By Devin Sandoz
I intercept the @StartupBusSF crew at noon in downtown Bakersfield, in the banquet room of a Chinese restaurant. They’ve been up since 4am, conceiving their brand new startups in the early hours of the morning.
Each of the 31 designers, developers and product/marketing managers on the bus have come with a project, but at the end of the journey’s first leg only six ideas are left standing. By the time the bus stops for lunch, each team of 3–5 buspreneurs has formulated a rough pitch covering why, what, and how they’re going to improve transportation:
- @FilltheTuB is building with Uber Trip Experiences, resurfacing saved articles and suggesting audio/video content based on mood and the length of your Uber ride
- @UbrGuides is working on delivering city experts to tourists on demand, within minutes
- @FindCompass is taking a different approach to travel recommendations, building a service for Uber driver partners and other local experts to easily save and share their local picks
- @Squad_Ride is focused on improving group outings using the Uber Rides API
- @Freightloadr wants to build a logistics platform for trucking, helping drivers fill up partial loads and improving shipment planning for small businesses.
- @1844SpeakIt is building an automated phone request service using Tropo and the Uber Rides API to help seniors without smartphones or tech skills order an Uber.
In the afternoon it gets very real, very fast. The mentors on the bus — previous StartupBus standouts and tech veterans — zero in on each idea, pushing on technical plans, marketing strategies, and business models. They find holes in every nascent pitch, then prod these issues until they’re impossible to ignore. Teams regroup after each run-through to fix problems and hone their visions. Every two hours it’s pitch time, with the buspreneurs grabbing the mic at the front of the bus to try again as we move through the desert at 70 miles/hour.
We pull into the co-working space Work in Progress in Las Vegas at 7pm on Sunday and head right into (you guessed it) another set of pitches, this time in front of judges including Lisa Marchese, CMO of the Venetian and Palazzo hotels, and Jimmy Jacobson, the co-founder of the polling service Wedgies. Their experienced perspectives are crucial, but responses to their feedback vary. Some presenters become defensive, some become evasive, and some simply refuse to answer the question.
By now it’s clear to me that StartupBus is about more than building a viable new app or service. Even more valuable is the entrepreneurial experience the program gives to people who often haven’t built a business from scratch before. StartupBus condenses work which often stretches into months of partial attention and incremental progress into a 5-day crucible. Ideas either crumble from the pressure applied to them, or become honed to the point where they can open doors. Participants learn how to take criticism, how to sell a vision, and when to stick to their convictions in the face of new obstacles and divergent perspectives.
As neon lights beam on the Las Vegas strip a couple of miles South, the buspreneurs hit the streets to stop tourists and conduct impromptu UX research studies on their ideas. Morning is coming quickly.
In competition at Boulder Startup Week, StartupBus teams will be judged on the quality of their demo (an actual working prototype), the viability of their business model, and the traction they’ve already gained to make their idea a reality. This means that on day 2 the buspreneurs need to move from ideas to business plans, fully thinking through the product, revenue, and marketing strategies around their services.
Out of necessity, the three to five person teams divide and conquer. Designers work on mocks for the product and website. Marketers set up Twitter accounts and chase down industry contacts. Developers start coding, learning new codebases and APIs on-the-fly as they push towards a working product. The bathroom releases challenging odors whenever the door opens.
Pitches aren’t evolving quickly enough, so the mentors and I take a new approach. We move to 1:1 workshops where we ask each team to walk us through every aspect of a successful pitch: Problem and Audience, Product Solution, Technical Approach, Market Size, Business Model, Go to Market Strategy, and Team Qualifications. Pitches become more consistent and thorough as a result. The hustlers (neither designers nor developers, but jacks-of-all-trades) hunt for market statistics and proof points as the WiFi signal fades in and out during our drive through the Utah mountains. “Take my word for it” pitches disappear as teams begin to support their claims with data.
Looking across the six ideas, patterns have begun to emerge around new business opportunities enabled or inspired by the Uber Developer Platform:
- Travel is not a solved problem — while both travel logistics and available inventory are improving rapidly, there’s still room for innovation.
- The commute is a powerful and frequent life context — when services design for it they stand to gain clear use cases and differentiators.
- There are still many industries (e.g. freight shipping) and audiences (the elderly) who can benefit from transportation solutions designed with their unique challenges in mind.
Despite ideas sharing some of the same problems and opportunities, the go-to-market strategies teams employ differ greatly. TuB is looking at bootstrapping quickly by building their service on top of emerging platforms like Facebook Messenger (#botnation) and Uber Trip Experiences. 1–844-SPEAK-IT wants to spread the word through grassroots marketing in senior centers and doctor’s offices. Squad targets promotional distribution of their app through venues and event planners. But the devil is always in the details, and teams hit bumps regularly as they evaluate the viability of their growth plans.
By the time we pull up to the Uber offices at Impact Hub in Salt Lake City the bus is collectively exhausted but motivated. SLC is an emerging tech hub in its own right, and the Uber team here has invited a great group of local developers to attend our event and give feedback. The whole bus pitches in front of a live audience for the second night straight, tackling A/V challenges and unexpected questions as they come up. The feedback they hear from the audience has evolved from the night before — they’re now being questioned on finer points such as the longevity of their business model and the possibilities around expanding into adjacent markets. We’re getting closer to Boulder.
At 7:30 am I open my curtains to see the bus parked outside of my hotel room, wide awake and waiting for me. We buspool with the @StartupBusVan team to the nearby Pluralsight offices, graciously stocked with hot breakfast and fast WiFi. The SF and Vancouver teams do a combined round of pitching, and I learn about amazing social impact ideas out of Vancouver like a robot to clean up ocean trash. Well fed and charged up, we say goodbye and hit the road again.
Today is all about building. Regardless of the tweaks the teams are making to their business models and pitches, prototypes are due tomorrow and the code isn’t going to write itself. The hustlers spend their time on traction, cold calling like it’s going out of style and pre-registering users and businesses for the services they’re creating.
The next round of pitches comes in the mid-afternoon. It’s a gauntlet, but I’m blown away by the progress the teams have made. Even when our feedback seemed like it was falling on deaf ears, it was being internalized and incorporated. The decks from Compass and FreightLoader in particular have made huge progress. We focus on crisp messages and tight presentations, mapping the flow of the story and calling out B.S. wherever we smell it. Everyone is receptive — they can sense the pressure of the stage in Boulder tomorrow morning and are focused on making something awesome.
Our bus stops for a quick break in Nowhere, Wyoming and it can’t be more than 40 degrees out. Richard and Colin, the developer and designer for TuB, do calisthenics in front of the bus to stay alert — Richard’s been up for 24 hours and has had to completely rewrite his approach after encountering a bug in one of the 5+ APIs they’re integrating with. I can’t believe how positive everyone seems after three days of no sleep and high pressure.
As the sun goes down I stand at the back of the bus chatting with the Compass team as the mentors call up teams for 30 second pitches. There’s a sea of laptops glowing as the evening light recedes. Team TuB shoulders their way to the front of the bus and asks everyone to text “TestTuB” to a phone number. The TuB prototype responds, asking us how much time we have and whether we want to laugh, learn, or be surprised. It’s working! The bus erupts in applause as one team.
Tomorrow the real competition starts in Boulder. Over the next two days the transportation teams on @StartupBusSF will compete for the notoriety and resume highlights that come from winning StartupBus Americas. I’ll be in the crowd cheering for them. It’s been quite a ride so far.
⚀ Watch the competition in Boulder on livestream.com/thestartupbus