4 Lane Blacktop Entrepreneurship: KC’s Startup Bus

The KC Startup Bus takes cramped quarters fueled by rest-stop snacks and turns it into what might be the next great business venture.

Story by Lindsey Kennedy

If Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg can dream up and launch a $100 billion company from his college dorm room, there’s no telling where the next great startup will come from. Built on this potential and the growing tech obsession with “serendipitous collisions,” Startup Bus takes handpicked promising minds from known or rising tech cities and sends them on a whirlwind and potentially career-shaping entrepreneurial road trip, or as the application states: “This is not yo mama’s hackathon.”

Departing March 2, buses trek from nine North American cities to a final competition in San Antonio, Texas. So-called “buspreneurs” will have only the duration of the 72-hour trip to devise and launch an innovative startup. It’s a lofty goal even in an ideal setting, but if you ask Startup Bus 2012 alum and 2014 Kansas City bus “Conductor” Ricky Robinett, the constraints are part of the appeal.

“I personally believe people do their best work when they’re put in extreme conditions, with deadlines, in new environments,” says Robinett. “So I think there’s an element of the high pressure (that) forces people to kind of go to the next level of what they do.”

KC Startup Bus Conductor Ricky Robinett

Road-tripping while creating a company isn’t easy, and buspreneurs face wifi-shortages among the other inconveniences of bus travel. “You’re on a bus so of course it’s not the most comfortable, luxurious situation,” says Robinett, but seeing the country roll by while you work with other innovators in your field might not be so bad. “For me it was one of the biggest selling points,” he adds.

Participants come from various backgrounds but are divided into three categories. “Hackers” are programmers, “Hipsters” are designers, and “Hustlers” are business managers, though the best performers are the ones who can “wear many hats,” according to Robinett. “You never know what you’re going to end up doing, so people (who) do well on the bus are people who are willing to step out of their comfort zone.”

At the end of the trip, the most promising startups go on to pitch to semi-finals judges, and roughly 10 advance to the final competition at the headquarters of IT hosting company Rackspace, Inc. Even for those not advancing to the finals the chance to visit Rackspace, this year ranked Fortune’s 29th best place to work, is an opportunity in itself.

Startup Bus is largely grassroots organized. Participants pay for their own trip expenses and the eventual winner receives only bragging rights as a prize.  That said, the competitive element is more of a motivational tool and participants truly ‘win’ when they use the experience to fuel future ventures and enrich their business communities back home. Robinett, a proud Kansas City native, would like to see KC buspreneurs use the connections and expertise gained on the Startup Bus to bolster Kansas City’s fast-growing startup community.

To Robinett, empowering communities is an important element of the Startup Bus concept. “You think of all the famous startup stories you hear. And all those people, they were just normal people at some point in time and they had an idea and they chased it. I think a lot of what makes the startup community successful, a lot of what I’ve seen in Kansas City and hope to continue to see is people realizing that they have the power to create something that’s just an idea in their head and turn it into a startup.”

Though only in it’s fifth year, Startup Bus is a concept that has already taken off worldwide. A European Startup Bus first hit the road in 2011 and an African program began in 2013. Startup Bus utilizes the entrepreneurial potential that can thrive in any setting and presents an opportunity for emerging professionals to incubate ideas and make important connections.

“I really hadn’t known anyone on my team until the night that we left. I met them at the kickoff party and suddenly we launched a company together,” says Robinett. “The serendipity of connecting people with each other and seeing what happens that’s really what get’s me excited about the startup bus.”