In his latest post for Business Advice, GrantTree co-founder Daniel Tenner talks about the merits of the Startup Bus – a new global initiative to train startup founders and boost collaboration in innovation.
The problem with trying to help people with startups is that being a founder is not really something that can be taught. It is something you need to do and learn from your own mistakes. I’ve compared it to driving before.
It is not possible to learn the art of building a startup from watching university lectures, any more than it is possible to become a surgeon through books alone. You have to practice. You have to make mistakes, hopefully in a safe environment and at low speed. You have to learn from those mistakes, and keep trying.
Not only is it not really teachable in the classic way, but there is a lot to learn. Creating a successful startup involves a long list of topics, including:
- Idea selection
- Team building
- Idea validation
- Basic finance and accounting
- Customer support development
There are a lot of skills in the startup skill set. And that’s just the generic skills – each new business will also have an infinite depth of industry knowledge to plumb, specific to the problem domain the startup is addressing.
Much of that will also not be taught in books, and even industry experts will have serious blind spots, which is what creates the narrow gap within which a business can thrive.
Add to it the lack of formally available, reliable guidance for startups (most advisors in accelerators are not actually founders and so their advice can be dubious, which means the founder cannot really trust anyone but their own judgement), and the sense of impending doom most operate under, and it’s not surprising that many beginner founders miss out key parts of the skill set.
Some will forget to do customer validation. Others will completely ignore sales. Yet others will forget the essential bit of actually building a product that they can sell.
There’s so much to focus on, it’s hard to build a big picture of what’s going on and make sure all the key bits are covered. Of course founders are human, so they’ll naturally be biased towards the things they enjoy doing, and have blind spots towards the “other stuff”, that they don’t enjoy so much but which might kill their startup if ignored.
How is it possible to teach all that stuff to a new founder in a reliable, effective, hands-on way? The Startup Bus.
It’s a global initiative that’s best described as a “hackathon” on wheels. It brings together founders on a bus for three days and catapults them towards the objective to build a complete startup, with product, business model, market validation, customers, and a solid pitch, and win the competition against all other teams trying to do the same thing.
I had the honour of being a mentor on this year’s Startup Bus UK. It was an incredible experience because of the energy and drive of the startup founders involved, and the incredible stuff that got built by the self-assembled teams over such a short time, but what was even more impressive for me was to look at the event from a startup teaching perspective.
The format involves, unsurprisingly, a bus. On this bus were some 40 entrepreneurs, each of which had come prepared with one idea they might want to work on.
On the way to Dover, everyone presented their ideas, posted them on the windows of the bus, and then voted with post-its. The six most popular ideas won, and teams were recruited.
Over the next three days, either on the bus, or in a random assortment of co-working spaces and hostels across northern Europe, the teams worked incredibly hard to build functional products however humble, get traction, get paying customers, and, throughout, develop and practice a pitch.
The pitch was evaluated in a semi-final on the fourth day, where ten startups were selected for the finals the following day in Germany.
The criteria were 25 per cent pitch including structure and delivery, 25 per cent traction on social media traction and also with paying customers, and 50 per cent delivery – what you have actually built that people can use right now.
Bearing in mind that they only had a few days, on a bus with terrible Wi-Fi, in a team that has never worked together before, it is amazing what people did manage to build.
Five of the six UK teams built products and got into the finals (we were competing with buses coming from other EU countries), and one UK team won.
Of course, everyone will have taken away something different from this experience. As I observed this from the perspective of teaching, I could not miss the fact that each participant was basically experiencing what it feels like to build and launch a startup, from start to finish, in a handful of days.
They were learning how to balance all those different concerns and make them work with each other to deliver something tangible that will get users to sign up and convince some people to pay some money. In short, they were getting a super-compressed, intense, end-to-end experience in five days.
Depending on their area of focus, each founder will have learned more about one part of the process than another, but all of them, as a collaborating team, will have gotten a glimpse of the other parts, and gained an understanding of things that were previously alien to them.
Who is it for?
Startup Bus is definitely not right for everyone. First of all, you have to be young and energetic. Physically, not sleeping properly for three to four days in a row is a difficult experience. I couldn’t do it now I’m 36, though I would probably have managed in my 20’s.
Secondly, people who are at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey will get the most from this experience. If you’re interested in startups and you’ve been working in industry, or even are still at university, and want to get your first year of business experience compressed into a few days, make a bunch of new friends, and see what it’s like to work on a team that’s totally fired up by purpose and urgency, this is for you.
If you’ve been around the block already and want something more long-term and tangible, then you may already be a step or two ahead. Many Startup Bus startups fizzle out after the trip, naturally, and it’s best not to come aboard adamant that it must be your idea that’s worked on.
Startup Bus is the best training method I’ve observed for helping teach new founders how to start a company. The only downside is that it only happens once a year.
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