Strobe lights are pulsing and MGMT's indie anthem "Kids" is blasting. There's a bubble machine. Roughly 300 amped-up early-20-somethings mingle, cheer, exchange numbers, and jump around. It's 8:15 a.m.
This is not your typical party, and not your typical start-up competition—well, aside from the myriad MacBooks and logo T-shirts.
This is the product of 10 busloads of would-be entrepreneurs having been cooped up in cramped seats hacking together small companies while en route from cities across North America to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The buses came from Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Mexico City, and lots of other places, filled with groups of engineers and marketing whizzes who built their start-ups over the past 72 hours.
I caught the Startup Buses as they arrived at their first stop in Texas: San Antonio. It was time to pitch. The early morning party atmosphere was courtesy of Rackspace, which hosted the very first pitch competition for the 2012 “buspreneurs” at its sprawling San Antonio headquarters.
It's the third year of this StartupBus phenomenon, which was started on a whim by Elias Bizannes, and which hits Austin timed to sideline SXSW Interactive. It's never been this huge before—especially before the busses even reached Austin.
“It started with a buddy of mine and I joking that we should take a road trip and come out of it with a company,” Bizannes said. “I mean, I was just looking for drinking buddies at SXSW, and now I have 300 of them.”
A panel of venture capitalists, CEOs, and incubator founders heard the pitches. First up to the pitch mic were the founders of Gourmair, who pitched their start-up as “Yelp for ship-able food.”
“Did you know you can get a lobster delivered straight to your doorstep? A pizza from Chicago? Omaha steaks?” the young founder pitched, seeking a reaction from the panel of judges. Gourmair, this brand new service, aims to become a hub for national specialty food delivery.
The panel's reaction? Nicole Glaros, the managing director of TechStars Boulder, said she thought it was a fine idea, but didn't think consumers in general are even aware they can currently get specialty food deliverered to their homes at reasonable prices. So why would they seek that service in a hub? “Usually the first-to-market is not the one to win in an arena where customers aren't educated that it exists,” she said.
The reaction from venture capitalist Dave McClure—whose first word on stage began with F and wasn't printable—was less technical. He thought steaks were boring, but...lobster? Now that's a business, he said. He questioned the broadness of the concept, and proposed narrowing it: “AwesomeLobster-dot-com, now that would be good.” He challenged the audience to buy the URL AwesomeLobster.com on the spot, and said he'd write a check immediately for a group willing to create his vision. Gourmair left the stage. Another team snapped up AwesomeLobster.com.
Next up was YearinPrint.com, which lets users annually collect their photos from social media (primarily Facebook), and compile the photos into a hard-copy, printed album. It was created by two Australians, Bart Jellema and Scott Cowley, who came in on the Las Vegas bus. The founders said their target audience was young women, and were delighted to hear Glaros say she'd use their service. They were also just delighted to not be torn apart onstage. “We had just heard Dave McClure rip the company before us a new one, so all the feedback felt pretty good,” Cowley said.
McClure laughed (with delight, not condescension) at another pitch. “People love Anthony Bourdain, but they don't really love him. They love the way he travels,” an entrepreneur said, alluding to the “travel the world like a local” feel of Bourdain's TV show. “We connect locals with travelers, and pair them based on interests and hobbies." Shortly after, a co-founder blurted: “We hook people up,” which prompted an audience member to yell: “Did you just pivot to sex tourism on stage?”
The winner for audience favor and real prospects by the judges was Cerealize, a site that lets customers create their own mixes for cereals, and have their mix delivered in customized packages. Want some dried cherries with your muesli, and your child's face on the box? (Yeah, you probably do.) This start-up looks like it's getting funding, so someday soon, it may be coming to a Web browser near you.