The Startup Bus

On August 31, seven buses filled with entrepreneurs will embark on the road trip of their lives. Once on the bus, they will divide into teams and their mission is to conceive, build and launch a startup with a group of strangers within 72 hours.

Each bus will depart from a different North American city: St. Louis, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cleveland, Tampa and Mexico City. And they’re all headed to New Orleans. (The New Orleans bus will do a lap throughout the south and then head back home) Not to take away from New Orleans, but the destination is perhaps the least interesting part of the StartupBus experience.

“It’s like getting on a bus and [figuratively] driving it off a cliff. But you’re not falling alone, and that’s where the activation happens,” said Ray Lewis, a former bus entrepreneur who is co-director of the North American StartupBus trip this year.

Lewis had his first StartupBus adventure in 2012, on a bus trip from Las Vegas to the tech-centric SXSW festival is Austin. Not only was he inspired by his experience on board the bus, the startup he co-created on that bus turned in a viable and profitable business that now has more than 50 employees. The company, called Wastebits, assists clients with waste management and is based in Akron, Ohio.

Founded in 2011 by Elias Bizannes, StartupBus road trips also culminate with a startup competition in the destination city. But as the cliché goes, StartupBus is “not about the destination.” It really is about the “journey,” and “the ultimate goal is to create the largest network of tested entrepreneurs on the planet,” according the company website. When bus entrepreneurs are not working intensely on the bus, which is equipped with outlets and sometimes spotty wifi, they stop off to work at coworking spaces and incubators along the way.

So how do you get on a Startup Bus? There is an application process that includes a video interview and submissions relevant to your skill set. According to Lewis, you can apply to join the bus as a designer, coder, business development person or maker. A maker is someone knowledgeable about hardware.

And you don’t have to be a 19 year-old college drop out.

Lewis explained that a great StartupBus entrepreneur might be a senior engineer who is now ready to leave the security of a day job. On last year’s Akron, OH bus, out of 30 riders, five were over 50 years old, according to Lewis.

Not every bus entrepreneur’s experience is as neat as Lewis’s, where a version of his startup morphed into a profitable company.

But it seems that most everyone changes in some way on the StartupBus road trip.

Will Yaworsky is this year’s Director of the North America StartupBus trip, and he remembers his video interview clearly.

“It went terribly,” he said of the interview, which ultimately landed him on his first StartupBus trip from Chicago to Nashville in 2015. “The lady asked me what the craziest thing I’d ever done was, and I just didn’t have an answer. ”

But that lady could tell he was smart and saw that he had potential.

“[StartupBus] was life-changing for me,” Yaworsky said. “I’m completely different. I’m so much more open to adventure and not as risk averse. Startup Bus is about showing people what they’re capable of in a short amount of time.”

Who was the lady who interviewed Yaworsky? She was simply another entrepreneur who had experienced a StartupBus trip and had joined the StartupBus alumni community. While StartupBus is technically a for-profit organization, it is operated by unpaid alumni volunteers, and StartupBus either runs at a loss or just breaks even, according to Lewis.

StartupBus could not exist without the dedicated efforts of its alumni, who derive great value and shared experience from StartupBus, not unlike alumni of a startup incubator. There are currently about 1,600 alumni throughout the world (there are StartupBus trips in Europe) and alumni-founded companies have cumulatively raised more than $400 million. Some StartupBus alumni have founded large companies including Cincinnati-based Lisnr and the multi-billion dollar San Francisco-based Instacart.

In order for a bus to take off from a city, alumni entrepreneurs must volunteer to promote the trip and to find sponsorship for it. StartupBus entrepreneurs pay $299 for the trip, and they pay for their hotel and some food costs. Even so, the $299 isn’t enough to cover the bus rental and other expenses, according to Yaworsky.

So alumni have found sponsorship from major companies, including Google, AT&T, Spotify and Indiegogo. But alumni founders of successful companies, like Lewis’s Wastebits, also lend their support.

While Wastebits was a wonderful byproduct of Lewis’s experience with StartupBus, he said, “The goal of StartupBus is not to build companies. The goal is to build people.”


By Todd Stone