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June 16, 2015

StartupBus Culture and What You Can Learn From It

We are a slingshot in the form of a bus that takes tech minded people, forces them to go through the startup equivalent of hazing, and they come out the other side of an intense five day experience knowing what they are truly capable of…

…How we do things

I’ve been trying to define culture for the last few months and the best explanation for what culture is that I can come up with is “how we do things around here”. Startupbus does things in a vacuum of chaos, in a short window of time, but the love, support, and emotional investment that our alumni put back into that tornado creates a community of unparalleled leaders and innovators that seek to disrupt the status quo and create a better life for us all.

So what is it?

Startupbus is a people accelerator. Sometimes those people build companies. And sometimes those companies are built on buses.

The premise is straightforward:

We put hackers (developers), hipsters (designers), and hustlers (sales/marketing) on buses from cities around North America, throw absurd obstacles in their path like no wifi or power, keep them up until the wee hours of the morning, and watch as they turn ambitious ideas into working products and companies in the course of 72 hours while driving 70MPH across the country.

In my experience there is no better way to build a community of passionate and brilliant minds dedicated to growing an odd but life changing culture than by putting them on a bus…

This year, I interviewed a series of ‘Busrepreneurs’ (riders) and Conductors (organizers) to try to better understand what this amazing culture is and how others outside of our organization can learn from it. One of my favorite quotes not shared in the video above was “The diversity of experience forced us to identify our values very quickly and bound us together.”

FREE T-SHIRTS HERE!

The best and the worst characteristics of people come out of StartupBus, and you are forced to either shine or get out of the way. All too often culture is defined by Startups and corporations as free swag and tech cocktail hours, but in the words of Matt Scharr from Github “Culture isn’t giving things, it’s giving experiences.”

While everyone walks away with their fair share of free tech t-shirts, the experience is what binds us together in the ensuing 12 months and helps us create amazing companies out of the bus.

Not only do we create great friends but we solve really hard and interesting technical problems with minimal access to power and the internet. The experience is something you just can’t get at an office anywhere in the world.

AM I A BUS JUNKIE?

When I told people this year that I’d just completed my third ride on the StartupBus from Tampa, Florida to Nashville, Tennessee, most looked at me like I had five heads. They’d all just completed their first journey and were exhausted after careening across the country.

“Are you just a bus junkie?” many asked.

“No, I’m addicted to being surrounded by inspired people who seek to push themselves beyond any reasonable expectation to get shit done.”

I rode my first StartupBus from Tampa shortly after moving there from NYC, and I knew no one. That year my pitch man had a seizure in my bed the night before the finals, and I was thrust into getting up on stage and telling the elders of our community why www.WrongCreditScore.com was a better business than anything these crazy hackers put together in the last few days on zero hours sleep.

We managed to make it to the finals where I met Eric Ries and told Dave McClure why my approach to solving faulty credit issues was better than his investment in Credit Karma. To say StartupBus was a boost to my confidence as an entrepreneur was an understatement. I had pill and was all in on StartupBus.

Tampa Loves Buses…

After returning to Tampa, I was immersed in the local startup scene. My new found friends helped me get set up in a coworking space, and since riding on a bus together they have become some of my closest compatriots and coworkers.

Much like Eme Morato has shared about the impact of StartupBus culture on what is happening in Mexico, the core of the Tampa Startup community is built around individuals involved in StartupBus supporting each other’s different manifestations of passion and crazy.

Something about cramming into a smelly coach bus for a few days creates a bond that can only be compared to the way you felt after attending summer camp. A few short days together makes you feel like you’ve created a life long friendship. All of your strengths and weaknesses are on display in that time period, and people either flock to your true self or run in the other direction.

While witnessing this chaotic mess pulled together by a handful of crafty organizers, I resolved to get involved in the community on a deeper level the following year. Participating wasn’t enough – I wanted to help be the catalyst for changing others through an experience that had fundamentally shaped my last year.

One of the most beautiful things about this community is its inclusion – if you’ve ridden on a bus you are free to step up and get involved in whatever way you see fit. At the end of evert year, new members of the community volunteer to run the next even. So I wrote a grant to Hillsborough county, partnered with a few riders from the previous year and I was off organizing 30 people to Austin.

After a whirlwind three days on a bus for the second year in a row and a big bash, my team of 15 headed back to our AirBnB just outside Austin’s downtown. We returned to find all of our laptops had been stolen from the house. I won’t go into detail here about what happened, but you can read my post from last year for the full story. In short, the StartupBus community rallied a social media cry to #HelpFL, and within 12 hours Microsoft had dropped off about $20,000 worth of hardware and AirBnB cut us a check for all of the missing gear. The cherry on top of the proverbial stolen cake were eight passes to disney world.

Our culture literally has the power to motivate some of the largest corporations to help us in a matter of hours because we know how to make enough polite noise.

My 2015 StartupBus

This year I helped pass the torch to another set of conductors, far more experienced in managing people and projects than I am. It was an incredibly humbling experience to have these two rock star advertising execs listening to my advice on how to wrangle a group of successful people to get on a bus, put themselves through hell, and build amazing things.

When I showed them the new version of WeVue we’d been working on to help companies and organizations capture their culture and show it off, they jumped at the chance to help me put it in front of the organizers. We ended up building a custom version of WeVue for startupbus and used it to gather and edit the interviews in the video above.

At the last minute, I decided to hop on their bus with them and build a real life version of monopoly with a long time developer friend/former rider, Justin Davis, and a few Startup newbies. One was a recent “corporate dropout”, another a recent college grad, and finally someone going through a major career change.

Atlanta -> Durham -> And Beyond! 

Once again, I had a completely different experience than the previous two years and I pushed myself in ways I didn’t know were possible. A stop in Atlanta at 22squared gave us a glimpse into what a culture of innovation can do over 100 years. Later we were immersed into the tech scene in Durham with a tour of American Underground where we got to meet startups like Shoeboxed and Windsor Circle. Chris Heivly, one of the founders of Map Quest, talked about how his accelerator the Startup Factory is based in Durham because he loves the tight night community they are building their. We shared a belief that people not place is what builds culture, and culture builds great companies.

Personally, I learned that getting frustrated with people over their inexperience doesn’t help them learn but putting the tools in front of them to be successful, while communicating and setting expectations does. I also came to understand that our culture isn’t like many other organizations out there. We meet for a few days a year, and those of us who have been doing this for a few years feel like we’re at a family reunion. We come from all across the globe, we’re almost 50% comprised of women, and the “brogrammer” attitude really isn’t tolerated. Passion, curiosity, and a little bit of insanity propel us forward while stories of smelly buses remind us of how we got here.

 

If you’re interested in building a culture of innovation with a fearless work ethic, go hire a former Busrepreneur or better yet, hop on the bus next year. It will change your life. If you think your culture is anything like what I just described, ping me at taylor@wevue.com and we’ll help you capture it and showcase it to the world.

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