Major League Hacking, Jon Gottfried on MLH Origins and StartupBus

Jon Gottfried is a co-founder of Major League Hacking and a StartupBus Alumnus, former director and conductor

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How did you get involved with StartupBus?

I heard about StartupBus in 2011. I had recently joined twitter and I didn’t have many followers and I started to follow a bunch of people in the tech space. I saw it popup in my timeline one day and so I applied on a whim but I didn’t really expect anything to come of it but I got an email from Justin Isaf who was the conductor that year to schedule an interview. While I was waiting to hear back I started to hustle a bit and used Twitter to find all the other people who were on StartupBus and kinda immersed myself in that world pretty quickly.

MLH has a weird long history. I actually registered the domain name majorleaguehacking.com in 2011, a week after I got back from StartupBus.

What drew you to StartupBus?

I honestly have no idea why I decided apply. I guess it was just crazy enough and just weird enough and just legit enough that I thought it was a real thing. That year, Justin was a great conductor, but the communications from the organization were almost non-existent. We would go on for weeks at a time without hearing anything and then the night before the buses were leaving you’d hear “Oh by the way we’re meeting here tomorrow at 6am at this location.” It was just very scrappy and I think that added to the appeal of it.

You were one of the first directors for StartupBus what was your experience like with that?

So I was on the bus in 2011 and then I was a conductor in 2013 and then I was director in 2014. This gave me some experience working with the organization and helping out at various levels and I also had some experience at that point from Twilio both for sponsoring and organizing events. So I teamed up with Andrew Pinzler — kind of an operations mastermind. We had two big goals for that year. One was to have a more process oriented approach to dealing with sponsors and conductors.

Our first season [at MLH] we had five events and now we have 75 every six months. We do about 150 events a year and it all started by just a random idea thrown around by a couple of people.

We systematized communication and made the event sustainable from a financial standpoint. We made sure the conductors, the regional organizers, could focus on making their buses an awesome experience and recruiting the best people rather than worrying about logistical bullshit that could be more easily organized at a national level. So we enacted change there. Before that each conductor was responsible for their own sponsorship, operations, hotels. We centralized a lot of that to take it off their shoulders in order to change the focus for conductors to the culture on the bus.

Where did MLH come from? What was it like getting it off the ground?

MLH has a weird long history. I actually registered the domain name majorleaguehacking.com in 2011, a week after I got back from StartupBus. I talked to John Britton who also worked for Twilio and was on my team Lemonade Stand on the bus. We were kind of discussing the idea of making like a league for professional hackers — there were a lot of hackathons at that point — but nothing ever came of it. A couple years later, Swift, my co-founder and I, agreed to quit our jobs to work on something together but we didn’t really know what we were gonna work on.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.17.34 PM
Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.17.34 PM

The time came to quit our jobs and he decided to quit and I didn’t. I said I would stay for another six months. So Swift left his job and he was talking to people like Dave Fontenot and Tess Rinearson. He pitched this idea of ranking all the student hackathons, which were starting to grow in number and frequency.

We all kind of started to talk about the idea of Major League Hacking. Dave had started a list to rank them. So Swift reached out to me and said, “Hey can I use these domain names? I want to move forward with this thing.” And people were really into it, and it started to get a ton of traction.

Each year 50,000 students participate in our events. We do them in North America: US, Canada, Mexico and Europe: U.K., Spain, Romania, Germany and it’s growing really fast in Europe.

After six months, I quit my job and joined Swift and that was about almost two years ago. And it’s been going great ever since. Our first season we had five events and now we have 75 every six months. We do about 150 events a year and it all started by just a random idea thrown around by a couple of people.

How big is MLH and where is it represented?

Each year 50,000 students participate in our events. We do them in North America: US, Canada, Mexico and Europe: U.K., Spain, Romania, Germany and it’s growing really fast in Europe. We have still have a lot of work to do but it’s a big movement. One of the fun carry-overs that I’ve got to experience with both StartupBus and MLH was booking coach buses. I’ve had a lot of weird experiences with buses working both StatupBus and MLH.

One of the fun carry-overs that I’ve got to experience with both StartupBus and MLH was booking coach buses. I’ve had a lot of weird experiences with buses working both StatupBus and MLH.

One year on StartupBus got stuck in a freak ice storm and was on the side of the road for six hours and a woman came up and knocked on the door to use the bathroom. At MLH we had a bus full of students in Georgia near Atlanta that broke down halfway to an event and when we called the bus company to get a replacement bus the company told us they were going bankrupt and that we were shit outta luck. We had to find another way to get the kids off the side of the road. We ended up renting a ton of cargo vans and loaded them up. It was a weird thing. Coach buses are interesting to deal with.

What experience from StartupBus has helped you with MLH?

StartupBus is based on community and there are a lot of things I learned there about how to build a tight-knit group of people and I utilize that skill at MLH.

A million different things. I gained a lot of experience dealing with large scale operations and sponsorship — all of those things carried over to MLH. Also building a community. StartupBus is based on community and there are a lot of things I learned there about how to build a tight-knit group of people and I utilize that skill at MLH.

Check out Hack the Planet by MLH

The new season of MLH kicks off in September check out the events at mlh.io

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The StartupBus Blog

Stories from the road trip and startup competition like no other. Do you have what it takes? Apply today at https://startupbus.com