Entrepreneur Florida Tampa Bay What I’m Up To

I’m going on StartupBus again, and you should too!

After the great interruption of 2020 and 2021, North America’s largest, longest-distance hackathon, StartupBus North America, is back for 2022! From July 27th through 31st, 2022, seven buses will depart from seven locations across the continent…

Tap to view the map at full size.

…and make their way to Austin, Texas in three days. During those three days, “buspreneurs” — StartupBus’ term for its participants — think up and build a tech startup from the ground up: the idea, business plan, software, and pitch.

One of the seven buses making its way to Austin over three days is the Florida bus, and it’s leaving from Tampa. This year, one of the Florida bus’ conductors — StartupBus’ term for its coaches/facilitators — is…Yours Truly!

🚨 Keep reading: later on in this article, there’s something that I’ve never told anyone online until now.

I was on StartupBus in 2019

Me on StartupBus Florida, shortly after we pulled out of Tampa.
Tap to view at full size.

I was a “buspreneur” on the Florida StartupBus in 2019, the last year the event took place, when the destination city was New Orleans. Along with my teammates Rina Bane, David Castaneda, Justin Linn, and Tracy Ingram, we made it all the way to the finals and got the runner-up position.

Team Hyve! From left to right:
Tracy Ingram, David Castaneda, Joey deVilla, Rina Bane, Justin Linn.

The startup we created on the bus was Hyve, a service that lets you create virtual disposable email addresses that you can use when subscribing to services or communicating with untrusted people.

My whiteboard diagram showing a use case for Hyve.
Tap to view at full size.

Rather than provide a service or person with your real email address, you use Hyve to generate a disposable email address to give to that service or person, and it forwards emails sent to that disposable email address to your real email address.

What happened on StartupBus Florida 2019?

It started with a get-together the day before we boarded the bus, which was captured in this ABC Action News piece:

Our ABC Action News piece. Tap to play.

As you may have guessed, we spent a fair bit of time coding and designing the service…

Tracy, Rina, and David at work.
Tap to view at full size.

…but at the end, we present our startups to panels of judges, so we also spent a lot of time working on our pitches. We did so many practice pitches on the bus, followed by feedback from the conductors and our fellow buspreneurs, including this one by Tracy:

Tracy Ingram pitches Hyve to our busmates.
Tap to play.

Just as startup life is full of unpredictable events, StartupBus is designed to mirror that unpredictability. For starters, we only knew that the destination was New Orleans, and that it would be a roundabout one so that it would take three full days. I pieced together the route shortly before we arrived:

StartupBus Florida’s 2019 route from Tampa to New Orleans.
Tap to view at full size.

We knew that there would be stops at night for hotels as well as other places, but we didn’t know where or when.

Our first non-meal/gas/bio-break stop happened in the late afternoon of Day 1 when we visitied the Entrepreneurship Garage at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. It let us get more work done in a stationary place with access to more guidance, better internet connectivity, more reliable power, and (very importantly) bathrooms. It’s where we recorded this mandatory “Why are we on the bus?” video at the end of Day 1…

Meet the Hyve team.
Tap to play.

…and it gave us a chance to refine our pitch by trying it out on non-bus people, such as the Lyft driver who took us from the Entrepreneurship Garage to our hotel:

Pitching Hyve to our Lyft driver.
Tap to play.

Day 2 gave two buses a surprise: upon our departure from Raleigh, the Florida and DC buses merged to become the Swamp Thang bus!

Boarding the newly-merged Florida/DC bus.

Now we had a full ride:

The newly-united Swamp Thang bus.
Tap to view at full size.

We got to know the folks from DC, and the spirit was one of “coopetition” — we knew we were all competing against each other, but we also made friends and even helped each other out. I ended up spending a little time helping a DC developer with a bug in their Flutter project.

We had a stop at Advent Coworking in Charlotte, North Carolina, where our bus met up with the New York bus, and some of us (time was limited) got to do our first pitches in front of a panel of judges.

One of the teams pitches at the stop in Charlotte.
Tap to view at full size.

There were also the “unexpected unexpected” events — the unexpected events that the conductors didn’t plan. There was the time our bus got stuck on one of the oversized speed bumps at NC State:

Usually, we say “we’ve run into a speed bump” only figuratively.
Tap to view at full size.
The solution: Unload the bus completely — after removing all the people and luggage, the bus was able to clear the speed bump.
Tap to view at full size.

Our big “unexpected unexpected” happened when the bus overheated and had to pull over on the highway somewhere in the mountains in Tennessee:

Stuck on the mountain in Tennessee.
Tap to view at full size.

This delay meant that getting to the next stop meant staying on the bus well into the night:

Into the night.
Tap to view at full size.

Day 3 was a long, hard drive with a lot more pitching, designing, coding, and reaching out to prospective business partners and customers (yes, you have to treat your bus startup just like a “real” one!), but at long last, we arrived in New Orleans:

Finally in New Orleans!
Tap to view at full size.

Which brings us to Day 1 of two days’ worth of pitch competitions: the qualifiers.

At the qualifiers in New Orleans.
Tap to view at full size.

All our previous pitches were mere rehearsals. This pitch would determine if we would get into the semifinals!

Our qualifier pitch in New Orleans.
Tap to view at full size.
Our qualifier pitch in New Orleans.
Tap to view at full size.

Here’s our qualifying pitch:

Our qualifying pitch. Tap to play.

We continued working into the night of Day 1, refining the code and pitch. We wouldn’t find out who would make it into the semifinals until Day 2 — and we did!

Announcing the semifinalsts in New Orleans.
Tap to view at full size.

So we worked on our pitch and code, bringing in Andrew Romaner as a consultant (remember, you’re running like a real business, so you can get consultants if you have the connections!)…

Getting some help from Andrew.
Tap to view at full size.

…and made it to the finals!

We made the finals!
Tap to view at full size.

So we worked some more…

A quick selfie break before getting back to work.
Tap to view at full size.

…which led to our final pitch:

Our final pitch. Tap to play.

Once all the finalists made their pitches, the judges sequestered themselves, and shortly afterwards, they made their announcements, which included Hyve!

Announcing the winners. Tap to play.

Just because I love that bit about walking the line between good and evil, here’s just the part about Hyve:

“There’s a thin line between good and evil.” Tap to play.

Here’s the reporting on our victory:

The reward for our efforts

Let me be very clear: StartupBus offers no prizes of any sort. No cash, no prizes from sponsors, not even a trophy or certificate. In fact, you’ll spend money in the process, including getting home (the bus gets you to the destination city, but you have to make your own way back).

So why do it? Because what you gain from StartupBus is more valuable in the long run than mere coin or prizes: experience.

It’s one thing to be an employee working from home or in an office. It’s an entirely other thing to be a startup founder — even for less than a week’s time — collaborating closely with people you’ve known only for hours, on a bus, where the power and internet are unreliable, and dealing with the curve balls that the conductors and the vagaries of the road will throw your way.

Something I’ve never told anyone until now

There are more comfortable things that you could do with your time, but I remind you that the magic happens outside your comfort zone.

Here’s something I’ve never said online until now: I was fired from my job in June 2019. But rather than cry in my own beer and wonder how I’d explain it to prospective employers, I decided to shake things up.

My plan was simple:

  1. Join StartupBus, which was happening in July 2019.
  2. Winning or at least be a finalist.
  3. Parley the victory and experience into my next job or a new company.

Simple? Yes. Easy? Most certainly not. But extraordinary outcomes need extraordinary effort, and StartupBus definitely falls in the “extraordinary effort” category…

This picture takes on deeper meaning after you read the next paragraph.
Tap to view at full size.

…especially since one of the judges in the finals was the CEO of the company that fired me. We’re on good terms, but if I can pitch under those circumstances, I can pitch anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I knew it was going to happen if I made it to the finals — in fact, I was counting on it.

“Guess who’s back / Back again…”
Tap to view at full size.

StartupBus gave me the opportunity to gird my grit, sharpen my software skills, and polish my personal pitch. I’ve taken my experience on the bus and used it to get to the rather nice place where I am today.

After StartupBus, I contacted Trey Steinhoff, a buspreneur from 2017. He and Robert Blacklidge created Course Align, which grew into a real business beyond the bus. Trey was Director of Product at Lilypad at the time, and they were looking for a mobile developer.

Me and an ad for Lilypad in an industry magazine, shortly after my first bug fixes to the Android version were released.
Tap to view at full size.

“Why just take on any mobile developer, when you can get one who’s also been on the bus?” I asked, and got hired. It turned out that Akira Mitchell, one of the conductors on StartupBus Florida, was a scrum master there! I remember telling Akira “You know, it’s so much easier working with you at actual desks in a stationary office than on a bus bouncing all over the road while the wifi’s going in and out.”

I also cited my StartupBus experience during my interview process with Auth0, where I now work.

I got to go places I’d never seen or place I hadn’t seen in a while. I got to get to know some friends better, and made new ones with whom I’m still in touch today. I got to experience a challenge that most techies don’t take on, and I boosted my “personal brand” at a time when I really needed that boost. StartupBus can pay off big if you harness the experience.

And now, I’m a conductor

Posing with some Humvees that we spotted on the final hours of the bus ride.
Tap to view at full size.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted about being a conductor. “Your name keeps coming up, over and over again, so — would you like to be a conductor?”

I still have more to experience and learn, and this time, I’d like to do it by helping, mentoring, and guiding buspreneurs on the Florida bus. I owe it to the Tampa Bay and Florida tech communities that have given me so much. And hey, after all this time cooped up, I’m ready for some new road adventures.

Are you on the bus?

This is probably the most important slide they show at the finals.
Tap to view at full size.

As I write this, we’re less than 100 days away from the day the bus leaves Tampa for Austin. The question you should be asking yourself is:

Are you going to be on StartupBus? The Florida bus will depart from Tampa, but there are others leaving on the same date:

  • The Advancing Black Entrepreneurs bus is one especially for a greatly underrepresented minority in tech, and it departs from Cincinatto, Ohio.
  • The California bus’ departure point is yet to be determined.
  • The Latinxs in Tech is another bus for another greatly underrepresented minority in tech, and it departs from Miami, Florida.
  • The Mexico bus departs from Ciudad de Mexico, a.k.a. Mexico City.
  • The New York bus departs from New York City?!
  • The Texas Bus departs from San Antonio, Texas, and yes, they’re going to plan a route that takes three days.

You can’t just sign up for StartupBus — you have to apply, because we’re looking for people who are determined to create a great startup under sometimes-gruelling conditions and give it their all.

To register, you’ll need to visit StartupBus’ “Apply” page and enter an invite code. Of course, you’ll have to enter an invite code, and you just might get one if you tweet @TheStartupBus and explain why you’ve got what it takes to be on the bus!

Current Events Players

Robert Blacklidge and the Feeding the Future hackathon: This weekend, online

Robert Blacklidge

Robert Blacklidge on a bus full of Startup Bus hackers
Robert Blacklidge at Startup Bus 2017.

You can’t talk about the Tampa Bay startup scene for long before the name “Robert Blacklidge” comes up. You’ll often see him at Tampa Bay tech and entrepreneur events, and when he’s not organizing or facilitating hackathons, he’s winning at them. One of his creations, Course Align, made it all the way to finals at Startup Bus 2017 (be sure to check out Gimlet Media’s Startup podcast episodes where they follow the Bus, including the creation of Course Align).

He’s also been bringing tech events and amenities to his home, Lakeland (about 35 miles east of Tampa). Thanks to his work, Lakeland has its editions of 1 Million Cups, Startup Grind, and Techstars Startup Weekend. He also co-founded CO.STARTERS, a 9-week program that teaches entrepreneurs to achieve their long-term goals.

This weekend, he’ll be a mentor at the Feeding the Future online hackathon.

Feeding the Future: A FoodTech hackathon

The world’s food chain supply chains have been greatly disrupted by COVID-19 and its cascading effects. Most of these disruptions will have unpredictable long-term lasting effects on our food systems. The Feeding the Future hackathon’s challenges are all centered around solutions to address and counter these disruptions.

The challenges are:

  1. Sustainable farm-to-fork solutions. How can we use digital technologies to build a more resilient and agile food supply chain for local producers and farmers after CoVid-19 using sustainable farm2fork solutions and further increase e-commerce and home delivery services? How can we apply dynamic models to support seasonal trade and preparation tools for all parts in the food chain?
  2. Reducing carbon “food”prints. The importance of food within cities and urban design is central from several angles. There is a need to transform our urban food systems with a focus on sustainability and resilience.
  3. Make a new and tasty fish product. Baltic Herring is a tasty, small fish found in abundance in the Baltic Sea. Increasing it’s consumption can help lower our carbon footprint. What kind of food product(s) can we create using the Baltic Herring to increase consumption?
  4. Increase Finnish/African food trade. (The hackathon is being organized from Finland.) Africa is an untapped potential market. Finland is known for its world class research in food engineering. What kind of product or services can be utilized to help increase the quality and quantity of food export between Finland and Africa?

Feeding the Future’s kickoff/orientation session happens tomorrow (Thursday, June 25th) at 9:00 a.m. Eastern.

Here’s how you can join in:

  • Join as a
  • As a
  • As a
  • As a

NOTE: You can only compete in the Hackathon as a TEAM of two or more members. If you don’t have yet a team, join the hackathon’s Discord community to find one.