The Startup Bus comes to Durham.

Brace yourself. There are about two dozen jokes I could have made in the title alone.


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Remember Road Rules? That MTV reality show back in the 1990s/2000s where they put six idiots on a bus that traveled across the country, filming while the (likely scripted) hijinx ensued? Yeah, me neither. I had to look it up on Wikipedia.

Imagine that but upside down and on the Science channel. In other words, put a bunch of smart, hungry kids on a bus headed to the South by Southwest mega music and digital conference [SXSW] in Austin in March, give them 72 hours to hack as many prototype web services as they could, which they then presented to a panel of high profile Austin investors. That’s what happened in 2010, and it happened so well, they kept doing it.

It’s not really on the Science channel, but it should be. I love the Science channel.

In 2011, the number of buses went from one to six, and they departed from San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Miami. That year, 156 new riders, now labeled “buspreneurs,” produced 38 products. That year they also started conducting another tour in Europe, the most recent of which just concluded in January.

The Journey of the Buspreneurs

So now it’s March, and Sunday morning, said buses took off from their various starting spots for the 2013 rev. This time, the buses departed from San Francisco, Mexico City, Chicago/Columbus, Tampa, and two from New York – one regular and one dubbed the Alumni Bus. Each of those cities represent their various startup regions (Tampa but not Durham? Or DC?), and the buspreneurs will face off at the end to determine which region can be dubbed “the next Silicon Valley.”

OK. Maybe it should be on Bravo.

Also included in this year’s twist, they’re making stops at entrepreneurial hot spots along the way to Austin, and the first stop for the New York bus happened to be the American Underground startup hub in Durham.

When that news came about, the Underground’s Adam Klein proposed to coordinate the Startup Bus arrival with the presentation portion of the American Underground Hackathon last night. Entrepreneurs meeting entrepreneurs while conducting two highly entrepreneurial experiments, and all of it colliding in the hypiest entrepreneurial hub in the east coast.

There. I just put it back on MTV.

Jon Gottfried is a developer evangelist at New York-based Twilio. In 2011, he rode the New York Startup Bus to Austin, almost on a lark, and wound up building a company on the way.

“I didn’t know much about what it would be like until I stepped on the bus,” Gottfried says. “The trip was kind of amazing. Everyone talks about the typical road trip with bonding experiences and all that. That’s coupled with having to build a company under very strange restrictions – crappy Internet, cramped quarters, no sleep, press hounding you. It’s a startup on steroids.”

A Startup Weekend on Wheels

And it isn’t just about building a product. In that sense it’s more like a Startup Weekend than a hackathon.

“I was just a developer who worked at a startup,” said Gottfried. “I had never done the business side of things, so I got on the bus thinking I would just write a lot of code. But I formed such a large team, I wound up not writing code at all. I learned to run the company along the way – building the pitch, the marketing materials, doing the press.”

This year, he returned to conduct the New York bus, which left New York Sunday morning and arrived in Durham Sunday night at 7. So only 12 hours into it, Gottfried had already laid the groundwork and kick-started the 35 buspreneurs.

“It’s very attendee driven,” he said. “You have to split hotel rooms, find food, find press, and find sponsors. You have ownership over the whole event. So it’s ad-hoc except for the route and busses. The rest is up to the attendees – what they want to do and what they can accomplish. If they can make it happen, it will happen.”

Gottfried and his buspreneurs arrived in Durham a little later than expected, around 8:30 p.m., grabbed a few sandwiches while the Amercian Underground Hackathon hackers presented, and then introduced the New York crew to the Durham crew.

The buspreneurs then pitched the products they had been working on since 7 a.m. that morning. They ranged from social-based delivery services to crowdsourcing the structuring of data to learning to code by choosing-your-own-adventure.

Yeah, I asked about that last one. They’re still figuring it out.

“Crazy Ambitious Startups”

But they’ve got tume. Moving forward, the Startup Bus will leave Durham today and head to New Orleans, then it’s San Antonio on Tuesday before arriving in Austin on Thursday. By the time they get there, they hope to have eight fully formed prototypes with business models, if not complete businesses, aligned with them.

“It’s my job to make sure they build crazy ambitious startups,” Gottfried said.

More than that, the Startup Bus alumni have become a community. A real, invite-only, must-have-been-there community of people who have been through the adventure of creating a company under possibly the worst conditions one could imagine. There are about 40-50 community members in New York and close to 1,000 worldwide. You can see their devotion to this experience on the blogs on the Startup Bus site. It’s kind of normal when you have a shared traumatic experience. Like starting a company. On a bus.

Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com