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All aboard the StartupBus

Kim Willis, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to travel from London to Cologne in a double-decker bus with people you have never met before - and start a new business. This message will self-destruct in five seconds...
The double-decker StartupBus
Anna-Liisa Liiver

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Day 0. A bar in London

My friend Laura asks me what I'm up to this weekend. Tomorrow, I say, I'll be travelling from London to Cologne with 20 tech developer types. We will have 72 hours to start a new business, and pitch our ideas, in competition with up to 80 other startups, to Europe's entrepreneurial elite. So far, so hackathon. But this is StartupBus Europe, so to add a touch of madness into the mix, we must achieve this task using a double-decker bus as our office, travelling 300 miles a day, working 18-22-hour days in teams of people who have never met before. We will not know which countries we're going to, where we're staying, when and to whom we will be asked to pitch, or - most importantly - whether we will have WiFi. 

All this, and we will be asked to achieve in three days what most new companies fail to achieve in a year - a viable idea and business model, branding, functioning website/software/service, actual customers, actual revenue, and a pitch slick enough to have VC investors ready to hand over hundreds of thousands in funding. 

Laura stops me. "Wait. Is this a dream?" 

"No, Laura, it's not a dream." 

"But you're journalist. Not a hacker. Why are you doing this?"  

Day 1. 8am. Finsbury Square, London

It is, indeed, a red double-decker London bus. We are a motley group of coders, marketers and designers, bleary eyed, clutching coffee. The chat is daunting. "This is my 13th hackathon this year", "I won the MIT Entrepreneurship Bootcamp", "My first startup has just won its first round of funding". Average age? About 28. They are throwing around phrases such as 'Ruby on Rails' and 'stack overflow'. I have no idea what they are talking about.

On the bus, the top deck seems to have been converted into a Shoreditch digital creative agency - massive beanbags, red desks around the perimeter, coffee tables at the back on which my fellow 'bus-preneurs' have already set up laptops, plugged in power cables, passed around WiFi codes.

We check Facebook and Twitter to see how the other buses are fairing. The Estonian contingent is setting off from Tallinn in minivans, while the Belgian and German squads seem to be riding something akin to the KanyeBus - plumped up seats, in-bus WiFi and mood lighting. We're a little jealous. But we have a feeling our red double-decker is going to come into its own once we hit France.

10am. London Eye

Our first challenge: choose an idea and build a team. For reasons unclear to me, we have also taken over a London Eye pod and, as we soar over the city, we each have one minute to pitch an idea to the group. The ideas range from the functional to the impossible, from creating a virtual band manager in the music industry to launching a peer-to-peer scheme for safe bicycle storage. We're politely sizing each other up, trying to decide who we want to work with based on only the most basic of information.

Somehow, in the chaos, I'm joined on a team by Dave, the MIT hackstar, James, whose business Air-Sorted is already getting the VC's interest, and Claudia the event and programme manager for IncuBus - a startup incubator that also puts people on buses to create new things. Who knew this bus-based startup approach was a thing?

Our idea...

PowerCouple, an app for couples to track progress towards a shared goal. We think our idea feels as if it fits the criteria. We can broadly describe what it is, which gives us a head start on some of the teams, and secondly, James and Dave seem at least reasonably confident they can build it in three days. Not an altogether bad start.

3pm. English Channel

Just six hours in and I'm already feeling as if electricity and WiFi are fundamental human needs in the Maslow hierarchy - more so than food, sleep and shelter. And with this in mind, my newly honed survival instincts are calmed when we succeed in finding what must be the only free plug point on the ferry. James hacks the WiFi so we can all get on without paying the £3 fee, and we're off. We start sketching wireframes, mapping user journeys, doing competitor research and, before we know it, we're arriving in Calais with a clear idea of how our app will work. It feels like this is solid progress. I want to high five or something.

6pm. Service station outside of Paris

Disaster. We've lost James. He's been lured by an old teammate to join a couple of coders to create a marketplace like eBay that's not eBay. eBay is broken, apparently: that's their mission statement. And it seems that our insistence that relationships are also broken and we really need his help to fix them with PowerCouple isn't enough to keep him with us. We say goodbye. He takes the team mascot with him - a green Eiffel tower keyring. We say it's fine, and there are no hard feelings. Obviously that's a complete lie. Inside we hope his 'eBay but not eBay' marketplace dies a fast, obscure, code-related death.

Day 2. 8am. Still in the northern suburbs of Paris

Oh. My. God. Four hours sleep in a questionable Parisian hotel after a night of intense debates on the viability of our idea, and there is a man in our team bedroom (all the better for all-night working, apparently) asking us to explain our business model. George Johnston is the founder of IncuBus Ventures and pitch doctor extraordinaire. He is also surprisingly lucid on two hours' sleep.

I, however, am not. I try to explain why couples totally want an app to set joint goals and track those goals and stuff, but the words are muddled. George seems a little worried. My teammates look comatose. My head is swimming with MVPs and TAMs and affiliate marketing strategies. I am so exhausted already that I might actually cry. I seriously wonder whether I can just creep away and spend a pleasant day drinking wine and eating cheese by the Seine. If I didn't have to write this article, I would probably be out of here quicker than you can say, "Vin rouge, s'il vous plaît."

10am. Mailjet offices, Paris

We have WiFi! We have air-conditioning! We have pizza! I can't quite believe just how happy these things make me, but after 24 hours on the top deck of our shaky bus in the hot, hot sun with an internet-dependent to-do list that just won't quit, the WiFi/AC/pizza combination is like actual heaven.

Better than all of that, though: we have actually nailed our idea. I hastily find some research that validates that people are three times more likely to stick with a new fitness activity if they do it as a couple than if they do it on their own. Our job is to build something to help them. Claudia is drafting our mission statement - to help people to improve, together. That's our Twitter bio right there. Plus, we have a roughly sketched business plan on Post-its covering the bus window.

We grab the nearest Mailjet developer and pitch him our idea. The first rule of StartupBus - #alwaysbepitching. He loves it. He wants to sign up. And by some wizardry we can actually sign him up because Dave has done some form of coding voodoo overnight and has a demo he can actually log into. Plus, we've also turned our hand to branding and created an awesome, awesome logo.

I've started saying 'awesome' now. I have no idea what's happening to me.

9pm. Basecamp, Brussels

Pitch showdown. UK vs Belgium. This is scary. Until yesterday, I didn't know what a pitch was. Now, I know it means you have just three minutes to get a panel of startup experts to see potential in your idea. So here we are, packed into a basement auditorium with the StartUpBus Belgium competitors sizing us up over beer and frites. It's 30°. Our name is called first, and we bound onstage to wow our European brethren with our killer idea.

They don't get it. The first question is "So, what exactly is this?" Which isn't a good sign. We creep back to our sofa and grill the rest of the teams: "Who are your competitors?" "You know this already exists, right?" But it's really all a pathetic attempt to cover up our own sense of disappointment.

When it's all over, Claudia strides over and tells Dave and me with typical Italian directness that "we were really, really bad". Luckily, we're so bonded by now that it all seems pretty funny. Plus, to be fair, we haven't actually eaten today and these Belgian beers are quite strong.

For the next five hours back at our Brussels hostel, we're propelled by the fear. At around 1am, we've totally altered our pitch. And by 2am, we decide to change our pitcher. It's now on me. Dave opts to work through the night to keep building the app itself. He's a hero.

Day 3. 9am. On the bus, somewhere on the Belgian motorway

George comes up to the top of the bus to relay two key pieces of information to our now severely sleep deprived cohort. First, we should probably stay seated, as we are only about 95 per cent sure that this 4.4m tall bus is going to make a clean sweep under all the bridges we have coming our way. And second, that we need to liven up, because in half an hour we will be pitching our barely one-day-old businesses to the Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium against 20 other fledgling startups.

I fear I'm hallucinating. I can still sort of see this is not an altogether usual Sunday morning. But barely. I can't really remember a time when I didn't live on a bus and operate on three hours' sleep. It's like some weird gap year travel adventure, but with marginally less beer and significantly more pressure.

9pm. Amsterdam

We cannot for the life of us work out how to get the double-decker bus through the narrow streets of Amsterdam. Bridges here are unusually low. Leaves from the trees we're brushing past are all over the floor of the top deck. Tram cables keep scraping the ceiling. At one point, a storm starts, and the bus actually begins to take on water. Our mentors are using a broom to push the water back out of the rickety doors.

What's weirder still is that for us bus-preneurs there is literally no opportunity to acknowledge how totally nuts this is, because we're already prepping for our third live pitch of the day, against Team Estonia. As the torrential rain hits the windows, we're all into our laptops and Post-it notes and demo tests. We're Skype-calling potential clients, setting up our Facebook pages and starting ad campaigns.

What's crazier still is in the ten hours we've been on the road, our idea seems to have been getting traction. We have 50 active users and triple digit Facebook fans. As we slowly roll up at a co-working space on one of the canals, a couple of Dutch developers come up to us and actually say, "Oh yeah, we've heard of PowerCouple - it's great!" There is something completely flooring about having people you don't know say your company name back to you. PowerCouple did not even exist two days ago. I'm totally bowled over by how much you can actually achieve when you shun sleep.

Day 4. 1pm. Co-working space in Cologne

I can honestly no longer distinguish one pitch from another. All I know is that, at any moment, from any direction, someone, somewhere, is highly likely to tell me that I need to get up on a stage and persuade people that our three-day-old business is viable. So I get up and smile my way through what is now a killer pitch, and they say how good it is, and they ask us questions we can totally answer because we're so prepared. And when we aren't pitching, which is hardly ever, I find a corner of an office/bar/bus to curl up in and try to sleep.

8pm. Pirate Summit, Cologne

We actually made it. And even by our now newly stretched standards, this is insane. Europe's high energy invite-only startup conference is taking place in a Burning Man- inspired scrap yard filled with tequila and techno music, where startup pitch showdowns happen on a Blackbeard-inspired 'walk the plank' manner in front of Europe's biggest VC investors. We are now pitching against companies that have been in business for up to a year. We hadn't even met three days ago.

We're up, and the air is electric. I can see people smiling and nodding as I tell the story of PowerCouple and we show off the platform and tell them we have customers and revenue and the passion to make our business a success. I end our pitch with a triumphant, "If this is what we can do in 72 hours, just imagine what we can do in 72 days!" The whole auditorium cheers. The compere shouts "Wow!" over the din. Claudia, Dave and I grin stupidly at each other, clutching each other and pocketing the business card of a huge investor who wants to speak with us the next day.

Three days ago, we didn't know each other. Three days later, and we're startup founders. I will never look at a London bus in the same way again.

PowerCouple came second in this year's StartupBus Europe competition. For more info visit StartupBus

Kim Willis

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