All aboard the StartupBus: The pressure cooker startup incubator on wheels

Bottle the following ingredients: the electric buzz of a Red Bull fueled hackerspace, the interpersonal caterwauling of a reality show and pressure, loads of pressure. Now, let it loose on a bus travelling at 60 miles an hour and you get StartupBus.

StartupBus has been around for over two years now and it continues to bring together intrepid tech entrepreneurs, designers and developers who present ideas and develop working prototypes while in transit. Buses carrying these enterprising tech geeks meander towards a final destination, at which time a judging ceremony is held, recognising the best prototype. This all happens in the span of three to five days. It’s like a Startup Weekend on wheels and presents participants with unique time and resource constraints.

Whimsical; that’s what the initiative feels like and it’s supposed to. As with all things worthwhile, StartupBus started out as a joke among friends. Around the time SXSW 2010 was about to start, Elias Bizannes and a bunch of his mates were kicking back in an Australian pub. They came up with the idea of a roadtrip starting in San Francisco, with the twist of launching a startup on arrival in Austin in time for SXSW.

With no immediate intention of logistical follow-through, they created a splash page for their idea and posted it online. The page read: “12 strangers will board a bus in San Francisco. At 60 miles an hour and over 48 hours, they will conceive, build and launch 3 tech startups in time for a SXSW party in Austin.”

The page got picked up by TechCrunch and a few blog articles and emails later Bizannes and co. were suddenly compelled to make good on their pub night flight of fancy.

In the course of a month, they managed to find a bus with Wi-Fi and sponsors to cover the cost and also constructed a website with live bus tracking and a game called BUSDAQ — a faux stock market where people can trade shares in their favourite StartupBus companies. Soon thereafter, 25 pioneering “buspreneurs” set off on a three day journey between San Francisco and Austin.

In what was essentially a pressure cooker startup incubator on wheels, the team of hacking trailblazers whipped up six functional prototype web services which were presented to a panel of high profile investors in Austin. The winning idea got funded and so StartupBus became legitimised, having incubated its first business and forming a community to support the StartupBus experiment.

In 2011, the US leg of the experiment grew to include 156 participants — producing 38 prototypes — and expanded to Europe with the inaugural event seeing 20 participants producing five products on their way to LeWeb. Tweets about StartupBus Europe received an estimated 1.3 million views. Not bad for a maiden voyage.

This year 10 buses with 30 hackers each made the trip down to Austin.

How does it work? Right now StartupBus happens annually, but tickets usually cost around US$300. Although anyone can apply, only a select few are invited aboard. As a bus travels, participants get an opportunity to pitch ideas to the rest of the passengers and teams then form around ideas they want to be involved in.

When it comes to ideas pretty much anything goes. From an iPhone app called Happstr that spreads happiness by letting users check into spots that make them happy, to a mobile guide called CuriousCity which showcases places “curated by city ‘sexperts’ to help you explore a city’s elusive scenes” and unlocks exclusive content when you earn the trust of CuriousCity’s kinky community. This year’s US winner is the insanely cool Cerealize, the service that allows you to build your own custom cereal and have it delivered right to your door. This is an idea that was developed in five days. Five. Shouldn’t all startups be incubated this way?

Regardless of how marketable the prototype ideas are, StartupBus is clearly brilliant for networking opportunities and creating communities. The idea of building an international community around startups is actually the idea the founders feel most strongly about.

Memeburn caught up with Arne Hulstein, the European director of StartupBus who told us that “StartupBus is not about the startups. It is about the people.”

“On the other hand, we do see some startups that take their start on the bus seriously. I know there is at least one startup from the Europe bus that is working to go to market. In the US there have been more successful examples with one startup coming off the bus this year as an incorporated company with a serious team both on and off the bus and even investors. But again, StartupBus is about challenging people to give it everything they have got to achieve a goal that they had considered to be unobtainable before they left. And to get out of the bus a changed person with new insights in what they can achieve and where their strengths are,” Hulstein added.

For all the pressure that participants are under, StartupBus is still a proper roadtrip, complete with music videos and mishaps. The European leg spanned over 2700 kilometers and Hulstein tells us, “There are a million stories to be told. About lugging a huge chest of equipment around Kopenhagen in the middle of the night as the easy train to our hotel had been closed due to repairs. Or arriving a fashionable three hours late at our own final judging so the party had already started before we got to Paris.”

You’ll never know just who you’ll meet and where the experience will take you, but it looks like a memorable experience. If you’re keen on StartupBus coming to your neck of the woods, be sure to sign the petition.

We asked Hulstein about StartupBus coming to emerging markets. “I would love to extend StartupBus to emerging markets. Not in the least because StartupBus is not so much about the startups, but more about the people on the bus. Once you have been on a bus, you have become a buspreneur. And the buspreneur network is working around the world in very interesting positions. And you have an incredible bond to them having gone through the same experience,” he said.

He added, “For emerging markets I feel that it also adds the edge of showing what you can do with limited time, limited resources and a lot of determination. On the other hand, we do need to watch out not to grow too quickly as we want to make sure that the quality of the trip and the people is high. Our choice will always be quality over quantity for that matter. But again, yes, I would love to run buses in emerging markets as I think it will help people see that there is no restrictions for great people with great ideas and a lot of determination.”

If you’re curious, this video best captures the overall vibe of StartupBus.



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