mission accomplished: 3 days of sleepless chaos on the startupbus
The StartupBus journey from Boston to Austin began on Tuesday, the 6th at 6:00 AM. Since then, SXSW has consumed most of my time, which is why I’m just now getting to writing this post. Thirty-five of us left from MIT that morning to start what was an incredible, tiring journey. We began the trip with introductions and pitches from everyone. Oddly enough, only a fraction of us were from the Boston area with people hailing from New York, Chicago, and as far as Denmark and Australia. The ages varied with the youngest person being 20 and the oldest being in their late 30s. We also had a Harvard Business School student on the bus, researching StartupBus and hackathons.
After introductions, we were tasked assembling teams based on everyone’s pitches and skill sets. I thought that this process was one of the harder parts of the journey. Walking up and down the aisles of a cramped bus to meet people, hear their ideas and what they are good at, and ultimately decide that you want to team up with them for the next 3 days to build a product is not an easy thing to do. With anything that involves collaboration, I truly believe that a team should be comprised of people that you want to spend time with outside of working on a project together. I’ve found that the best ideas often come from interactions outside of the “office.” You can have the best engineers, designers, and hustlers all on one team but if there isn’t any chemistry, building a successful product will be a struggle. This appeared to be particularly true on the StartupBus in such a unique environment.
Luckily, I worked with an awesome team on a problem that I found compelling and in demand. Our team built Teacher Tally, the beginnings of an assessment generation platform that allows K-12 teachers to share and rate standards-aligned assessment questions. These questions can be sorted and filtered according to the needs and desired standard of the teachers to generate quality exams and homework. With public K-12 schools shifting toward the “Common Core Curriculum,” teachers across all 50 states will have to teach the same standards to their students. We found that there are platforms that existed that allow teachers to share and rank standards-aligned assessments but not individual questions. We wanted to build a product that allows teachers to seamlessly pick and choose high quality questions and generate customized printable assessments. Teachers should have tools that foster collaboration and efficiency.
The first leg of the journey from Boston to Charlotte was the longest leg of all, totaling 18-hours on the road, a great portion of which was spent laying the groundwork for Teacher Tally. In that time, we got organized, outlining everyone’s task. Four of the guys on the team are technical and then there was me. I know my way around a few languages but not enough to contribute much to the development side of things. When I wasn’t hustling, trying to get press and awareness up for Teacher Tally, John (a former teacher and the product guy on our team) and I worked on contacting teachers in our network to gauge interest and gather feedback on what we were working on. We reached Charlotte around midnight and crashed for a few hours before hitting the road again. Next stop: Baton Rouge.
We set out for Baton Rouge around 8:30 on Wednesday morning and drove for around 13 hours. On this leg, the engineers really laid down the bulk of the development, setting up the databases and our server. Since we had 4 engineers and myself, we really lacked a designer. Not having a designer really set us back as good design is obviously crucial to any project. I did what I could on the design side, hacking up a logo and setting up the landing page. The logo turned out so so but it’s not “the one” by any means.
When we rolled into Baton Rouge, we went straight to a bar where 4 other buses (Florida, Louisiana, New York, and Cincinnati) were already drinking, eating, and mingling. StartupBus had rented out a whole bar and we were the last bus to arrive. I was too exhausted to be functional – all I could think about was sleep. Baton Rouge is an interesting college town – it seemed rich with culture and naturally had a bustling bar scene. We ended up at the LSU Alumni Hotel for the night, which was surprisingly quite nice. Teacher Tally shared a room. The floor did the trick for me.
On our last and shortest leg, we made it from Baton Rouge to San Antonio in about 6-hours. On this leg, John and I really tried to hustle on gathering the teacher survey data before we fully built out the frontend. Over 60 teachers responded to our survey, giving us a really solid data set. We learned a lot from this data, particularly that teachers appreciate collaboration. We also found teachers really want to use a tool that generates assessments at differentiated skill levels. After discussing and hearing feedback, we thought it would be valuable for teachers to be able to generate easy, medium, and hard assessments and let the students openly decide which one they wanted to tackle.
On this short leg, we also started setting up our pitch deck. We were never able to pitch in front of a panel of judges since we didn’t make it to semi-finals but the process of building a deck was valuable. Outlining the deck raised a lot of questions for us that helped us further hash out our business model and product as a whole. When we reached San Antonio, we had a welcome party with the 9 other buses from New York, Stanford, San Francisco, Louisiana, Mexico City, Cincinnati, Florida, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Washington DC.
Most of the Teacher Tally team went out for drinks with some of the San Francisco bus. It was interesting to hear the varying social and work environments on the other buses. In the morning, we went straight to the Rackspace Castle where we were welcomed by Robert Scoble and some of the Rackspace team. I’m not a Rackspace guy myself and I’ve never worked with a team that uses Rackspace but they know how to throw an awesome welcome party. When we walked through the doors of the Castle, an old mall converted into Rackspace’s HQ, Rackspace team members clapped and cheered for us. Their warm welcome was a great way to close out our journey. We spent a good chunk of the day at the Castle, where a few select teams were able to pitch to a rockstar panel of judges, including Dave McClure, Robert Scoble, Guy Kawasaki, Paul Singh, and Luis Robles. It was great watching the pitches and always entertaining hearing McClure’s vulgar and animated feedback. The whole event was broadcasted live on The Next Web.
After Rackspace, everyone pretty much went their separate ways to Austin for SXSW. The StartupBus experience was tiring but I learned so much and would recommend it to anyone interested in hacking up a project with a group of awesome like-minded people. I will undoubtedly stay in touch with most, if not all, of the StartupBus Boston team.
A number of us got together over the week to attend the Interactive parties. SXSWi is a whole different story and a separate post that is in the works. More recap banter to come. In the meantime, check out BostInno coverage of StartupBus and Teacher Tally!