I've participated & organized in many different programming events over the years, but nothing as crazy as StartupBus, an idea dreamed up by Aussie Elias Bizannes (who I met at StartupCamp, a similar event). Across the country on March 8th, a mix of developers, designers, & business dev'ers boarded buses headed to Austin, Texas. We pitched ideas on the morning of the first day, formed teams over lunch, and spent the next two days coming up with a prototype. When we arrived in Austin, just in time for the start of SXSW interactive, selected teams got to pitch their startups at the semi-finals (our team SpeakerMeter made it there!) and the finals (but not there), hoping to interest VCs in the potential success of their startups.
It was an incredible learning experience to be a part of StartupBus, and a great way to enjoy a different side of SXSW.
What I Learnt:
- It's good to go slow.
When you say "make a startup in 48 hours", the typical reaction is "wow, that's not much time." But actually, we're really only coding the prototype, and most programming events these days are shorter than that. When you're not worried about fully working functionality or doing things "the right way", you can actually build quite a lot of functionality in that amount of time.
So, in fact, I felt like we were going at a much more relaxed pace on the StartupBus than at typical hackathons, and I appreciated that pace. It gave us time to actually think about what we were doing, time to debate the business plan, time to have long discussions with Xero's designer Philip about the idea, and time to completely revise the interface after that discussion. It also gave us time to take more leisurely meals, where we could get to know eachother more. (Remember: we were strangers, and now we were people spending 3 days squished next to eachother on a bus. Bonding's a good thing.)
- It is difficult to make webapps without a good internet connection - for more reasons than you'd think.
I knew that we'd be driving through uninhabited desert for most of the trip with questionable WIFI, so I tried not to propose a startups that would be too reliant on internet resources - but that's hard to do, there are few web startups these day that don't build on existing data and services. Our startup brought in Twitter and SXSW data, so we had to test that functionality at high connectivity times.
But I realized that I use the internet for much more than just connecting code to external websites when I'm building a webapp - I use it extensively for documentation and for problem-solving. Normally, a framework question can be answered in just a few minutes with a Google search, but with flaky wifi, that seemingly quick process can take minutes on end. If I was doing this next year, I'd download all possible framework documentation to disk, and maybe also download all of stackoverflow. :)
- Market research - even the most unscientific & untargeted - can be damn useful.
- There is a difference between making a webapp and making a startup.
I love making webapps - it's so easy these days to create something out of nothing (well, where nothing = existing libraries, frameworks, and APIs), and it's easy to share your creation with the world. But a webapp alone is not a startup. A startup is a team of people trying to make a product (often a webapp) that will gain users & be profitable in some way - and those last two parts are not trivial. So we didn't just spend time on the bus coding, we also spent time marketing (tweeting & blogging), doing the market research, coming up with a business plan, and drafting our pitch.
In retrospect, we probably could have done more of the startup stuff and less of the coding, and been more successful in terms of our visibility. It's easy for anyone to make a webapp, but it's hard for webapps to gain users that they can then be profitable from, and StartupBus is a great opportunity for potentially useful webapps to gain press and users as a result.
I went on StartupBus partially to figure out if I want to enter the startup world, or if I am content to stay in the webapp world. I still haven't quite figured that out, but at least I'm very aware that there is a difference between them.
When we stopped by in Santa Monica, the conductors gave us a challenge: walk around the streets and record video of at least three market research interviews with strangers. This admittedly freaked me out; I am quite shy by nature and hate to impose myself on other people - approaching strangers to ask them questions is the epitome of what I am afraid of doing. But, it's a part of the startup experience, so I grabbed my more balls-y teammate and hit the streets.
We had multiple folks turn our requests for an interview done, but we actually had just as many people stop and chat to us for several minutes. They were all university students (I guess they're all happy for an excuse to postpone doing assignments), so they were not a diverse market segment or even our target market segment, but they still gave us great insight into the design and intent of our startup. In fact, if I'd really listened closely to them, I might have pivoted the startup into an entirely university-oriented one - but I stuck with the original goal of solving my own problem, not theirs.
Now that I see the utility of just a bit of market research, I'm working on a survey to send out to our target market, and we're going to use the results of that survey to figure out our next steps. (Yes, I'm still working on our startup idea, as one of my numerous side projects.)
What I Loved:
- I am now a part of the StartupBus community - and hopefully always will be.
The StartupBus founder, Elias, always likes to say that StartupBus is not so much about the actual startups made, but about the community that forms as result. The 3 days on the bus and 5 days at SXSW are an excuse for like-minded hackers & entepreneurs to get to know eachother over a common experience. At SXSW, even if I didn't technically know someone, I knew I could approach them if they were wearing their StartupBus badge. Now, going forward, we feel comfortable approaching each other for business advice, for a place to crash during other tech events, for co-founder possibilities, and of course, just for hanging out.
Regardless of what I decide about the startup world, it's great to be a part of this incredibly passionate & intelligent community.