(Corrects descriptions of Innovation Endeavors and the Cerealize team.)
For three days, a mobile hackathon of “StartupBuses,” 11 megabuses filled with aspiring entrepreneurs (or “buspreneurs”), has traveled from across the country to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Tex. Participants have broken into teams that have, along the way, created and developed startups from scratch. After stops in Nashville, Baton Rouge, and now San Antonio, we’re nearing the climax of our journey—when a winner will be chosen from among 336 buspreneurs by a panel of investors at SXSW. I’ve been embedded with the New York “tribe.”
On Friday afternoon, with the final leg of our trip before us, we decide to hijack a bus.
The competitors of StartupBus are splayed out on the floor at Rackspace, a Web-hosting company whose office is a remote warehouse outside San Antonio. I’m visiting with the founders of the still-brand-new company Happstr when Elias Bizannes, StartupBus’s founder, announces that the buses will take the West Coast tribes—the teams from Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas—to Austin and drop them off first, before returning to get everyone else.
Determined not to be marooned in San Antonio for the day, the New York bus teams from Happstr, ReelTrend, and Adventeur decide to go rogue and simply take one of the West Coast shuttles and race to Austin. I’m eager to join them.
The bus-jacking turns out to be easy, since all we had to do was ask the driver, who wants to get on the road quickly and with little fuss. In nervous excitement we look back at the unsuspecting, West Coast buspreneurs streaming out the front door of the warehouse, wheeling their suitcases, as we peel out onto the road.
Many of the buspreneurs haven’t figured out where they’re staying in Austin. Ryan Stuczynski, a founder of ReelTrend, tethers his laptop to his iPhone and logs into Airbnb, where he and JukeMob’s Lawrence O’Toole find a $50-per-night room above a downtown bar that doesn’t have a bathroom. Everyone from the New York bus has joined a texting group on GroupMe, and throughout the ride they text about sharing floor space. Caprio, the emcee of the New York bus, joins in: “You guys fucking rock!”
We arrive in Austin in the late afternoon. It’s unseasonably cold and rainy when the driver drops everyone off at the Driskill Hotel. The buspreneurs huddle under the canopy. The Driskill Hotel is a five-star stalwart that’s one of the two most desirable places to stay for the conference. Its lobby, along with that of the Four Seasons, is the epicenter of frothing techie mania, mobbed with entrepreneurs dressed in jeans, warm-up jackets, fleeces, and flannels—the same attire as the buspreneurs—only here the people also have big bank accounts and official SXSW badges.
Over at the Four Seasons, the downstairs bar is already hopping at 4 p.m. As former MySpace Chief Executive Officer Chris DeWolfe checks in at reception and actor Mark Wahlberg walks through the lobby, the buspreneurs look for a ride to Austin Caravan, an event space at Delta Millworks in east Austin. There the teams will work out of an old mill. Despite the heavy rain, poor lighting, lack of heat, and shaky electricity at the mill, most of the buspreneurs stay there until early morning—amid the presence of heavy wood-cutting machinery nearby—aided in part by the free Pabst Blue Ribbon and Lone Star beer.
The next day the buspreneurs convene at the mill for the semifinals of the competition. As it’s set to begin, the projector refuses to work. Bizannes apologizes for the technical difficulties. “Anyone have a Mac we can use?” he asks. When the projector is finally up and running, three judges, including Mellie Price, the founder of Front Gate Tickets, and Jason Cohen of Capital Thought, sit down at a picnic table by the stage.
The first team to present is called OpenWallet, which allows people to transfer money, via direct deposit, into their friends’ accounts with their phones. Next is a team from the Mexico City bus. The room erupts with shouts of “Mexico!” Victor, a teacher from the Monterrey Institute of Technology, reveals that their bus traveled without electricity and Wi-Fi for the entire time. “After 72 hours and raiding a McDonald’s for Wi-Fi, we started Glassroom, to close the gap between universities and students,” he says. “We’re like Yammer for students and teachers!” He then punches the air, exclaiming “Mexico!”
BumperCrop from Florida is up next. They explain that their site is a way for producers and consumers to connect. Cohen asks, “So is it Grindr for vegetables?” referring to the alternative, on-the-spot dating service. A stray cat runs across the stage. By 6 p.m., Adventeur, Happstr, and a dozen others have pitched to the judges, and the buspreneurs are ready to get out of the cold mill and out to the streets of Austin for a big night before the finals at the Hilton the following day.
On Sunday morning the Four Seasons lobby is an extension of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Apple executives meet with various developers as Steve Bing walks through with his staff. Backplane CEO Matt Michelsen and his wife, Gunnar Optiks founder Jenny Michelsen, prepare to host a hackathon later that afternoon with Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter and Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun. There’s College Humor founder Josh Abramson. Celestine Johnson shows up, too, presenting Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, which has sponsored a mansion, what she calls an Innovation Founders Mansion, where entrepreneurs can stay for the week.
At long last, there’s a stampede for the StartupBus finals. After fighting down streets teeming with people, buses, vendor stands, and food trucks—from the booming FourSquare Grill to Ask.com’s popsicle-and-pie-giveaway party to the cavernous Hilton Hotel and Conference Center—the legions of StartupBus riders can’t get into the ballroom. None have bought official badges—the least expensive of which is nearly $1,000. They swarm the entrance, only to be told to back away. Caprio, also badgeless, shakes his head. Only the eight finalists are allowed in the room, and they have to be escorted by guards. The other StartupBus participants, some 500 people, have to head for the escalators.
A StartupBus TV anchor walks the hallway outside the conference room, asking frustrated buspreneurs, “What do you make of all this drama?” Security tells us to push up against the wall. One buspreneur shouts, “Occupy Hilton!” Soon the StartupBus organizers, not wanting to be kicked out of the conference entirely, motion for everyone to get up and head to a bar where they can watch the finals via Livestream.
“How do they expect to fill that room if they won’t let any of us in?” asks one irritated buspreneur. Another says, “Well, at least now we can watch it with alcohol!”
We walk to a restaurant called Eddie V. Unfortunately the Livestream there isn’t functioning properly. When it finally does work, we watch the few remaining finalists present their startups in front of a panel of judges including Robert Scoble of Rackspace, Christine Herron of Intel Capital, and Naval Ravikant of AngelList.
Cerealize, a team from the Silicon Valley bus, wins first prize. It bills itself as a custom cereal subscription site where users can make their own cereal and have it delivered monthly. “Cerealize is actually a literal clone of a German company called MyMuesli,” says founder Jonas Huckestein afterward. “I thought it would be funny to copy them since the Germans are usually the ones who copy us!”
It turns out that the founders of Cerealize don’t actually win anything—no money or prizes—beyond what one buspreneur calls “nerd glory, of course.”
“It’s funny because we don’t really have a business,” says Huckestein. “We don’t have any cereal, just a lot of pre-orders, but maybe after we recover from the bus trip some of us will get together and start it up again.”
I ask him how it feels to be the winner of such an arduous, marathon competition with so many worthy teams.
“Actually I wasn’t feeling so well,” he says. “I hadn’t slept for days or really eaten, so when they called us up to the stage I asked this guy sitting next to me, ‘Can I drink the rest of your Coke?’”
The members of the New York bus—my new friends—are undeterred by their loss. They waste no time moving through the streets on the way to the Austin outpost of Coyote Ugly, modeled after the fictional bar in the early-aughts film about ambitious female bartenders.
Meanwhile, Caprio sends out a GroupMe text: “Fuck cereal, your shit is REAL and you all rock!”