My life-changing week on StartupBus NorthAmerica 2015

They say everything from your past does not belong in the present… this might be true for most grueling experiences…but not StartupBus.

Everything that happens on StartupBus needs to remain in the present. From learning to work without power and Wi-Fi to functioning with complete strangers who are a perpetual inch away from you, along with every nuance, challenge, catastrophe, melt down and good time in between. They are all equally memorable and hopefully never forgotten.

I’ve enjoyed my fare share of experiences through my over 40 years of life, traveling for both work and fun throughout the US. I’ve even traveled for a year in a van with a boyfriend who was a VJ… yes a VJ not a DJ but a Video Jockey who “spun” (the word video is so antiquated there isn’t even a term for what he was paid to do with music videos obviously you don’t spin them) anyway he was paid by a cable company to host Video music dance parties and we travelled all over the U.S. in a van. I booked gigs, and arranged equipment rentals long before cellphones and laptops. I’ve traveled excessively on both TV commercials and feature film to the most remote places in the south, to fancy schmancy places in the north. Always working with talented and amazing people and spending months at a time working 16–20 hour days for 6 days a week. During all of these experiences you get to know your co-workers, make friends, and learn to work with people in extraordinary situations.

But, nothing I have done before StartupBus compares to the 3-day journey, on a bus to destinations unknown, doing something that, requires a unique amount of self-motivation, a keen sense of focus, agility, the ability share ideas, serious capabilities of not getting overly emotional, and the skills to keep up with some of the most talented, and imaginative people I’ve ever met.

What is StartupBus: It’s a 3 day, immersive startup and business building experience, with a combination of training, hand holding and a whole lot of taking the ‘busprenuers’ (as participants are called) out of their comfort zone. Thirty strangers are joined together on a typical long haul bus with a few tables and a bathroom and what should be equipped with Wi-Fi and electric power. They’re asked to build teams, then take an idea and create a start up. Then compete by pitching their ideas to judges on days 4 & 5 to win… nothing but satisfaction, pride and recognition in the eyes of some of technologies brightest minds.

Day 1

We’re barely out of the Lincoln tunnel at 6am when we begin the early morning start of idea pitches by everyone from the front of the bus. Then it’s a scramble to find people, ideas and teams to work with, sleep with, and build a startup with. It’s a mad rush to not only choose your favorite pitch idea, but also people that you feel would be great to work with. I was told at the launch party the night before that I should pick the people and not the pitch. I followed this advice — I over thought each prospective team and unequivocally ended up choosing the perfect teammates against what were my original assumptions.

I wish I could take all the credit for my choice but it was a conductor who all but forced us to stick together — Jenn Shaw a StartupBus alumni and savvy business owner in her own right, grasped my arm and one of my teammates and stared us calmly and intently in the eyes and said “this is a good smart team”. I didn’t move and neither did the 4 incredible guys around me. As our collective eyes darted around the bus — wondering if this decision was right and what pitch idea we would go with, I wondered if they could read my mind “Aaah what the hell did I get myself into”. Two of my teammates had pitched ideas about creating something with Virtual Reality and I had pitched 2 app ideas that weren’t as challenging or interesting in hindsight as I’d hoped. My ideas were more about finding solutions to my own needs and less something interesting enough to work tirelessly on for 72 hours straight. As we assembled our gear to sit together it seemed like we silently freaked out that we might not have picked the right team, the five of us deliberated for hours — back and forth debating which idea we should go with. I’m pretty sure we all wanted to do a virtual reality idea but I had never even put on an oculus, no less knew how the technology functioned and my teammates knew exactly how hard we’d have to work to blow the judges away with a virtual reality idea. We deliberated whether we should work really hard or make something cool and have fun.

It was during our first lunch together, when we all agreed that not only were we there for a great experience, but we also wanted to win the competition. From then on it seemed that we started to behave as a team. Even though it still took us long after lunch to make our final decision on what idea to choose.

Many hours later, and as the preverbal wheels turned, we finally had a focused idea for our burgeoning start up. We shared our idea with the alumni “coaches” Rait, Nate, Edwin, Mike and Jenn — they challenged us to think further, consider business functionality and determine our key differential, scalability and monetization. We proved to be a group who had tons of ideas and we all shared them freely. For whatever our individual reasons were we all firmly decided to create an app using Virtual Reality technology that will affect concentration and be designed to take the user out of their current mental state and bring them into an immersive virtual environment to relax and help maintain focus.

At the time of writing this, it’s only been 5 days since day 1, and I can barely differentiate one day to the next no less write about what happened on which day. But as I try to remember I’m pretty sure that by the time we arrived at our first hotel around 11pm in Detroit — we were still trying to figure out if our concept could work.

Day 2

No one was more surprised than me to find that I was up early and ready to go, my team and I got to the bus early and sat at one of the tables as a group — except for Dre coding away by himself in the back Jon, Liam, Fern and me shared ideas, tried to meet the imposed milestones of the StartupBus Game and I struggled to get Wi-Fi via my hotspot. As the day progressed, I wavered through fear, frustration and an insatiable need to prove myself in some way to these strangers. Plus, ultimately have the most fun one can have with barely any sleep and sitting on a smelly bus.

By lunch, we were full steam ahead with a business outline for SPACES, and a concept we all believed in. Day 2 was long, it ended in North Carolina with little sleep and a lot of desire to collectively build something worthwhile and impressive. We spent the day writing and rewriting the best pitch to impress the judges at finals, show off the best demo product and to win the online StartupBus game.
We were a true team in every sense of the word and acted like one.

Day 3

My brain is mush on the bus, and spending an exceptional amount of time with people is not my forte. I became grumpy and started second-guessing what I brought to the group and if I was contributing enough. I’m the only girl, I’ve never played a video game, no less built anything with virtual technology, and I’ve never really thought about cognitive environments playing their part on the human brain — but the guys supported me and I supported them and by the end of day three I’m pretty sure I fell in love with each of these four unique, talented, smart, funny, beautiful men. At the end of the day during dinner we realized that we hadn’t met a number of milestones we were required to reach in order to be in the finals the next day! From 9:30pm to 12pm we rallied together, stressed out, and exhausted we each pushed hard to reach all of the markers by the midnight cut off.

During our frenetic rush to compete the milestones — it dawned on me that we were building something bigger than this ‘game’ and experience; that hitting each milestone as prescribed by StartupBus might not be the order I would do it if we were launching our app in the real world. I shared my thoughts to my teammates and as we do when any of us has a thought or suggestion, it was heard and understood and we mutually decided that even if we left this environment and pursued a business together we still wanted to win the competition.

Day 4 — Nashville

Pitch day is totally nerve wracking! Everyone is exhausted and motivated at the same time. You walk down a hallway and find teams practicing their pitch, and “hustlers” repeating to themselves their rehearsed lines. We were finalizing our last touches on the technology and our website, distributing press releases and fielding emails about outside interest in our concept. It was frenetic and crazy but our pitch went fairly well. The one note that seemed to stick with me was our lack of energy during our pitch. You can watch it here… (3:41:49)we’re pretty dang stiff.

Throughout the trip, we got excited about the technology that was being developed and how our concept was coming to life. Each of us discussed fears about of the VR community hearing our idea and we actively researched and did a competitive analysis. By the time we officially made it to semifinals and finished the first round of pitches, we had shown a few demos, called a few influential people in the technology community and our start up SPACES had been touted as a revolutionizing experience by a few of the most experienced virtual reality experts in the country. We were offered funding and a lot of interest in the idea for the medical community. It was less than three days later, and we created a viable revenue earning business with committed investors and we had advanced in the StartupBus competition.

After we delivered our pitch we were ecstatic, not just because we had jumped a hurdle in the competition and made it to semi-finals and built something we were incredibly proud of, but we raised funding and to top it off the five of us were a strong enough team to move forward together as partners beyond StartupBus. I had joked that I would create anything and go into business with these guys… even if it were making honey. I just loved how we respected each other and communicated beautifully we were in a honeymoon phase on day 4 and thought we could take on the world.

As the day moved on; we were happy but stressed-out working hard to hone our final pitch. We wanted to show the judges the full technology we had worked to build, and how much fun we had doing it. We deliberated over every detail, from who was holding what, to how each feature, pricing structure, traction goal and experience was going to impact us as a business. We tweeted, facebooked and emailed our friends to watch us on the live feed and to offer tips — we felt confident. We were convinced that what we had to show was epic and we were happy that we all liked each other so much and we really wanted to win.

Then one of us mentioned concerns again …what if someone watching would understand our idea and use the technology to create their own version. There was doubt in my mind flittering in two directions 1) is this really as cool and awesome as we think it is. 2) Is someone going to emulate our idea once it’s heard over the livestream?

I just need to clarify that I’m not one to fall for the — don’t share an idea because someone might steal it frame of mind. I tell clients all the time that if you have an idea…go for it. Create it, build it, and sell it. If someone takes it before you have the funding to put it together the exact way you want ,so be it… get it out there anyway. Everyone is faced with the same struggles you will be, and everyone interprets things differently. Follow your heart and you’ll be fine. Who cares about the competition!

But at some point, I got a weird nervous feeling that if this is all real, like really real and the feelings I have working with these smart fellas and the fact that I believe so much in the technology and our unique creative way of delivering the technology for a good cause. Well maybe we should continue a conversation among us as a team about the business viability vs. the good of the competition.

The next few minutes went by in a flash, and we agreed collectively to drop out of the competition. To not give our rehearsed pitch and demo to the judges, audience and those sitting in front computers watching the Livestream. Instead, we took our conductors aside privately, and asked what the protocol would be if we pulled ourselves from the competition. We then went on stage and thanked StartupBus for introducing us and told everyone we were committed to perusing our goal and that — we believe so much in our company and ideas that we don’t want to share them publicly for the sake of the company’s survival.

I started writing this 24 hours after that epic mic drop (not really, we didn’t drop the sad little mic) as I sit in the airport waiting for my connecting flight to go back to New York, I’m in a group text with the guys on my team — it’s only been a few hours since we’ve seen each other but it’s the longest we’ve been a part in a week. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt this exhausted, invigorated, and changed.

Since being home and back to reality worrying about all of the details and my to-do list for clients and the challenges keeping my own business prosperous. I’ve added a whole company and partners to my work load and I couldn't be happier. The SPACES team has had a 6 hour meeting, multiple texts and conference calls. We have the support of investors and they feel we made the right decision in not exposing ourselves to the tech audience during the StartupBus Livestream.

SPACES is proving to be as successful as we anticipated in the heated moments of the competition. As a team we will continue to work independently and diligently to bring our company to life with a product. We’ve started the process of becoming an LLC and strategized our company goals. We feel it’s important as a team to work intensively together as often as possible to hit our new company milestones — we are going to try to relive the StartupBus environment as best as possible. Not on a bus (dear god no), but confined to an environment every few weeks or as best we can while still supporting ourselves outside of our new company.

During my interviews with Edwin and Jenn, before I was chosen to go on StartupBus NYC they talked about this life changing experience and how incredible and profound it would be. I am a skeptic, I thought “ok this sounds cool, but they’re young, how great can this REALLY be”. It’s pretty darn great. The experience is different for everyone, as far as I know each of my teammates feels differently about what they learned and liked about the trip. What I love about it is that StartupBus is an environment that breeds people who want to push themselves beyond their initial capabilities unlike any other environment I’ve been a part of. Anyone who is motivated to seek personal or work growth, should hop on the bus and give it a try. It’s just a ridiculously fun and challenging experience.

Jen Lew
North Fork Marketing & Design