Late in February, I saw a post from Eris on Twitter about The StartupBus, a week long startup bootcamp on a bus to Austin TX and SxSW. Eleven buses, actually, leaving from all over the US (and Mexico). And despite the fact that I had a workshop to create this spring and really shouldn’t have been taking on anything else, I submitted my application and landed a spot on the Washington, DC bus.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I skipped a week of paying work to sit on a bus for 16+ hours a day and…WORK! For free! My bank account is still complaining. But The StartupBus really is a life-changing event and totally different than a typical Hackathon. You’re not just there to crank out as much code as you can write in 3 days; the StartupBus is a chance to learn the tough lessons of startups life at high speed — pitching, pivoting, failing, and starting over, all in a matter of hours. More importantly, it’s a chance to join a community of amazing designers, developers, and entrepreneurs and meet people who will honestly change your life.
I worked with developer Ryan Ong to launch myBento, a nifty site that lets you create small collections of the things you love and share them with your friends. We didn’t make it to the semi-finals, but we had a lot of fun and built something in just 3 days that we’re both really proud of.
Things I Learned Along the Way: What The StartupBus Teaches You About Startup Life
Dive in and make it up as you go along: I applied for The StartupBus less than 3 weeks before it departed. I had no hotel room in Austin, no scheduled vacation time, none of the plans that usually go along with a week-long trip. That’s the point. Like start-up life, The StartupBus requires you to fly by the seat of your pants and improvise.
Bring snacks: Stops are infrequent on The StartupBus. You won’t know where you’re going or where your next meal will come from, so peanut butter crackers and an apple or two are a lifesaver.
Join the team that needs you most: Sure, there are people on The StartupBus who work so much they only sleep 7 hours in 3 days. But there are also people who get bored and dissatisfied because they feel underutilized and wish they had more influence on their team’s project. Not every project has enough work to keep 8 people busy for 3 whole days. Find a team (or start a team) where you know you can do the work that will make you happy. A 2-man team was perfect for a small project like myBento.
Work with people who share your goals: Ryan and I both enjoyed working on myBento, but neither one of us got on the bus expecting to devote the next 7 years of our lives to our StartupBus project. That’s not true for everybody; some teams take the competition — and the subsequent pursuit of funding — much more seriously than others. Find one where you fit.
Meet as many people as you can: Getting to know the people on your bus is easy — you’re all trapped on a bus! But The StartupBus also includes lots opportunities to mix and mingle with the crews of other buses. Yes, it’s tough, especially when you’re cranky and exhausted after a long day on the bus. Get over it. Embrace the awkwardness and talk to as many people as you possibly can. This is a rare chance to create a network that spans the globe.
Work smarter, not harder: Repeat this mantra to yourself: The StartupBus is not a Hackathon, The StartupBus is NOT a Hackathon…sure, you can treat it like a Hackathon (we sort of did), but there are no gold stars awarded for writing the most lines of code or the best deployment of Node.js. Don’t mindlessly embrace a startup culture that was designed to put money in the pockets of venture capitalists. Keep your eye on the real prize and avoid staying up until 4am hacking on something the judges will never see or hear about. Your time would be better spent partying with another bus and meeting new people.
Take advantage every single opportunity you get to pitch: Day 4 of The StartupBus 2012 started out with all 11 buses at the Rackspace HQ in San Antonio, TX. In addition to listening to wise words from folks like Robert Scoble and Guy Kawasaki, teams had the chance to practice their pitches on stage for a panel of VC insiders that included TechStars’ Nicole Glaros and 500 Startup’s Dave McClure. As you can see a little in this video. Dave McClure was in full form, dishing out criticism like “Your pitch SUCKS!” and “That is the worst fucking name I’ve ever heard.” (Hey, it’s what he does.) I decided not to pitch myBento on stage; after nearly a week on a bus, I didn’t feel like volleying a torrent of snark and profanity in front of an audience of 400 of my peers. And while I don’t honestly regret that choice, I was disappointed that 2 days later, we weren’t selected to pitch in the semi-finals. Every team selected for the semi-finals pitched on stage in San Antonio. Lesson learned: if you want to win, you have to play, especially when the stakes are high.
So You Want to Know: Would I Do it Again?
When people ask me if I’d get on The StartupBus again, they seem surprised when I tell them, “Probably not.” Yes, it was amazing. Yes, I loved it. And yes, I would tell you that you should do it too. But one of the greatest things about that week is that it opens doors, grabs your hand, and pulls you forward into joining startup life. I see possibilities now that I didn’t even know existed before I boarded that bus in Washington, DC, and I’m pushing myself on to the next thing, and the next, and even more after that.