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Hitting the road for SXSW with geek entrepreneurs

The Startup Bus is taking 150 "buspreneurs" from five cities to South by Southwest Interactive. CNET's Daniel Terdiman will be along for the ride as they compete in teams en route to create the best app.

On Tuesday, six buses leaving from five cities around the U.S. will carry 150 people to the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. This is image courtesy of the Startup Bus project--in which participants have 48 hours to create the best start-up they can engineer.
Startup Bus

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: a couple dozen coders and geek entrepreneurs step off a shiny, high-tech bus at a barbecue joint in Texas.

But a joke it's not. It's a scenario that will likely play out this week on the Startup Bus, which is, yes, a group of a couple dozen coders and geek entrepreneurs riding a shiny, high-tech bus through the Lone Star State from their hometowns to the South by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW Interactive) in Austin, Texas, part of the broader SXSW music and film festival.

This is no ordinary bus trip though. These coders and would-be Mark Zuckerbergs are taking part in a high-paced competition: broken up into small teams once they board the bus on Tuesday, they will have the 48 hours of their drive to try to come up with the best, and most viable, tech start-up.

And there's not just one bus, either. Indeed, "buspreneurs" will be loading up their laptops and Red Bull in cities across the country: New York, Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, and two from San Francisco. All told, there will be 150 buspreneurs, and all have the same marching orders--code and design like crazy, play well with others, and build a start-up from the ground up. In two sleepless days. The best team will claim glory and possible future funding when everyone hits Austin.

I've been invited to get on board a San Francisco bus, so for the next two days, I'll have pen and paper, camera, and iPad in hand, and I'll be blogging regularly from the road, bringing you the color of what it's like to travel halfway across the country with a coach full of buspreneurs, all of whom will be hacking and coding in the hopes of being crowned the best of the best.

Before those who will be vying for that title were selected, they first had to fill out an application--and even be vouched for first. They were tasked with telling the organizers "why you think you're the most scrappy hacker, do-er, thinker, designer, or connector, and how that's going to help you go toe-to-toe with some of the best minds in start-ups."

A tall order, indeed.

Play with the Silicon Valley big boys
The Startup Bus is the brainchild of Australian entrepreneur Elias Bizannes. Having moved to San Francisco to try to play with Silicon Valley's big boys after having been a big fish in the small pond of Down Under tech business, Bizannes created the Startup Bus and took his first group of buspreneurs to Austin last year.

"It's about developing the people in a contained environment that mimics a real start-up situation with constraints," Bizannes said, "to get people to focus on what's important...For Startup Bus, we're trying to develop the entrepreneurial potential of people by helping them develop their experience, network, skills, and confidence. What we are really trying to do is build a community where the Startup Bus experience is simply the initiation rite into that community...a closed community where job and partnership opportunities can be shared, co-founders can be met, and ideas can be shared--in an environment where everyone can be vetted, trusted, and accessible."

And this is no lark. Out of the mess of empty soda cans, chip bags, and coffee cups that hit Austin last year, some real start-up success emerged. Bizannes said one team's start-up ended up getting $1 million in funding, while the team that was chosen as the winner on last year's bus was offered a spot in The Capital Factory's early stage start-up acceleration and mentorship program.

With last year's fruitful first effort, Bizannes knew he had to step it up a notch for SXSW 2011. And that's why he, along with the help of a team of "conductors," has put together the fleet of buses coming from five cities this year. All told, there were more than 1,000 applicants, out of which 150 were eventually given slots on board.

"People were selected at the discretion of the conductors for their bus," explained Brandon Leonardo, who is running one of the San Francisco buses. "Conductors went through every application and selected the ones that looked promising. The application was just a wide-open text field, which let applicants express themselves however they wanted. Some applicants wrote one-liners, and others wrote essays. One wrote his application as a functioning Python program."

Continued Leonardo, "Why people were selected is more difficult to answer. Each conductor has their own biases about what makes a great buspreneur, so each bus will reflect that and have its own flavor. For San Francisco...there wasn't a specific 'person' we were looking for. We just looked for people who were awesome. We have everyone from executives at tech-companies all the way to college students riding the bus. We definitely tried to get the right mix of developers, designers, and business people though."

And there's a meta element to all this as well. Once the buses hit the pavement, a Startup Bus stock market game will begin. Though that part of the project is still in development, Bizannes explained to me that "It's a game where all the start-ups are listed on a stock market and their share price increases through a combination of milestones that the teams achieve and actions that players--i.e. people not on the bus--perform.

What that indicates, of course, is that in addition to having a few reporters scattered among the buses, the Startup Bus organizers have arranged to ensure that just about everything that happens onboard is posted online--be it a blog post by a team member, a tweet, a video, or a photo--and geotagged so that the viewing public can follow along more or less in real time.

'The cards are dealt on the bus'
As a part of the project, albeit not someone who will join one of the teams, I've been on some of the e-mail lists that have sprung up around Startup Bus in recent days. Lest anyone think that these hackers are waiting until they get on the bus and are assigned to teams before digging into the work at hand, you should know that these are people who wasted no time in diving in with all kinds of ideas about the types of applications they would like to spend their time on the bus working on.

Ideas ranged from tools to help frequent fliers to systems for analyzing the sentiment or mood of conference audience members to a TV channel that would only broadcast videos shared by friends, and more. Whether any of these ideas will be the teams' focus won't be known until the doors shut and the wheels roll. But as an observer, I feel confident that those on my bus won't wait until we clear the San Francisco city limits before the work begins. Their excitement and commitment to the project and soon-to-be teammates was nearly bursting out of my in-box.

"The cards are dealt on the bus," wrote Jonas Huckestein, one of the conductors, to the e-mail list. "Last year, quite a few of the pitched ideas were completely spontaneous. The best part about this mailing list is that everyone can get really pumped up about the [trip]. Even the people that aren't participating [in pre-trip discussions] are hopefully getting psyched already."

Please stay tuned for complete coverage of the San Francisco Startup Bus, which will surely be the best of them all. Go team!

Update at 7:50 a.m. PT: In the end, six buses left from five cities.