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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