Move fast and make something (of your life)
I spent the majority of my first trip to America looking at a computer screen, while sat on a bus that traveled from San Francisco to Austin. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.
At the end of 2010 I started planning my first trip to America for SXSW. Originally from the UK, I’d been living in Sydney for almost eight years and loved it. San Francisco had recently piqued my curiosity. Two colleagues had left that year to form a startup and were doing well. I loved hearing updates and felt excited for them. I started to think about where my own career was going and felt a growing need for a new adventure.
Around then I heard about the StartupBus– a hackathon on a bus going from San Francisco to Austin. I’d get to travel through the country while getting a taste of startup life along the way. This was the perfect addition to my trip.
Barely over jetlag I found myself thrown into a group of strangers who I was to build a product with over the next three days. I felt nervous. At the time I was working as a user experience designer doing the research, scoping, wireframing side of things. My visual design skills were rusty. I had been doing frontend development occasionally but I was no pro. I wondered if my skills would be useful.
As soon as I got on the bus I went and introduced myself to people. I got chatting to a couple of guys: Jason - an engineer who was working on his own startup; and Mischa who worked on the support team at Twitter. We got on well and I ended up sitting with them as the bus departed.
As we left San Francisco and headed towards Los Angeles, each person got up and told the bus a bit about their skills and pitched their ideas. Not many ideas appealed to me. Then a guy called Max stood up, introduced himself and said “Bit.ly for email.” It grabbed my attention. It was a simple idea that I thought people might actually want to use. I wanted to be on his team.
Max explained the idea– a way of shortening and protecting your email address so you could share it safely over public networks such as Twitter. He came over to chat to Jason, one of the few engineers on the bus. As Mischa and I sat with him we started to talk and showed our interest in the idea. We began to form a team.
Max brought over another guy, Jay, and said he was an excellent designer. He had been running his own design firm for about 5 years, and the two previously won a hackathon together. Our team was looking good.
A lot of people seemed to come up to us interested in our idea. Another two developers ended up joining - Adam who was from New Zealand but living in London. And James who worked at a company called Stickybits.
While many people were still coming up with ideas and forming teams we were already planning and building our product: Bouncr.
Our first stop was in LA at a co-working space called the Coloft. A couple of the team members went out to get feedback from the general public. I remember Max encouraging me to join them so I could get to see a bit of the city, but by that point I was already in “get shit done” mode. I can’t even remember what I was working on at that point but at the time I deemed it more important than being a tourist.
As we travelled on to Palm Springs, I thought about how I could be most useful. I knew in a small amount of time we needed to be able to agree on what to get done by Austin. One thing I knew I was particularly good at was prioritising. I worked through the feedback from the on-the-street interviews, and other potential challenges discussed by the team, and formed a list of features and issues we needed to discuss.
By the time we stopped in Palm Springs that evening we had a journalist following our team. We met in one of our hotel rooms and debated what was “MVP” by Austin. Everyone had strong opinions and we had some hot debates. It was a healthy discussion though and we seemed to have already bonded well as a team. I facilitated the discussion and edited the list as we made decisions. I felt useful.
The journalist documented the events of the evening and it was surreal to wake up and read his article the next day.
Somewhere in Arizona
We stopped somewhere in Arizona (I think) the second night and met again to review the list of features. I remember we had another reporter interested in us, this time from the Wall Street Journal. He took a lot of photos. I was trying not to giggle as everyone did their best natural looking “cool” poses, while just happening to need to be right in front of the lens.
The third and final day on the bus was tough. We were all suffering from lack of sleep, a bad diet of corn chips and Subway, and some serious over-caffeination. I felt a little motion sick for the first time and that was the only time I caught some shut eye on the bus.
After napping, Jay and I reviewed the UI. I was a little sad I wasn’t doing the visual design but knew Jay was doing a much better job than I could. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to get into some deep UX talk, and I think we made some useful design decisions.
Arriving in Austin
We arrived in Austin to a party being held by the Startupbus sponsors (Vast). We barely relaxed before looking for some desk space so that we could continue working. After being kicked out of the office we ended up sitting outside in the hallway for quite some time. Eventually a Vast employee invited us back inside the office and we made camp in their boardroom.
We had to get a promo video done before the next day. We interviewed a bunch of people for the video, one of which was a guy named Andrew - a product manager at Vast. He talked to us for a bit and asked me what my background was. He said they were looking for UX designers in their SF office and asked if I was interested. I said yes and he suggested we go for a quick chat. I looked around at my teammates and they encouraged me to go, even though they were all working hard to meet the video deadline.
So at 1:30am I walked around the streets of Austin with Andrew with my best interview hat on. If you’ve been there during SXSW you know the streets are full of drunk people spilling out of bars with loud music pumping. Another surreal moment.
Our video got us into the semi-finals. We made it through. Before we got to the finals we had more articles written about us, video interviews, 2000+ users, and had a launch party with a mechanical bull. Yep, surreal.
We didn’t win.
I felt down for a little while. There had been so much build up. Everything had been going right. I’d gotten so caught up in things. I was even contemplating how I could leave Sydney and get a visa and continue to work on Bouncr. You could say I’d lost touch with reality a little.
I watched the Foo Fighters play at Stubbs that night. It was the last day of SXSW Interactive. I tried to take in everything that had happened. I knew I wouldn’t be content going back home to my job in Sydney.
New York, New York
Leaving the bus and the team behind I flew to New York to meet with one of my best mates - Michelle. Our birthdays are just a day apart and so I celebrated my 30th birthday with her in NYC. Gazing over the city from the top of the Empire State Building I contemplated what I really wanted to with my life, now that I was getting old.
I decided that I need to make the most of the opportunity to move here. I had 3 weeks left and chose to turn my holiday into a “get a job” trip.
I flew back to San Francisco and spent the rest of my trip building my portfolio and interviewing with companies. I found that interviewing in SF seemed to consist of many chats over coffee or lemonade, before moving into serious interviews. It took up quite a bit of time, but I managed to do a few touristy things in between.
A week after arriving back in Sydney I got a job offer from Vast. Six weeks later I had either packed up or sold all my belongings and I moved to San Francisco.
Some people call me lucky and maybe I am, I also didn’t end up moving here entirely by accident. It’s through seizing opportunities and putting myself outside my comfort zone that helped get me here.
It’s a bit sad I spent most of the road trip looking at a computer screen instead of the scenery. I don’t regret it because now I live in the USA and get to see a lot more of it than I could on a few weeks’ holiday.
I’ve been living in San Francisco for over 2 years now, currently working for a startup called Snapguide. Moving here is without a doubt the best thing I’ve done since the last time I moved countries. I miss Sydney and I miss the UK. But I’ll never regret jumping on that bus.