After three days on the road to get here from San Francisco, the coach full of "buspreneurs" I've been traveling with since early Tuesday morning has arrived for the South by Southwest Interactive Festival--historically abbreviated as SXSWi--and the chance to vie for the title of best startup created on the fly on the highways of America.
Counting those aboard sister buses from Chicago, New York, Miami, and Cleveland--as well as on a second bus from San Francisco--about 160 entrepreneurs have crisscrossed the country building all kinds of applications and services while contending with poor Internet connections, even worse food, and little or no sleep.
For me, this has been eye-opening. I've never spent time at any of the so-called startup weekends that have been popping up with increasing frequency, so I've never been immersed in the kind of all-you-can-code, -design, and -build intensity required by the rules of the Startup Bus.
Those rules tasked the buspreneurs with forming teams from among strangers, conceiving of ideas, and executing, all before SXSWi begins on Friday. On Monday, one team from each bus, plus a seventh, at-large, team, will get the chance to pitch its new product or business to a team of as-yet-unknown judges. The first six teams will be chosen by the Startup Bus organizers, while the seventh will be picked by public voting.
It's been an inspiring experience watching the teams on my bus work. I'm easily distracted, so I don't know if I could concentrate long and hard enough to complete the job by Austin. But these folks seem to be effortlessly getting it done, despite fatigue and the temptation of casual conversation, beer, or, heaven forbid, a nap.
But from the six teams on this bus, just one will get a chance to showcase its work and potentially win funding, the attention of mentors, placement in an incubator, or even all three. Perhaps the at-large team will be from our bus, but the odds are against it. For me, having gotten somewhat attached to these teams--call it Startup Bus Stockholm Syndrome--that seems too bad. But odds are odds.
Earlier this afternoon, Jonas Huckestein, who's running our bus, stood in front of everyone as we made our way across the seemingly endless expanses of West Texas, and explained that there were in fact two deliverables each team had to produce.
One is a Web presence for its application or business; The other is a 1- to 4-minute video showcasing the work, and the basic story the team wants to tell.
In addition, teams have to finish uploading all their work to a central Startup Bus repository by midnight tonight since, Huckestein said, all work must be done by then. Anything finished after that won't be seen by the judges.
Huckestein did say that discussions were under way to come up with a system where two teams from each bus would get a chance to square off for the judges in a kind of semifinal, but he couldn't guarantee it. In other words, your best bet for getting in front of the judges is to be the best on your bus. Good luck with that.
For those coming from San Francisco, driving for countless hours through the deserts of the West has been a particular challenge owing to the scarcity of strong wireless Internet. That means, it would seem, that the teams coming from the east, who drove through more developed territory, could be seen to have a bit of an advantage, as they wouldn't have had to struggle so much to get online. Then again, not being on those buses, it's hard for me to confirm that that's true. Indeed, I haven't heard those kinds of sour grapes from anyone here. That's been my own sentiment, feeling protective of my buspreneurs over the dozens I didn't get a chance to spend three days with.
Now, having reached Austin, the trip is over. As anyone who follows my work knows, I am a big fan of being on the road, so as much as I love SXSWi (and the overall SXSW music and film fest), I'm feeling a little melancholy that there are no more miles to go.
I'm not sure my fellow riders feel the same way. For them, the work is done, and the partying is just beginning.
Stay tuned for coverage from the final Startup Bus presentations on Monday, and in the interim, watch this space for full coverage of SXSWi, and check out CNET's special SXSWi editions of Buzz Out Loud.