hard numbers. It was an excellent performance, and I was convinced we did enough to make the final round.

After the judges deliberated, we were not named as one of the top five finalists and my heart sank. But unexpectedly, the judges announced a sixth team as a wild card, and the dadSak was in the finals!

High fives for all

The team regrouped, and we had about 30 minutes to make changes to the deck. I scrambled to add a few slides, and we rehearsed and tuned the pitch before being hurriedly called up to the stage for the final pitch.

Madelena Mak, StartupBus National Director, preparing for the finals.

After Lance finished his few minutes of discussing the product, I took the mic and disaster struck. My computer died, and our deck was gone.

We pleaded for time to fix the snafu, but our request was denied by the judges. I took a deep breath, grabbed the mic, and tried to conjure the slides in my mind and improvised through the rest of the pitch. I felt like I hit all of the high points but left the stage thinking that our chances were dashed by the technical glitch.

After the judges deliberated, there was another surprise announcement. Two teams were tied for the runner-up spot. I still knew we had no chance, but then they called dadSAK as a runner-up.

Our team shared hugs and high fives as if we just won the Daytona 500. I was proud of my team, proud for the whole Florida bus, and proud of myself for such a great achievement.

The winner of the competition was Story Book Inc., a product to create fairy tale stories with customizable characters with different ethnic and family structures. That team had an awesome product and pitch, and deserved the win.

StartupBus winners Storybook Inc. delivering their 3-minute pitch

When it was all over, the finalists took the stage for photos and more hugs. During the 20-minute walk back to the hotel, we vowed to keep the product development going and make sure the dadSAK makes it to market.

The most lasting gifts

StartupBus was an epic journey, much better than any episode of reality TV. Sure, it was a competition, but that was just a red herring for the real point—to push ourselves beyond our limits and to form great friendships.

Even though I am a product development professional, I had never launched a product so quickly, written a patent, or pitched investors. It was so empowering to obsess over a problem and break down all barriers to reach a goal; being in close quarters on the bus was the perfect environment to form great friendships. Among the discussion topics were relationships current and past, drunken escapades, the Bible, experimentation with controlled substances—and with many military veterans on the bus, stories about life in the service.

The friendships formed in these moments and the self-empowerment were the real gifts of the experience.

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