The Five Lean Lessons I Learned On The StartupBus

In 2011, I went on one of the most arduous and life-changing trips I’ve ever taken – I rode the StartupBus from New York City to Austin, Texas. At the time I thought I was out for a lark, taking a road trip that just happened to end where I wanted to go… little did I realize, the journey I took ended up being one of intense learning and self-discovery and resulted in joining an amazing community of do-ers who have set out to make the world more awesome. And it was a journey that also ultimately led to me getting a job with Neo!

If you haven’t heard of StartupBus, here’s a quick brief: StartupBus is a community that’s building an entrepreneurial ecosystem through unique experiences and inspirational connections. StartupBus produces the most intense startup competition in the world, where top talent from all around the world compete as ‘Buspreneurs’ to build the next generation of technology companies over the course of a 3-day bus ride. StartupBus runs events in North America (since 2010), Europe (since 2011) and Africa (since 2013) each year.

Riding the StartupBus was a very profound experience for me – my team TripMedi won the competition in 2011, I connected and bonded with an amazing group of people, and I gained the confidence to part ways with the co-founder of a startup I was working on and raised money to pursue my startup. I wanted to give back to StartupBus in return for all it’s given me, so I’ve since conducted the 2012 NYC bus, was a Grand Finals judge in 2013 alongside Dave McClure and Robert Scoble, founded the StartupBus: Accelerate unconference and the Space Apps Challenge in NYC, and today remain an active community leader and adviser in the organization.

Since I started working at Neo, I’ve learned how to take lean & agile principles to places where few have taken them before. And I can honestly say that my employment here has been my best work experience yet, contributing to an environment where I can use all of my talents and abilities and be fully appreciated for them. The “full stack” for an employee here, beyond the technical capabilities for their position, has to include a variety of product focus, customer development, and other lean-related skills, and the willingness to grow and learn even more.

I couldn’t have known it then, but the lessons I learned on the StartupBus turned out to be exactly the ones I needed to prepare me for my career at Neo – I work as creatively here as I did on the bus, just without the crazy constraints of working on a moving bus for three days. Here are a few examples that particularly stick out for me:

1. Small, scrappy teams are insanely effective

StartupBus is like no other competition; in three days, small teams must create a working minimum viable product (MVP), outline a valid business model, and develop actual traction for that product in a real world marketplace – all while riding a moving bus! Every person chosen to ride each StartupBus is hand-picked by that bus’s conductor; they select world-class developers, designers, and business people who are willing to do everything they can to get the job done.

2. Build it, analyze it, re-build it

Any work done on the bus has to go through multiple iterations; conditions change so quickly that the only way to make something successful is to build, test, and re-build over and over. Many “Buspreneur” teams end up pivoting multiple times over the course of the three day trip, basing decisions on learning from different types of tests, or various forms of customer development.

3. Time is not on your side

On the bus, you only have three days; it’s a race against time as well a competition amongst teams. If a team spends too much time trying to decide what to do, or spends too much time and effort into making a perfect “fully featured” product, they quickly fall behind other teams who polish less and accomplish more.

4. Other people are building your idea; Yours has to be the best

Each year on StartupBus several teams inadvertently build the same thing (even across multiple buses from multiple regions). That happens because a good idea that solves a problem is often obvious – but in the end, all that matters is execution. When those similar teams are initially judged, the ones that have the best MVP or have gotten the most traction are the ones that get chosen to be semi-finalists or finalists.

5. You learn more in the field than anywhere else

My team on the StartupBus built a product that gave people advice about medical tourism (we called it TripMedi); everywhere we stopped, literally every time we talked to someone, we found people who had a story to share about a medical tourism experience. We were able to ask people how they found information about surgeries, how they made decisions, what factors were most important to them – it was all extremely valuable, and we couldn’t have won the competition if we hadn’t done that legwork. Quite simply, you have to get out of the building (or off the bus) and do real customer development!

In my current role at Neo, I’ve seen all of these learnings proven again and again and I’ve been able to translate them directly into the real world. The small teams I’ve worked with have been highly effective, and I’ve seen firsthand that failing fast and often is the path to success. The agility of a scrappy team being able to make frequent course corrections just makes a heck of a lot more sense than following a set path to an end goal that doesn’t adapt to changing conditions.

In the real world, time is money and time waits for no one – no business can survive for very long without a path to innovation, and the longer a company takes the worse off its position will be in the market against competitors. The road to being the best is littered with the failed attempts of companies that took too many uncalculated risks; a lean approach can help a company determine which direction to take, question and validate assumptions, and distill experimental evidence into right action.

This year’s North American StartupBuses are already on the second day of their journey – check out their progress online!

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