Each year, Startup Buses around the country head towards Austin for the South By Southwest Interactive Festival. Startup Bus is a competition where businesspeople, designers and coders — buspreneurs — create a startup, from idea to pitch, while on a three-day bus trip to the finals in San Antonio. Caitlin Cress, reporter for The Hale Center for Journalism, is riding along in the Midwest Startup Bus, which left KC Sunday morning. For information about the competition, read an explainer here.
By the end of day one on Startup Bus Midwest, businesses were making serious progress: landing sites had been launched, “funding” had been obtained and potential customers were being solicited. Life on the Startup Bus is accelerated; what typically takes months to accomplish happened in less than 24 hours.
“When you’re starting a business in three or four days, you have to tackle everything all at once,” Melissa Roberts, buspreneur on the WasteNot team, said.
WasteNot is a community harvest platform that helps farmers profit using pricing intelligence. A backyard garden with a surplus of summer tomatoes, for example, could post a picture of his or her harvest. Interested consumers could purchase the tomatoes, which means that the farmer’s surplus doesn’t go to waste and the consumer can fulfill the goal of eating locally. The WasteNot team — Roberts, Param Rengaiah and Ashley Holbrook — was formed when all three members pitched food-related ideas, which they decided to consolidate and refine as a team.
A major component of the trip so far has been surprises for the teams. Without warning, teams have been asked to pitch their companies, get off of the bus to take pictures in front of a landmark — the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the giant Superman statue in Metropolis, Ill. — and complete challenges.
After arriving at the hotel in Nashville, Tenn., around 7:30 p.m. Sunday night, the buspreneurs were challenged to record themselves getting validation for their business idea from an outside source. Showing real market interest is crucial for competition success.
Josh Coleman of team Startup Games said their validation challenge did just that: validate their idea. Startup Games is aiming to revamp networking events for startups. Instead of the traditional, “boring” cocktails and handshakes format, Startup Games will facilitate new business connections through competition-oriented events. They plan to offer games like beer pong and Nintendo. The team — Coleman, Bek Abdullayev and Shane Reustle — spoke to a bartender, who, while admitting she didn’t even own a computer, understood their idea and encouraged the team to expand their idea beyond the young startup demographic.
Validation from outside sources is just part of the much larger challenge the teams are facing.
Teams who wish to be successful in the finals competition, which begins Wednesday morning in San Antonio, have to actively participate in the Startup Bus Game. All seven buses are participating in the game— an interactive online marketplace where outside “investors” can fund teams with the Startup Bus equivalent of Monopoly money. Milestones include writing a mission statement, forming an equity agreement and creating social media accounts. The game held another surprise for the buspreneurs last night: more milestones appeared as initial milestones were completed.
Startup Bus Midwest co-conductor Ricky Robinett made it clear to the buspreneurs Sunday afternoon that teams will not be considered for finals if they have not met all of the game’s milestones.
Jenn Shaw, a buspreneur from team Academe (pronounced Academy), said she thinks the milestones are distracting and valuable at the same time. While the game is taking about 30 percent of her time, she believes the milestones are good reminders of what her team should be working toward. Plus, the game is really fun.
“Quite frankly, I’m not a competitive person, and now, all of a sudden, I’ve become this dollar junkie, and all I want is to win this game, and I don’t know why!” she said.
Shaw’s team is explained well by the 5-word pitch they developed for a short Twitter challenge yesterday: “[Students + STEM] * Startups = Smart Society.” Academe plans to hold workshops where curricula to better prepare secondary and collegiate students for the tech-oriented workforce will be developed.
One of the most challenging parts of the Startup Bus is not necessarily a surprise: varying Internet connection levels as the bus travels.
Pablo Arellano of team Beauty Engine said the team planned to stay up all night at the hotel to take advantage of the consistent WiFi connection. Beauty Engine, made up of Arellano, Brooke Beason, Benjamin Hernandez, Blair Vance and Mayer Seidman, is a search engine that will help consumers pick the best beauty product for them. Arellano said in a practice pitch that their engine will help users avoid adding to their “beauty graveyard” under the bathroom sink. The team plans to partner with IBM to use its Watson technology.
Not all of the planned surprises are designed to challenge the buspreneurs. Many, in fact, are welcome treats from sponsors. The teams have been gifted a large variety of things: domain names from Namecheap, VMware headphones, beer, T-shirts, miniature white boards, freelance work from Elance and more.
Carl Shotwell and Scotty Motte of team Angry Corner are using the Elance freelancing services to design their logo and the front-end of their website. Angry Corner is a website that will tell users what they should be angry about depending on location. Shotwell said this service will help users start conversations. Their slogan, “Piss your day off,” is a laughing point on the bus. Since both team members are web developers, the access to front-end freelancing will help them complete the game milestones and design a more visually appealing website.
There’s never a long gap between sponsor mentions on the bus. “What time is it?” Co-conductors Robinett and Cole Worley often ask the bus. The answer: “It’s time to tweet your sponsors!”
The teams are taking advantage of these tweeting requests: by tweeting their sponsors, they are spreading the word about their new businesses. As the day progressed Sunday, each team launched a Twitter profile. Follow the Startup Bus Midwest teams at @academe_io, @TheAngryCorner, @BeautyEngine, @WasteNotMe and @GoStartupGames.