Catching the StartUpBus

Tampa’s StartupBus makes a strong showing at SXSWi.

click to enlarge Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn with the Florida StartupBus crew before their departure. - Arielle Stevenson
Arielle Stevenson
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn with the Florida StartupBus crew before their departure.

On the first Tuesday of March, a motley crew of 20 hackers, hustlers and hipsters gathered near the Tampa Convention Center to board a bus for Austin, Texas. Their destination: South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi). Their task: Use the 72-hour bus ride to think up, plan out and launch a business startup.

That’s the simple but effective premise of StartupBus, an international initiative launched in 2010 by Australian entrepreneur Elias Bizannes that brings together great minds from design, business and technology to create one irresistible pitch. The Tampa “buspreneurs” competed with 60 StartupBus teams in 10 buses traveling across the U.S. and Mexico, all headed to Austin with the hopes that they’d get the chance to present their pitch to a panel of experts on Sun., March 11, at the influential new-media fest that famously jump-started such now-ubiquitous apps as Twitter and Foursquare.

This was Tampa’s first year as a StartupBus host city; Miami was the launching spot for Florida’s first one last year. Greg Ross-Munro, who runs a contract software engineering company in Tampa, rode the very first Startup Bus out of San Francisco in 2010 and also did the Miami trip; he calls it “SEAL boot camp for entrepreneurs.” His experience qualified him this year to be the bus “conductor.”

By the time the trip hit its second leg, following a stop at the Florida Innovation Hub in Gainesville, the group had formed five teams. From there on, everything — the pitch, coding, designing, marketing, everything — was developed on the bus.

Doug Smith served as business developer for his team, which also included Ryan Srofe, Will Mitchell, Jon Hartmann and Shane Needham. Their big idea was BumperCrop (bumpercrop.co), a Web and mobile-enabled app that will connect small produce growers with their communities. Smith consulted business partners and industry advisors from the bus via cellphone and laptop, and drank about three or more energy or coffee drinks each day.

“This high amount of caffeine corresponds directly to the lack of sleep,” Smith said.

The crew traveled from Tampa to Atlanta, Baton Rouge, San Antonio and finally Austin. Sponsors paid for the bulk of travel expenses.

“The most difficult thing during the competition was uncertainty of what is next,” Smith said. “Will we have rooms in the next city, will the bus keep powering the ever-vital computers we are using, will the Internet hold up as we go through the Mississippi River Delta?”

The decision about who would make the semi-finals was based partly on the conductor’s choice, and partly on the results of an onboard virtual stock market called BUSDAQ, through which companies were awarded shares by completing “milestones.” Eighteen teams made it to the semi-finals; only eight, including BumperCrop, made it into the finals, where they had five minutes to make their pitch to the judges.

Things got chaotic before the finals because the presentations were considered an official SXSW event, and nearly 150 presenters couldn’t get inside because they hadn’t purchased pricey SXSW badges (to the tune of $1,000).

“A deal was made and presenters were called in,” Ross-Munro said, “and then escorted out.”

Will Mitchell explained BumperCrop to the venture capitalists on the judges’ panel.

Through the application, he explained, people in the community can check what produce is for sale within about 5-10 miles. If growers have an abundance of tomatoes or zucchini, they can post it on BumperCrop for an annual subscription fee.

After a short deliberation, judges announced that BumperCrop was… the runner-up.

Cerealize, a website allowing users to customize cereal and have it shipped to their homes, won first place.

“Thus far, I believe that second place or runner-up is more rewarded by notoriety and some bragging rights,” Needham said. “The team is pumped beyond belief, and I know we aim to do what we can to leverage our achievements and the resulting attention into assets for bringing our idea to life.”

Not that there won’t be a few stumbles. Case in point: On his way to celebrate, conductor Ross-Munro was mugged for his badges Monday night in Austin. The joke was on the mugger; the badges weren’t official SXSW credentials, but i.d.’s for the StartupBus after-party — worth about 35 cents.

Ross-Munro has a possibly broken nose, but not a broken spirit.

“A friend studying joy and happiness said that the most memorable experiences come from love or drugs,” he said. “But mostly they come from the release of pain.”

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