Onboard the Startup Bus, let's bounce

One team rolling across the country to SXSW on a bus where start-up ideas are being developed, aims to create a "bit.ly for e-mail." The "Bouncr" team has already struck a deal for its first revenue.

Members of Bouncr sit on the ground outside the Santa Monica, Calif., co-working space Coloft, where the Startup Bus stopped yesterday afternoon. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

PALM SPRINGS, Calif.--If I've learned one thing during my first, long, day on the Startup Bus yesterday, it's that in a rapid prototyping environment, it's all about "MVP."

For those who think that's a sports term, it isn't. At least not in this context. Here, riding through dry California lowlands at 60 miles per hour on a bus packed with a couple dozen hard-core tech entrepreneurs, it means just one thing: minimum viable product.

I'm on one of two Startup Bus coaches that left San Francisco early yesterday bound for the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival in Austin, Texas. All told, six buses full of so-called "buspreneurs" are heading towards the Texas capital, including one each from New York, Chicago, Miami, and Cleveland. And all six are filled with teams of techies who want to come up with the best start-up pitch they can craft between their starting point and Austin. To them, especially before we've even stopped for our first night on the road, MVP is what it's all about.

Even if MVP occasionally makes you wince at what you've built.

"If you're not embarrassed by your first release," said Jay Stakelon, a member of Team Bouncr, "you're not releasing early enough."

A version of the Bouncr Web site that the team built in less than a day Tuesday aboard the Startup Bus. Bouncr

There are six teams onboard my bus, but I've spent the bulk of the first day shadowing Bouncr. This team of six--including Stakelon, Max Mullen, Adam Burmister, Diana Mounter, Mischa Nachtigal, and Jason Katzer--is trying to build a start-up that began around the idea of a "bit.ly for e-mail addresses."

On the one hand, as they first thought about it, their product would provide an auto-generated e-mail address that could be useful in trying to craft 140 character tweets, and on the other, the team thinks it may have a solution to the problem of providing throw-away e-mail addresses for Web service sign-ups or to people you don't really want to hear from: It's the e-mail address you give the annoying job seeker or guy in the bar who won't leave you alone. When they write you and you don't want to hear from them, the click of a button--maybe it says "Let's bounce," or "bounce me," a polite "nothing to see here" sort of response is automatically sent back. "Shorten, share, and protect your e-mail address" is the team's tagline.

Throughout the day, the Bouncr crew has, like all the others on the six buses, been building its idea up from scratch. These are, after all, people who for the most part met for the first time in the last 36 hours. And while they're a long way from landing a round of venture funding from Kleiner, Perkins, the six have already crossed a significant milestone: they've struck their first deal.

Toward the end of the day last night, the team was busy pitching Philip Fierlinger, who hails from New Zealand's Xero, a major Startup Bus sponsor, on plunking down some advertising dollars. Leading the pitch was Katzer, who was enthusiastically pointing out to Fierlinger that Bouncr had already had well over 1,000 visits to its Web site--in one day--and that more than 10 percent of those people had signed up. Katzer was jockeying hard to score a $100 advertising buy.

At first, Fierlinger was dismissive, saying that Xero had already put down all the money it could on the Startup Bus. But Katzer wouldn't let go, nor would his teammate Mullen, who carefully explained all the ways that Bouncr "touches" a user: upon initial sign-up; at registration confirmation; when blocking an e-mail or user; and any time a user visits the management tool.

With this new insight into Bouncr's idea--and both a newfound sense of respect for the Bouncr team and that the product might very well align nicely with Xero's online accounting software--Fierlinger is won over for an ad buy of at least $100, and maybe more. There's a handshake. And then Mullen belted out, "Bouncr is profitable!"

'What's the point of the service?'
Since laws governing how many hours a bus driver can work meant that we had to find a place to stop by 10 p.m., we quietly rolled into a Palm Springs Travelodge that advertises itself as "brand new and affordably hip"--though, surprise, surprise, it's neither--in the dark. I had dreams of some last work, and then a (more or less) decent night's sleep.

But then there was a knock and the door, and there was Mullen, inviting me to come and sit in on a team meeting where they'd be going over "user stories."

This wasn't about testimonials. It was a discussion of the many different potential Bouncr use cases, and features they were considering. What if, they pondered, someone sent a Bouncr e-mail with attachments--should the service forward the attachment or host it and send a link? A brief discussion ended with a consensus that Bouncr should behave like e-mail normally does, and not force users to adapt to something new. So, it should forward any attachments.

What happens, it was asked, if someone submitted a Bouncr e-mail address for conversion to a Bouncer e-mail address? More discussion, and an agreement that the system should be set to automatically refuse to accept addresses from its own domain.

One particularly important topic of discussion was whether Bouncr would really offer most users utility as a shortening service. After all, bouncr.com is a longer domain than, say, gmail.com. Mullen said, however, that he had put in a request for boun.cr, a Costa Rican URL that was available, but would require approval. If accepted, it would offer the team a three-character advantage over the .com.

Another question was whether users would be able to request custom Bouncr addresses, or if they'd have to accept what was autogenerated. Clearly, it was decided, custom addresses were essential--but not something that should be included in the list of features the team would be focusing on in the two days before arrival in Austin.

Indeed, much of the evening meeting centered around "above the line" and "below the line" features, meaning those that were high priority, and those that could be put off into the future. Energetic and enthusiastic, Stakelon, a dead-ringer for Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley, nonetheless was clearly the pragmatic voice of reason in the room, constantly expressing passion for ideas while also declaring them "below the line."

Bouncr members Max Mullen (second from right) and Mischa Nachtigal (right) interview people on the street about the product their team is building. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

With some features being called into question, including whether Bouncr even makes sense as an e-mail address shortening service, Mounter got existential. "Now, what's the whole point of the service," she asked.

A question like that could bring everything crashing down, but the Bouncr team seems a lot more confident than that. Indeed, though I haven't spent as much time with any of the other teams as I have with this group, I've gotten the feeling that these six people are particularly cohesive.

Whether crammed into the seats at tiny tables onboard the bus--seemingly the same kind of Bauer Limousine coach that ferries hundreds of Google employees to work from San Francisco every day--or sitting on the floor of Coloft, the Santa Monica, Calif, co-working space we spent the afternoon at yesterday, or working on two queen beds at the Travelodge, the team always seems loose, easygoing, and on task.

It's not that the other teams are rife with conflict--far from it: One thing about my Startup Bus experience that has surprised me is how little tension there is. But there certainly is some, and at least one team has more or less had to abandon its original idea after a day of disagreements over direction and, finally, the defection of a teammate.

With Bouncr, even disagreements seem more like constructive discussion, and an important point like Mounter's is taken at face value and considered soberly. As the team tries to work out whether Bouncr offers real utility to enterprises, and ponders whether its goal of "adding intelligence to e-mail" is valid, or even possible, the reaction is that "the fact that we're having this conversation is important because we are coming up with solutions."

But there might even be a bit of hubris on display.

At one point, the team is talking about how well they work together. And Nachtigal, who works for Twitter, looked up and said, "We may not have the best idea [on the bus] but we can execute the best."

Whether that's true or not, Bouncr is certainly being seen as promising by the Startup Bus community. In a virtual stock market game (note: the link gives me a referral boost in the game) that is being run in conjunction with the project--in which anyone can "bet" on the stocks of the various teams--Bouncr's stock price has been one of the top gainers.

Above the line
Though everyone on the bus is tired from lack of sleep, the Bouncr team continued to work late into the night despite our planned 7 a.m. PT departure this morning. But finally, Stakelon hit his wall, threw his bag over his shoulder and announced he was heading for bed.

For Mounter, this was a clear opportunity.

"Now that Jay's gone," she said, pausing for effect, "let's move everything above the line."

Stay tuned for more CNET coverage of the Startup Bus.

 

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