Next week, Hale Center for Journalism reporter Caitlin Cress will be riding on the Startup Bus, an annual competition/road trip. She will be reporting, blogging, Instagramming and tweeting the whole way; follow that coverage, starting Sunday morning, here.
A charter bus will leave the Kauffman Foundation parking lot early this Sunday morning. On it will be two co-conductors and around 20 business people, designers and coders — buspreneurs. During a winding three-day road trip to Texas, the buspreneurs will hustle in teams to create businesses from the ground up. Six other buses from across North America will be doing the same thing, and all will convene Wednesday, March 4 for the Startup Bus 2014 finals in San Antonio.
Startup Bus Midwest, which has historically departed from Chicago or Ohio, will be leaving from Kansas City for the first time this year. It will hop from Kansas City to Nashville to Fort Smith, Ark., to San Antonio. After finals, winners and losers alike will board their buses for the last leg to Austin, where many will attend South by Southwest Interactive. Startup Bus alumnus Ricky Robinett will be co-conducting the bus alongside Cole Worley. Robinett is from Kansas City, but now works in New York City at startup Twilio.
“To me, it seemed like a no-brainer with all the entrepreneurial activity in Kansas City to get a bus to leave from KC,” he said.
Robinett said the pieces fell into place once the Kauffman Foundation came on board as a sponsor.
Each Startup Bus is populated in the same way: interested parties apply online and are then contacted by conductors for an interview. Each bus is filled with a combination of hackers, hustlers and hipsters — bus parlance for coders, businesspeople and designers.
“Every bus has a dynamic that represents the city (or region) that it’s leaving from,” Robinett said. He explained that the proportions may not be equal: San Francisco or New York City, for example, may have more coders and web developers than designers.
Vance and Abdullayev are both Kansas Cititans, but Shaw lives and works in New York City. She is the founder of Bella Minds, a company that bridges the gap between city-centric resources and areas in rural America that don’t currently have access to those resources. The company is currently running its first test classes in Nebraska, Shaw’s home state. It’s because of this that she chose the Midwest bus.
“I want to create the network — just a complete blanket — of resources and individuals for our students,” she said. “These buspreneurs are people that they can turn to: they’re close, they’re doing interesting things and still living in the Midwest.”
This idea of connection is central to the Startup Bus, Robinett said.
“Our goal, I think, is to create a diverse bus of people with different backgrounds so that these people who may have never worked together before will get an opportunity to, and hopefully interesting things will happen,” he said.
This road trip will allow for a more intense form of networking than any available at a regular meet-and-greet cocktail hour. The buspreneurs will spend hours on end together, crammed in a small workspace with other teams. The teams will be formed within the first hour of the trip; after the conductor pulls onto the highway, each buspreneur will pitch their idea to the bus. Not every idea will be developed: part of the challenge is for buspreneurs to drop their idea and work on another.
Some buspreneurs, like Vance, a digital project manager at Two West, are getting on the bus without a concrete idea to pitch. She plans to use her professional experience to improve someone else’s idea.
“I just kind of want to go in and help someone else flesh out and create their idea, which is kind of what I do day to day,” she said. “I facilitate the project and make sure things get done.”
Startup Bus businesses range widely: Robinett remembers companies based around both custom boxes of cereal and 3-D printed skateboards. Abdullayev, the founder of Super Dispatch, has several ideas, like facilitating pet co-ownership or gift-giving without an address for the recipient.
When asked whether he would feel comfortable sharing his ideas prior to getting on the bus, Abdullayev responded positively.
“Sharing an idea is not a problem,” he said. “Ideas aren’t stolen as easily as people think they are. It’s not the person that has the idea; it’s the person that executes it.”
After teams are formed, the buspreneurs will work basically non-stop until the finals on Wednesday. Robinett said many teams divide the work between bus-time and hotel-time; on the bus, Internet access will be shaky, so teams may decide to save Internet-dependent tasks until the bus has reached the hotel.
“The reality of it is that it’s going to be a lot of incremental launches,” he said. “What we want is the buspreneurs to get feedback on their ideas, get user interaction…. There will probably be teams that launch a landing page the first day and start collecting email addresses and connecting with people.”
Robinett said Tuesday night will be especially hectic, as teams will be frantically polishing presentations and working out kinks in their tech before Wednesday’s finals.
The judges for this year’s finals have not been announced, but Robinett said past judges have typically been venture capitalists and entrepreneurial all-stars. During finals, teams are expected to demonstrate their product, app or website.
“We select (judges) that will be able to tell if they’re seeing something real or if they’re seeing smoke and mirrors,” he said.
Robinett said the winning team is typically selected by the judges’ gut feelings that its business could be the most successful or the most innovative.
While there’s no guarantee that any of the Midwest bus teams will make it past the initial rounds of finals, Robinett shared some advice for how teams can be successful.
“Intentionally, there’s a lot of mystery; there’s a lot of unexpected twists and turns for the buspreneurs,” he said. “That is by design because we want it to be like a startup. One of the things buspreneurs will have to work out is… how they handle unexpected challenges. And I think that will be one of the things that sets apart the teams that do very well and the teams that struggle a bit more.”
Vance, Shaw and Abdullayev are all less concerned with winning and more concerned with the experience of this trip. Abdullayev recognizes the risks, but is ready to start working.
“I think there’s a certain amount of risk that a person is taking getting on the bus, especially the ones that are paying their own way,” he said. “In some ways, we’re hopeful. We’re excited… we’re willing to try it out for the learning experience and for the connections and for what may be.”