Happiness Is on a Bus to SXSW

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For the third year in a row, a bunch of buses filled with tech nerds are en route to Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest interactive/film/music festival. Startup Bus, a now-international program conceptualized by founder Elias Bizannes as something of a drunken joke in 2010 is this year bringing 300 people to Texas. On their way, participants, who go through a fairly extensive interview process to win their spots, divide up into teams to come up with startups and compete against each other for the grand prize -- described as "nerd glory: there's no greater prize" -- in Austin. It's not just an startup competition, it's a networking and business-building experience, not unlike camp, but for people who can't bear to be deprived of an Internet connection. Mike Caprio, an entrepreneur and former team winner for startup idea TripMedi, is now the NYC bus conductor; he describes himself as a "combination of cheer leader, drill sergeant, mommy and daddy." He says, of Startup bus, "We saw the success in building networks in Silicon Valley, and we thought, let's create our own network." 

There are 11 buses on the road en route from 11 different start points, including Boston, New York City, Florida, L.A., and Mexico. In the parlance of Startup Bus, they are called "tribes." Each bus has about 30 people aboard; the New York bus includes "an embedded reporter" as well as two drivers, and even some folks who've come aboard from the Florida bus (they are called "buspreneurs").

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The buses and their riders converge at various points on the way. Thursday night they were scheduled to meet up in San Antonio for a big party -- overnight, participants stay in hotel rooms in towns including Nashville and Baton Rouge. (There was also a key stop at Graceland.) Buses with shorter distances to the ultimate destination take a more "scenic" course to get there, so everyone has the same amount of time for startup building. 

Caprio, now in his second year with the group, says his first experience on the bus was life-changing. "It's not about the companies [being created]," he said. "It's more about the journey. The company is a means to an end, to get strangers to work together on a project." Hence, he's devoted much of his time in the last two months on a volunteer basis to finding, grooming, and selecting people who would come along for the bus ride. 

Of the process aboard, Robinett explains, "You get on the bus, and everybody does a pitch, an idea you'd like to build on the bus. Teams organize around the ideas. We had five teams. When we get [to Austin] there will be a winner from the New York bus, and that person will go to the finals, with a championship happening on Sunday. The idea is really trying to do something with people you've never worked with before."

Caprio tells us that there's a bit more drama this year -- he explained this is because people are really committed to their startup concepts: "It does have the character of a reality show sometimes," he said. "But it's not like The Real World. It has to do with the people and team dynamics; people choosing to go one way or the other. One two-person scrappy team split off and started a day after everyone else, because they were so passionate about their idea."

What about other passions, though? Ricky Robinett, aboard the New York bus, referred our question to the participants, shouting, "I don't know -- has anyone on the bus hooked up?" No one admitted it, but someone quipped back, "Someone's building an app for that!" Perhaps the bus is not conducive to romance. Robinett told us, laughing, "On Tuesday, we went to the hotel, slept, and got back on the bus on Wednesday...and there's already a smell to the bus."

Robinett says the most interesting habits to witness are how people sleep and wake up. "Johan, who's sitting next to me, he's very funny," he confides. "Tuesday we worked until 3 a.m. or so, and went back to our room. I ended up sleeping on a chair and we had to get up at like 7. Johan starts yelling 'It's time to get up!' and he's yelling for everyone to get up, putting on music, and dancing." Also, there's the Internet thing, and the variety of ways in which people will react when there is none: "We're driving across the country on a bus, and Internet can be somewhat unreliable," says Robinett. "You get to some places where there's nothing, and people start getting worried."

Yet, Robinett's project reflects the feeling of euphoria and possibility that seems to emanate from Startupbus. The company is called Happstr, and it's a geo-tracking site based on the concept that people who are around happy people become happier themselves. "There are studies that have shown even a third degree friend with a higher happiness level improves your own happiness by 6 percent," Robinett says; comparatively, "happiness only goes up 2 percent for a $10,000 raise." Why not an app to track happiness, then? "The site we're building has a button that says 'I'm happy.' You click it and it asks you if you want to say why; you can say why or not, and we use the reaction to buid a heat graph and see what areas are the happiest. If the neighborhood over there is happier, you can go there and get a boost."
Where are people the happiest? "I think initially the happiest people are on the bus," Robinett tells us (the map will repopulate and expand based on more users). Other startups on the New York bus include a Choose Your Own Aventure Foursquare check-in game; a company using Twitter to do cinema analysis; a tax-estimation service; and an app that lets you crowdsource a jukebox. Participants on the buses pay $300 for the bus and for their own hotel rooms, but food and the parties are sponsored, as is wifi. The bus community is not all nerds, either, says Robinett. "We have developers, designers, businesspeople, people who are focused on the pitch. Unlike a hackathon, it's not just about building a project but also about market research and pitching. Some people on the bus are gangsters, I just got told."
As for the gender breakdown, Robinett told us there are about eight women to 22 or so guys on the New York bus. "Teams have jelled and it's amazing how quickly you make friends. We have inside jokes...two days ago we didn't even know each other. I think there's a pretty good cameraderie; we all want to see each other succeed. The NYC bus team won last year, so we want to defend our crown. There's that city pride there, but everyone's really supportive."
Also, it's a chance to ride across the country. In a bus. "To me the biggest thing is that adventure, and all the quirks that come with it," he says. "It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to do something crazy and awesome."
No South by Southwest piece would be complete without confirmation on how you say it. We asked, is the obnoxiously insider-sounding "South by" still de rigueur this year? Robinett says, "Some people say South by. I'll typically say South by Southwest. Some people just say Austin."
Austin it is. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.