Where I Think The Bus Should Go: Communities Of Innovation

[Author’s Note: TL;DR – This is a really long blog post that outlines a vision for the future of innovation based on nearly a decade of my experiences as a community organizer, and relates some of my feelings about the StartupBus event and the community that arises from it. I hope you’ll give it a read. This post also appears in a slightly modified form on LinkedIn Pulse.]

On Community, Organization, and Innovation

Over the last six years, I’ve thought a lot about every aspect of communities – their formation, their growth, and their ultimate success or failure; and lately I’ve thought a lot about the future of the community that comes from the event called StartupBus.

I should say up front that I am not currently holding and have never held any kind of position in the organizational entities that run the annual StartupBus event, and I have never held any formal title in the previously mentioned community beyond “conductor”. I first rode with the New York City 2011 crew, and I made it my mission to volunteer and conduct the 2012 New York bus to give back and inspire other people with the same kind of experience I had. Since then I’ve been a judge and a mentor, and have generally acted as an adviser and guide for the people doing all the hard work of actually running the StartupBus event and for members of the community at large.

So let it be known: my opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of anyone else who has anything to do with organizing the StartupBus event. I have no particular personal agenda, but I do have an overwhelming desire to see the positive effects of everything that’s come out of it continue and multiply. And I think there are tremendous opportunities to make even more amazing things happen not just with the community that comes from StartupBus, but with other communities we interact with and with future communities we will all go on to create.


The community that comes from StartupBus has always held a tradition of being a “leaderless organization”. One of the most core values of the group is that our people step up and get things done. Our community works because our members select themselves to take part in the event, and join our organization; they take the first step, then the next step, and take every step, all the way to the end. We are aspirational people, and we want to be among others with the same creative, entrepreneurial motivations – or, to borrow language from the vision that Elias shared in Nashville – the same spirit of innovation.

So really what we mean by “leaderless” is that anyone who is a part of the organization can do anything they want and the community around them will decide what is best for itself. If others in the group like what that person is doing, they will rally around that person, and pretty soon you’ve got a movement. This is how the indigenous Apache tribes operated, as described in the book The Starfish and The Spider. In general, the tribes were all autonomous collectives and called their “chiefs” nantans – these were the members of the community who were the most effective and the most respected, and even functioned as spiritual guides; but no member of the tribe was ever obligated to follow them, and that structure held its own for quite a long time (even under the relentless overpowering assault of the American army… the Apaches survived the longest).

Just like the Apachean tribes (which were many, and varied), the form and function of our community is fluid, and the subgroups within it grow themselves organically. I’ve written before about how I’ve seen our community self-organize… when conductors select their crew, they’re picking from the best applicants in their region; and when they conduct, they’re teaching the lessons they learned from their conductors, and from their own experiences, and they’re contributing the unique flair, style, or attitude that comes from their region and tribe. In a very real way, this is effectively a form of natural selection. This zeitgeist produces some incredible results, a true “best of breed” approach that literally gives us insight into future innovations; StartupBus companies very frequently get cloned or recreated later by others, if their teams don’t continue pursuing them on their own.

It’s an incredible recipe for innovation, and it works fantastically well.

What is a Community of Innovation?

I was so excited to be a part of this year’s StartupBus North America event. Like Elias and many of the people getting things done in our group, I advocated early and often for the StartupBus event to move away from The Texas Festival That Shall Not Be Named. Deep down I knew it was time for the StartupBus event to stand entirely on its own, and for many reasons – the most important of which being that it gives us a chance to focus entirely on connecting all the prior and all the new members of our community. And I think it worked spectacularly. This year saw the biggest gathering of alumni in the history of the organization! I hope we can say the same thing again next year (#StartupBusFOMO). And I feel that the convention we held after the road trip – where alumni told their stories to the new 2015 crews, and everyone from every bus had loads of opportunities to meet and connect – will result in creating the most social, most community oriented “class” we’ve initiated since the event began five years ago.

There is such enormous, incalculable value in connection and in community. I could write pages and pages and pages about all the great things that members of our community have done for one another over the years. But I want to step back to take a longer and broader view with this post, and to look outwards at other “communities of innovation”, as I’m calling them. The two other communities I’m referring to are the International Space Apps Challenge, and the MakerBiz collective.

In 2012, NASA began what they called an “incubator innovation program”; in their own words:


The International Space Apps Challenge is an international mass collaboration focused on space exploration that takes place over 48-hours in cities around the world. The event embraces collaborative problem solving with a goal of producing relevant open-source solutions to address global needs applicable to both life on Earth and life in space…

At the International Space Apps Challenge, we opened up challenges of space exploration and social need and empowered citizens around the world to solve those challenges. This is a bold risk. NASA is collaborating with organizations with whom we have often not previously worked. NASA is empowering local leaders and planners in cities around the world, with the vision for contributing to space exploration and social good. We ask passionate citizens to find and share their solutions to the challenges. In the process of planning and implementing the Challenge, the team recognized the power released when we work together with others committed to changing the way the world works. Space Apps exemplifies a model for accelerating technology. We hope that business and government alike will help carry the story forward.

The connection between our community and the Space Apps community is well known. And the worldwide Space Apps program demonstrates success year after year. Thousands of people all across the world are part of an incredible community of innovation that arose from a NASA inspired event, and they have produced nearly 2,000 open source projects to improve life on Earth and in space.


What is not as well known is how much of a positive feedback loop exists between our global community and the Space Apps community worldwide. Members of the community that comes from StartupBus have taken part in the Space Apps Challenge at sites all over the world – in the UK, in Mexico, and all across the United States. A number of members that have joined the New York City tribe in recent years came to us from the Space Apps NYC event: Alice Ng (2014 conductor), James Wanga, John Oquist, and this year’s StartupBus NYC conductor, Edwin Rogers. Notable NYC community members like Kevin Galligan and StartupBus national director Ricky Robinett have supported Space Apps NYC with sponsorships for several years in a row.

And now we have another great community that we’re intersecting with. The other community of innovation I want to talk about is the awesome MakerBiz collective, currently operating under the leadership of the amazing Chris Bue. It was her initiative that led to forming the very first StartupBus Makers bus, riding out of the Midwest region to join the rest of the buses in Nashville.

For those who missed this year’s StartupBus competition: the StartupBus Makers actually built physical prototypes of products on a three day road trip. I had the great fortune to be one of the mentors to the teams on that bus this year, and I can say with enormous pride and pleasure that the StartupBus Makers made StartupBus history by having every one of their bus’s teams enter the semifinals. Those teams worked their asses off; not only did they plan and hustle and create on the moving bus, they also spent entire nights working out of TechShop locations in Detroit and Pittsburgh actually building, soldering, 3D printing, and laser cutting their physical products.

This is no joke – we are talking about an incredible, stupendous thing here. StartupBus event organizers performed the most ambitious experiment to date: making real consumer products during a road trip. I think there’s still a ton of processing and discussion to be had about the successes and failures of that maker bus; we need to figure out what the right kind of experience for makers is. But I believe that an entirely new event – and a whole other community of innovation populated by those who go through that unique, inspirational event – can be born from Chris Bue’s initiative. And I very much hope that our community, and the community that will come from whatever that maker event is, will stay connected and create the same kind of virtuous feedback loop that we have with Space Apps.

This is the primary thrust of what I’m writing: I have seen great things come from collaborations between communities of innovation, and I want to figure out how we can make more of that happen in the future.

Looking Towards the Future

You may have noticed while reading this massive post that I’ve gone to great lengths in my writing to establish a distinction between the event called StartupBus and the community that comes from it. This is intentional, because I believe that our community is a greater thing than just an annual road trip, and it’s time now to make that crystal clear. There are many members of our community who don’t care about “startups” and “startup culture” as they’re being lived and writ large in our mainstream media. Many of us are entrepreneurial, and all of us are innovators – but there is SO MUCH MORE out there than just the “startup scene”. Those of you who attended in Nashville this year or watched our livestream may have caught StartupBus 2013 alumna Marianne Bellotti (see her talk at 3:39:30 on the archived livestream) and her great talk about starting a business that began as a startup but ultimately didn’t follow the traditional path of capital investment and instead became a successful consulting firm for governments and the United Nations.

Though the framework of the StartupBus event and competition follows a particular model (and it functions extremely well within the constraints of that model) it is still limited in its scope and the outcome of the event ultimately has little bearing on the later success of the members of the community. Even though some companies do go on to greater success, the primary output of that event has been, and always will be, new additions to the community.

The truth is this: the end of the StartupBus road trip is actually just the start of something incredible; it is the beginning of all the awesomeness that the next crew of empowered buspreneurs will create. Over the last five years, the StartupBus event created multiple generations of innovators on four continents, and has grown that community to over 1300 people worldwide. The people who have been through that event come out the other side of a life changing experience ready to take anything on: they become more empowered, more confident, more capable. It is a “people accelerator” not a “startup incubator”.

I’ll say it again, to be entirely clear: The community created by the StartupBus event is not about startups. It is about connecting innovators to each other, creating a support network between innovators, and sustaining an environment where innovation can flourish. The community that comes from StartupBus really should have a different name, or at the very least, be completely understood to be a thing that stands entirely on its own, without any required association with startups and buses.

This separation of event and community is already a fact, and many of us know this to be true. The startup “thing” is not, and should never really be, our community’s focus; when it is, that ends up being the reason a number of members in our community are less active than they could be… because they don’t care about startups, they care about innovation.

Innovation does not come from large corporations. It does not come from governments. Innovation never really appears sustainably in any kind of hierarchical structure. I’ve seen over and over and over that innovation comes from the skunk works, it comes from the rogue group, it comes from flat structured organizations; small, cross-functional, multidisciplinary teams who think laterally. People working out of garages, warehouses, basements. And innovation isn’t by any means exclusive to “startups” – though a startup may share many of the same characteristics of innovative groups… until it becomes bigger and more successful and evolves itself away from actual innovative practices and toward profit-milking. Innovation does come from communities – loose collectives of passionate individuals who share with and support each other, who learn and grow with one another. Where would we be today without the Homebrew Computer Club? And everywhere I look today, I see communities of innovation popping up to gather together and work on really cool things.

The way I see it: if there is great value to be had from being a part of a community of innovation, then an even greater amount of value can be had from creating and fostering more communities of innovation, and encouraging them to interact with each other. I have seen this firsthand with the overlapping and intersecting nature of the three communities of innovation I’ve described in this post. The communities that arise from StartupBus, from Space Apps and MakerBiz, from all the events and workshops and campuses and physical spaces out there that foster innovation… they are a new and special thing, and more and more of them are cropping up all over the world. If a community of innovation is like a network of computers, then I want to build the Internet of communities of innovation and network all the networks.

Conductors have a saying: “A B C – Always Be Conducting.” And the reason we say that is because we know, deep down in our hearts, that WE ARE ALWAYS ON THE BUS. The bus is LIFE, and we are all riding in it together, and it is up to each of us to step up and bring the things we want in the world into existence. And that is truly what it means to innovate: to grasp for something new, to pull it forth from the fires of creation, and use it to mold the world into the shape it must become.

This is why I now propose the creation of a non-profit organization that will provide outreach, guidance, and support for all the communities of innovation that are establishing themselves today.

I see this non-profit functioning as a touchstone for all such communities, connecting and nurturing them, and initiating those amazing virtuous feedback loops between them. Imagine a new biohacking focused space has opened in an area; wouldn’t it be great to partner them with a national organization that promotes STEM to underrepresented youth? That’s just the least thing I can envision… all kinds of wonderful things can happen when communities of innovation intersect.

Entrepreneurs, makers, creators, space hackers, engineers, teachers, artists – we are the aspirational ones. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. So I am putting out the call, today, right now, and I’m asking all the people I know from all the communities of innovation who are reading this to help me turn a dream into a reality. I think the next steps are talking more about the mission and vision of an organization like this, and maybe thinking about creating a directory of communities; if you’re interested, please click the link below to join a mailing list where we can talk further about the topics in this post and how we can connect communities of innovation:


There is so much to do and there are so many truly great things ahead – the journey is just beginning. I hope you’re as thrilled as I am to be alive during this incredible time and be a part of this amazing story.

Posted in Avocation, Opinion | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

A Conversation At Cadillac Headquarters

“We really need to sell more cars. Who has money to buy luxury vehicles?”

“Don’t those techie startup people have a ton of money to blow?”

“Oh yeah, I saw that HBO show, they totally have stupid money. Who can we get to sell them our cars? Who do they love?”

“Steve Jobs.”

“Oh yeah! Shit wait, isn’t he dead?”

“Totally dead.”

“Hold on hold on, what about that OTHER GUY. The one who was on Dancing With The Stars?”

“Steve Wozniak.”

“YES THAT GUY. Totally that guy. They love that dude. And he was on TV, so he’s got mass appeal too!”

“Okay so, let’s call him up and get him to do an endorsement.”

* phone is ringing *

speakerphone: “You’re talking to Woz.”

“Woz! Bubby! We want to pay you a couple million just to be in a Cadillac commercial. We’ll even give you a couple of them.”

speakerphone: “Do they have bluetooth?”

“They totally have whatever that is you said – they’re Cadillacs!”

speakerphone: “Cool, I can pair multiple devices with different cars!”

“So you’re in? Faboo! We’re shooting next week.”



The film crew attempted to make a commercial with Steve Wozniak. After shooting at Steve Wozniak’s home for 7 consecutive days, they were only able to get approximately 5 seconds of usable dialogue and 2 seconds of visual footage – Woz kept speaking too quickly and wouldn’t stop showing everyone how cool it was to connect his gizmos to the cars they’d brought.

Posted in Works | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A Failure Of Vision For Broadband Access

My Rant About NY State Using Opportunity Funds To Bribe Broadband ISPs













Posted in Opinion | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The 7 Deadly Sins That Kill Innovation In Your Organization

This Is Not A Religious Screed

Let me just get that out of the way right up front. I am not at all a religious person – but I have to say that I feel this metaphor will ring true for many who are even passingly familiar with the so-called tradition of “deadly sins”, which at their root are simply bad behaviors that seem to be common in human nature. So I’ll ask that you not take the “sin” part of this article too seriously; it’s just meant to provide a kind of structure describing some basic human traits, a loose correspondence – it’s not meant to be an exact analogy at all.

This post is about innovation and all the things that entrenched individuals in organizations do to prevent or destroy it. I hope this article provides a framework for innovators to understand (and hopefully overcome) the politically attuned people whose motivations are to not lose face or to jockey for position or to cling to their rung of the organizational ladder when they find themselves caught in the wake of disruptive innovation.

Every frustrated innovator will immediately recognize aspects of these seven scenarios, and will simultaneously grit their teeth and sardonically grin inwardly while recalling the last time these things last happened to them. I also like the idea of referring to people who commit any of these fundamentally anti-innovative acts as sinners… especially those who claim the desire to be innovative, but who ultimately end up performing one or more of the cowardly, selfish acts described below.



“Our organization desperately needs to innovate – we need to look everywhere for every possible avenue of innovation.”

We begin our examination with Lust – intense desire and uncontrollable urges. In an organization, this amounts to using one’s passion to make decisions. While passion is normally an admirable thing, and may even be a necessary component for innovation, it cannot work alone to bring innovation about. Lust without purpose is empty, and attempting to innovate without the reasoning to support it ultimately amounts to nothing. It’s more important to take time to understand all the relevant factors, internal and external, that can lead to true innovation in an organization.

The Solution: Chastity – refraining from distractions. Focus is the key. Understanding the processes of your organization is one step, competitive analysis is another step, customer research is yet another step – and when you combine all the right elements together for your organization, you’ll be able to pinpoint where and when innovation can and should occur. Right thought before right action.



“We’re going to implement every innovative process we can as quickly as possible. We’re all about innovation!”

Gluttony, an over-indulgence or over-consumption. Though this sounds much like the “sin” of Lust, what differentiates this kind of anti-innovative behavior is that some practice is actually occurring beyond constantly seeking paths to innovation. This is actually following through with plans of some stripe, but doing so without regard or care for how to enact the process.

Beyond just taking action, ratiocination, analysis, and contemplation are key to innovation. Real innovation takes planning and forethought, it doesn’t just happen like a spark catching a flame and BOOM you’re innovating. It’s most like a science; it takes thought, imagination, logic, experimentation, and follow-through – it can’t be achieved through mindless indulgence. And the proper execution of the science is necessary to achieve results.

The Solution: Temperance – taking the appropriate actions at the right time. You should understand that innovation is a study and a mindset as well as a practice. The world is constantly changing, and innovation is about creating new adaptations that help your organization perform better today and to prepare for what is to come. Timing is so key, and it’s critical to not only marshal resources but to also use them in the right way at the right moment. Never forget that Apple made the Newton before it made the iPhone; innovation enacted before its time cannot succeed.



“It doesn’t make any business sense. We can’t move forward with this new project, there’s still too much profit to be extracted from our existing system.”

This sin is all about acquiring more money. Which is great, by the way, it’s not an inherently bad thing to acquire money. What is bad is when you lose sight of what’s really important for your organization: that businesses do not operate to make money! If you believe that, they taught you wrongly, and I’m sorry that happened to you. The simple truth is that businesses exist to make customers happy. Making money is always a side effect of making a customer happy. Of course, it’s great fun for you if you happen to be a monopoly with captive customers whom you can charge whatever amount you want, squeezing blood from stones and all that; but as soon as your customers can choose something else that has out-innovated you, THEY WILL ALL LEAVE AT ONCE and you will not make money any more.

The Solution: Charity – “be giving towards all.” In order to keep customers happy, innovation must be continuous. Sometimes that means actually taking some of the profit the company makes and re-investing it into building the innovations that will be necessary for the future, the things that will keep your customers happy down the road. You need to “give” charitably to your future customers in the form of an investment in innovation. You’re also giving yourself and your stakeholders sustained profits in the future – don’t be shortsighted by greed!



“There’s no reason to do this thing now. We’re moving along just fine as we are, there’s no need to rock the boat at this time.”

This sin tends goes hand in hand with Greed; it is all about the failure to do what should be done. It is the easiest thing in the world to grow fat and lazy, especially when times are good and the harvest is plentiful. But of course if you want the harvest to stay plentiful, you have to continue to sow for the future.

The Solution: Diligence – displaying fortitude, never giving up. The difference between this and charity is in execution; it’s not enough to simply put aside resources to invest in the innovations to come. You must also work hard to constantly chase the horizon of the future as it recedes while the world continues to change. Basic research is so important, but how many companies really put in the effort to pursue it? And it is really, really hard! Every experiment will end in failure until you finally hit on the right thing, and no one wants to be perceived as constantly failing at something – which is why it is so, so crucial to communicate to everyone that failure is NEVER failure; every well run experiment will result in data and learning and lead to the next step forward. Every “failure” produces another brick that’s used in building the foundation for the future.



“I don’t care whether this works or what benefits it could provide. I’m in charge, and I don’t want it to go forward, period. This project is dead.”

Next comes Wrath – uncontrolled feelings of hatred or anger. We see this in organizations from those individuals who, without logic or reason, blindly oppose change or steps towards innovation. They are the people with agendas, who want to maintain their status quo for whatever personal reasons. In many ways, this sin is the worst and most difficult to deal with, especially when the people who are Wrathful are in positions of power… and it’s the worst when it’s an anti-innovative CEO (especially when they want to seem innovative to everyone around them, but truly want nothing of the sort).

The Solution: Patience – Enduring the seemingly unbearable. As an innovator, you can combat Wrath by waiting it out or routing around it and understanding that there are many paths to innovation. Sometimes this means creating a skunkworks; if it weren’t for Dennis Ritchie and his team secretly working on their operating system for AT&T during off hours, the world would never have gained UNIX.

You will sometimes find yourself in an untenable position where you cannot deal with this in your organization (especially in the CEO scenario); when that happens, sometimes the only thing you can do is leave – innovation will not happen there without a massive upheaval, and if innovation is what you’re seeking, you’ll have to seek it elsewhere.



“We need to do what they’re doing. We’re missing out on huge opportunities!”

It took me a little while to figure out what form of anti-innovation corresponded to envy. I soon realized it was more obvious than I’d thought… Envy is sorrow at the success of another – and that’s the stifling of innovation through the wholesale duplication of a competitor’s product. Someone in your organization sees what another organization is doing, and becomes sorrowful that their success is not yours. The solution seems obvious: simply create your own version for your existing customers.

This kind of thinking (or rather, complete LACK of thinking) leads to the creation of things like Google Buzz. Remember when the first iPods and iPhones came out, and every other manufacturer immediately rushed to create duplicate products? Apple changed the landscape completely for that hardware, and everyone else became an also-ran and has never been able to unseat the first, most innovative product. Creating a clone of something is not innovation, not even remotely.

The Solution: This may be the one area where the deadly sin metaphor totally breaks in big way; the virtue that is the opposite of Envy is Kindness – keeping a positive outlook, having empathy, trust. Yet I feel that the innovative opposite of making a thoughtless clone of a competing product is to completely shift the paradigm and change the market landscape. This is exactly what Apple did in 2007 with the first iPhone. To further illustrate the example: Amazon should never have tried to make and market its own smartphone; they failed utterly with the Fire Phone. Instead, Jeff Bezos should concentrate on creating smartdrones – personal mobile devices that fly around the user, receiving voice commands, taking aerial selfies (no selfie stick required), guiding users to locations by flying in front of them on the path to their destination… now THAT would be massively disruptive, and it’s really all quite technologically feasible now, or a couple of years from now. I’m sure Martha Stewart would be the first one in line to buy a smartdrone.

So I concede, I can’t come up with a particularly creative way to relate paradigm shifting to Kindness. Onwards!



“Our existing offering is perfect. All of our customers give us glowing reviews. How could it possibly be made any better? Why do you even think you can make it better?”

Last, but not least, we come to Pride – the source of all other sins, an excessive self-admiration. This is literally a denial of the state and nature of the world. Do you truly believe that the world is unchanging? That markets never age or shift, tastes never change, that resources never grow or dwindle?

That kind of thinking is the height of hubris. And it may seem to be well warranted; a company that has survived, even thrived, for many decades, seemingly unassailable, valued highly by all – why would it ever believe it would be threatened? It is a foolish attitude, when any glance at history will tell you that innovative contenders unseat incumbents all the time, often in ways “no one” would have ever considered.

The Solution: Humility – The courage of heart necessary to undertake tasks which are difficult, tedious or unglamorous, and to graciously accept the sacrifices involved. Just as in nature, organizations need to constantly evolve or they will die out. No one stays at the top of the game forever, and it’s important to always expect change. In fact, you can even take things one step better than that – ABC: Always Be Changing.

Last Words

Innovative thought and action are the only way to survive, and really the only way to thrive. A company can limp along for quite some time, as long as it can stay in the good graces of its customers and competitors – and it’s true that this is often enough for many people who just want to eke out an existence and cling to what they have. What they don’t realize is that “security” like that is an illusion, and people who believe they’ve got a good thing going are inevitably shocked when they wake up one day and find that everything they’ve held on to no longer exists!

Innovate or be out-innovated!

Posted in Opinion, Vocation | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Self-organization and the StartupBus Community

Too Long, Didn’t Read

A brief explanation before we dive into a very long longform post; when I first set out to write this, I had two goals:

  • to tell the world more about the StartupBus community, and demonstrate that we’re about so much more than rapidly building startups on a moving bus.
  • to address the StartupBus community itself and share some of my thoughts about how the organization has organically developed to give us a framework for further discussion.

With those two goals in mind, please forgive what might be a bit of a rambling post as I strive to make both points as lucidly as I can.

Why We Hack For 72 Hours On A Moving Bus

When the first StartupBus rolled onto a California highway in 2010, no one imagined that a drunken idea for a fun road trip would grow into a worldwide network of over 1,000 entrepreneurs, innovators, and achievers. I use the word “fun” to describe what nearly every member of the group actually says is a grueling, arduous, uncomfortable, exhausting, yet rewarding, empowering, and truly life-changing experience. The story’s been told many times now, over nearly 5 years of multiple buses across several continents, with participants forming nearly a couple hundred startups… Various media outlets have each reported the tale in their own way, primarily focused on the “building a new startup” part of the journey.

Nearly all of them have missed the entire point of why we get on the bus.

Creating an entire startup company (working product, business model, and traction) in 3 days on a moving bus is completely beside the point. After the first bus completed its journey, the newly minted “buspreneurs” realized that they could bring others on the same kind of journey and create a community of awesome people – to intentionally grow a network of amazing folks. The road trip “initiation” has always been about accelerating people, about taking them out of their comfort zones, placing individuals in the crucible and firing them white-hot to see what forms. But more than that, the conditions on the road trip form a unique kind of fellowship among participants and their conductor (the person who chooses them and mentors them on the bus).

Many among us have joked about experiencing Stockholm Syndrome – you can’t get off in the middle of a cross-country bus ride, and you can’t escape the other people on the bus, so you can imagine the interpersonal difficulties that could arise. But nearly everyone who goes through it talks about the great camaraderie formed, among one’s peers and with one’s conductor. Having been a conductor myself, I feel similarly about the NYC 2012 crew on my bus; I have intense feels for the people I selected and advised and the companies they made! It’s an incredible dynamic,  very similar to other “boot camp” style events where motivation can produce the Hawthorne Effect.


“It was suggested that the productivity gain occurred as a result of the motivational effect on the workers of the interest being shown in them.”

“Researchers hypothesized that choosing one’s own coworkers, working as a group, being treated as special (as evidenced by working in a separate room), and having a sympathetic supervisor were the real reasons for the productivity increase.” — Wikipedia entry on Hawthorne Effect

The results are pretty hard to argue with. StartupBus alumni have gone on to do amazing things; they’re forming new companies, creating jobs and revitalizing industries, doing social good, making things better all over the world. A couple of our earliest members have even raised $155 million to build a $2 billion dollar company. Our community stays together, grows together, and we come to each other’s aid when we ask for help or guidance. Strangers from across oceans who have shared that road trip experience become immediate friends when they meet in person. It really is a magical thing.

What’s This Have To Do With Self-Organization?

One of the more unusual things about StartupBus is that we consider it a flat, leaderless organization. There is no arbitrary, constructed hierarchy among its membership, and there are no individuals who particularly speak for the entire group. Elias Bizannes, The founder of StartupBus, refers to the book “The Starfish and The Spider” when he discusses a vision of how the group seems to operate. StartupBus has a cell-like, network node type of structure (the Starfish model) where any part of the whole can detach and go on to self-replicate a new node, in the same way a cut-up starfish would regenerate. This is very unlike how a rigid hierarchy (the Spider) operates; if you break off legs or strike off the head, the whole organization will suffer.

Many of the conductors of StartupBus (who again, do not function as leaders, but act more as “spiritual” guides – they aren’t responsible for group decisions or any other sort of organizational process) feel that self-organization and self-determination are the keys to this form of leaderless organization. Conductors are self-chosen as well; those who step up and take initiative to get things done are the ones that others in the group look towards (hence, “community organizers”). Even the choice to apply to get on the bus in the first place is a form of self-selecting… the very first step in becoming a member of StartupBus is deciding to go on a crazy road trip JUST BECAUSE. It’s not for everyone, so that self-selection is a very important part of the initiation into the group.

And this kind of self-organization is not limited to StartupBus; not only have we organically grown our organization in a starfish-like fashion, we have even created entirely new events and organizations that in turn act like starfish. In 2011, I organized the first StartupBus: Accelerate unconference, in response to the challenge posed by Elias to all those who wanted to become 2012 conductors – that we had to raise money, scout candidates, and raise awareness of the organization to prove ourselves capable of being conductors. I am insanely proud to say that Accelerate has become an ongoing tradition for New York City conductors; now in its fourth year, it has succeeded at all of those goals and has inspired hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs here.

In 2012, after completing the annual road trip, we next organized the very first Space Apps NYC event, part of NASA‘s International Space Apps Challenge innovation incubator program. As a result, we have a nearly 500 member (and growing) community of “space hackers” in New York City. Our brand new Meetup group has already attracted almost 150 members.

StartupBus members, working on a volunteer basis, have been pivotal to the success of these events. Both Accelerate and Space Apps NYC have continued to flourish on their own, and have spun off their own ecosystems and organizations, which in turn feed back into the StartupBus community in a very virtuous cycle. And all of it is self-directed and self-organized, where the collective will of the community achieves whatever goals they want to accomplish.

UPDATE: I forgot about the StartupsMansion program! This year we also helped bring 30+ European entrepreneurs to New York (to stay together in a 3 floor home in Sunset Park in Brooklyn) for a 3 month accelerator program of their own design. StartupsMansion was a production by members from StartupBus Europe; our role was mainly to advise, support them, and act as liaison to guide them around the city and introduce their members to prominent companies and individuals in the NYC entrepreneurial ecosystem.

How To Describe A Leaderless Organization With Flat Network Structure

It can be hard to talk about how an organization operates – or how it could or should operate – without having a mutually agreed upon set of terms to form a basis for discussion.

Spotify published a paper some time ago about how they manage project teams with Agile methodology. Check it out! I found it to be a great read, full of powerful insights about team and project structure. Using the terms in this paper as a model, I’d like to propose a bit of nomenclature that will help describe how the StartupBus community has self-organized. It’s a structure that we’ve hit upon organically, and it explains a bit about how our members interact and identify with one another.

  • Region: This is the “place” that Buspreneurs “come from” or reside in, or is the origin location for their bus’s road trip. It’s a pretty loose designation, and in the past has referred to geographic areas on maps (Washington, D.C.) or just generally nicknamed areas (Silicon Prairie). I’d like to propose that we keep regions large and abstract, to minimize confusion and to be more inclusive. We’ve already moved in this direction a bit in StartupBus North America, describing East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, and so on.
  • Tribe: A self-identified group that operates in a region. This seems to have a tendency to also map geographically to a degree, but it doesn’t have to. In 2012, our biggest year in North America, we had a Stanford bus sponsored by Microsoft; they were very clearly a tribe, just as StartupBus NYC is a tribe.
  • Crew: The annual “graduating class” that rides on a tribe’s bus. This is a bit of a new designation I’m proposing, because I think it’s important for an alumni organization to recognize the ties between the people who ride on their bus together (i.e. the 2014 NYC crew, the 2012 Stanford crew).
  • Clan: This is a category that has existed since the beginning, and is a terminology used by some of our members, but not necessarily in a uniform way. In the past we’ve tried to coin the “hacker, hipster, hustler” descriptors (developers, designers, and businesspeople). Regardless of the descriptors used, the characteristics are apparent, and people always fall into one or another of these sub-categories.
The StartupBus version of the Spotify team model

I believe there could also be a 5th level of organization, but it’s a category that no one has yet decided to try out and self-organize around – it’s a path that has not yet naturally evolved. Spotify mentions “Guilds”, or having special interest groups form across all facets of organizational identity. I would love to see someone take the initiative to form something like a “StartupBus Machine Learning Guild”; maybe it would mostly consist of hackers, but it doesn’t have to be limited in any way – interested hipsters and hustlers could join too.

We’ve also not yet codified the clans into official groups – but we should probably do so! I think it would be great if all the designers of StartupBus across all the crews, tribes, and regions would get together regularly (virtually or in person) for design related meetups. We maintain several mailing lists for various tribes, but it would be pretty great to be able to send a message to an “All StartupBus Hackers” mailing list and see what cool technical ideas or discussions come out of that, or read about growth strategies on the “All StartupBus Hustlers” mailing list.

The Future

In so many ways, StartupBus has evolved far, far away from its humble beginnings; and we are still rooted somewhat in the much vaunted “startup culture” that gets a lot of press and attention (and now even mainstream movies and satirical TV shows). I hope that we continue to grow further and further away from the trappings of “startups” as most people consider them – I don’t think that StartupBus is about becoming part of the new tech celebrity circuit or latching on to the Hollywood-like “magic” and prestige that billion dollar valuations and big IPOs foster. We’re here to create positive change in the world and empower people. And I’m talking about REAL CHANGE, not coding yet another renting-economy or photo-posting app. Deeds, not words.

I’m very, very much looking forward to 2015 – it’s going to be an incredible year for StartupBus!

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