Two days of desert highways, roadside dining, sleep deprivation and feverish coding by 25 strangers delivered two web startups and a whole lot more, writes Matthew da Silva.
Aboard a bus built to hold 52 passengers, 25 software developers are assembled in ragged groups, chatting while staring at their laptop screens as music plays and the empty landscape flashes past largely unnoticed.
This is coding in transit.
The Startup Bus was the brainchild of Australian tech maven Elias Bizannes, whose company Vast.com has offices in Silicon Valley and Austin. This bus is bound for Texas and the legendary SXSW tech conference, where their business plans will be judged by a panel of venture capitalists and mentoring specialists.
“Everyone was sitting in their different groups,” Bizannes tells me over the phone from the Austin conference centre. “You had some guys sitting in different teams just because we had some configurations where you had four seats with a table in between and others were two-seaters.”
There weren’t always teams. At first there were just 25 individuals Bizannes picked from a list of applicants. And before that, Bizannes had simply aired an idea at a Silicon Beach party in Australia, which has an 800-strong mailing list of hard-core Aussie tech entrepreneurs.
“The original intent was actually a joke over beer,” he says.
“On my farewell drinks, I said, ‘We really need to connect Aussies to the US scene. Why don’t we try and do a road trip from San Francisco to Austin?’ This is where the beer bit came in. I was saying ‘Why don’t we try and launch some businesses by the time we get off it?’ Everyone was half laughing and half thought I was being serious.”
Once in San Francisco, he kept talking. Some encouraged him to put up a website. Then popular blog Tech Crunch wrote about it and “all of a sudden” Bizannes had 50 applicants from three continents.
To screen the applicants, Bizannes drew up a short test.
“I put a questionnaire that everyone had to answer. I seeded it with questions that gave me an immediate way of working out if these people had the right attitude to approaching things.”
Applicants had to answer questions like: ‘Do you know what UX is and do you think it’s the most important or the most overhyped thing in a business?’ The aim was not merely to learn if an applicant read industry blogs.
“The second thing I was testing is just their awareness that the user experience is the most important thing in a web service, because the product you’re providing is the experience. If you don’t understand that user experience with that product, then you’re going to fail as a web startup.”
Work started even before the trip south began. Developers lucky enough to make the grade — including eight Australians — built a real-time mapping location technology and a gaming technology.
Once on the bus, the troupe headed for Cupertino, in Silicon Valley, where they met and listened to a talk by Hewlett-Packard CTO Phil McKinney. After leaving the building, Bizannes got participants to pitch their ideas on the bus. Through a series of eliminations, they cut the viable ideas down from 20 to six and organised into teams.
And it wasn’t all just coding. To address the marketing side of business, Bizannes got the teams to pitch their ideas to random strangers at Santa Monica, a seaside town near Los Angeles.
“A lot of people said, ‘Nup, I wouldn’t use that.’ Other people were very encouraged by it. It was a good way for the teams to get some market validation for their ideas outside their own bubble on the bus.
“Based on their conversations it gave them an insight, not just on their idea, but how to pitch it. Because as they kept pitching it to different people that had no idea what they were doing, they had to use better language and be more concise.”
Another marketing exercise took the form of a game where the team member who accumulated the most ‘bus dollars’ was named the chairperson on the team website. Using Twitter and other social media, team members tried to make visitors click on links leading to The Startup Bus website. Each unique visitor earned the person who published the referring link ten ‘dollars’.
“We had people furiously battling it out on Twitter, sharing links trying to raise money,” says Bizannes. “It was quite funny to see.”
After more stops in Palm Springs, Phoenix and El Paso, the bus arrived in Austin, where the teams pitched their ideas to the judging panel at a party. Two winners shared the prize: DormDorm.com, which converts university dorm rooms into accommodation and vacation rental for hire over the summer months, and DateBrowsr.com, which scrapes information from dating websites and allows a user to rate people based purely on their appearance.
Winners get coaching from angel investor Naval Ravikant in order to qualify for the startup list along with opportunities for introductions to investors.
“But the funny thing is it went so quickly. It hurt, people were exhausted but they all said they’ll do it again. You’re just so challenged by the project that you were working on, working at the technical issues, the bus ride did not feel that long.”
And the winning teams were not the only winners, says Bizannes.
“I don’t think you could replicate this experience on a train or a plane for the simple fact that it would be too comfortable. It really is bizarre. We had the media before the bus launch saying, ‘This is going to be an absolute failure.’
“We all walked out of it thinking the bus made the experience what it was. It was so intimate sitting next to each other. You’re in each other’s faces. You’re overhearing all the conversations. It created a much more intimate surrounding. And that intimacy formed an emotional bond between the groups, which was remarkable.
“Once we arrived at SXSW, every single night everyone’s been roaming the streets partying together. They’ve all become good friends. It’s kinda cool to see.”
Such bonds are invaluable, Bizannes thinks.
“What makes a successful business isn’t the idea, it’s the team.”
He says this is because often the initial idea pitched always evolves with team input.
“What you’re really looking out for is the type of personality that can maybe pitch an idea, but also execute and react to an idea. Real success in a startup is being able to evolve a product and that’s more of a personality thing than an initial idea thing.”
Bizannes links such teamwork to Silicon Valley’s tech world dominance.
“I’m a firm believer that the reason why Silicon Valley has taken off, and remains steps ahead of everyone else, is because they have these alumni networks of people that have collaborated and worked together. Many years might pass, but they all know each other well enough that they’ll pull each other back into companies on their second or third go.”
So The Startup Bus is not just a good way to build new web businesses, with exhausted participants saying that they would like to do it again.
It is also a valid excuse for collaboration, with one of its main aims being the building of an alumni network for the future benefit of the Australian tech sector.
The judging panel comprised:
- Bill Wood: http://www.silvertonpartners.com/team.php
- John Price: http://www.vast.com/info/team
- Kip McClanahan: http://www.capitalfactory.com/mentors.html
- Michael Trafton: http://www.capitalfactory.com/mentors.html
- Joshua Baer: http://www.capitalfactory.com/mentors.html
- Simon Anquetil: http://www.estrategygroup.com.au/about-us.aspx
Matthew da Silva writes feature stories to fulfil a dream after working in communications and technical writing roles for two decades. He grew up in Sydney, lived in Japan for nine years and now lives on the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland. He blogs daily at Happy Antipodean.