StartupBus rolling again

If there was a place I’d like to be now…. then it would probably be actually 11 different places. It’s that part of the year, that crazy and incredible people get on a some buses, travel across the US to the SXSW festival, while building companies. Altogether dozens of them. While riding freakin’ buses…. I know, I can still hardly get over my own experience last year, though I don’t want to get over it, I want to cultivate, nurture and expand that feeling. Pretty much the whole last year was about that expansion, and it just continues to motivate me.

Fortunately I still keep in touch with some of the people from there, and when they are on the way right now as I write this, I cannot help but show my affiliations.

Wearing my StartupBus shirt for work today
Silicon Valley Bus 2011 represent

I’m really glad that I could contribute something as well. One of the core features of their site is the ability to see where everyone is right now. Cheer all the way as they fight through several states towards their destination, how they converge onto Austin, Texas in the end. For this to work, there has to be some way to track those buses. And as it is the tradition – and inevitable if you have a pile of the best hackers together – everything is pretty much custom built. The site, the virtual stock market game, the map – and the tracking app as well. This last thing is made by me, after a few evenings back last year while hanging out in San Francisco before getting on bus. I can’t believe that I even had time for sight-seeing while doing this…. Anyway, it worked like a charm on 6 buses, and I was quite satisfied. Pretty surprised, but also satisfied. It was great, especially because if something, then I didn’t want to let down this guy – one the craziest and most kick-ass person I had a chance to know.

Then again in the winter there was StartupBus Europe, which worked out fine, beautiful trace on the map from the Netherlands, through Scandinavia, then back to the continent all the way to Paris.

For this year’s event, I wanted to change it a bit around, make it more independent from me – and a bit less hackish. I gave up on improving the looks, but the functionality should be better.

Too bad that this time I wasn’t there in SF, working together with the team, inspiring and motivating each other. This made everything much slower for me, and much more “normal”, in the bad sense of the word. In the end I had a new version that worked, and was kinda okay, but wasn’t as well tested as I hoped to.

BusDroid interface
I wish there was a Taipei bus – not sure how to cross the Pacific, though

Of course bits are rotting when they are not developed, and one year in Android world is more than I’ve expected. Too bad that many of the problems came to light when the buses were about to head off. Turns out that aiming for the oldest version of Android to cover all different versions is not necessarily the right thing to do. I don’t need anything fancy, but the APIs changed a bit, some things got depreciated, and looks like some phones can’t run my very simple app. After all this craziness dies down, will have to investigate and figure out what went wrong.

In the meantime, fortunately 10 out of 11 traces are on the map, there’s only Las Vegas missing last time I’ve checked, and not sure what happened to them. I don’t like unsolved mysteries, especially when it’s my job to get them solved.

Screenshot of live map with buses
Startup Bus buses 2012 on their way

Let’s see if I can get a seat next year again. And also see if that year in the meantime is long enough to figure out some better solution. Will likely need to do things very differently as I was, will likely have to rewrite the whole app onto new foundations, and make it work on iPhones or iPads (do those actually have GPS in them? I actually don’t have any iProducts…), and more reliably work in general. Feels a little sucky, that I’ve let some people down that things didn’t work better. That’s what startups’ life is a little bit as well.

Now let’s pivot, and back to doing awesome.

Hopped on a bus

It’s been about two weeks since I came back from the adventure that is called the StartupBus. Things just start to sink in, soon the glare will fade and see what remains of the total awesomeness that is the Bus. I think a lot will stick with me, it was just way beyond what I could have imagined and I can already feel the changes the trip & the people made to me. The best possible changes, to say. :)

So, the StartupBus in a nutshell: 6 buses from all around the US set off a journey, with about 30 “buspreneurs” on board each, who ideally don’t know each other or haven’t worked together before. First, whoever has some business/product ideas, can pitch to the others. Groups are formed and everybody starts to make their idea into reality – and have to do that frantically, since there’s only about 48 hours before the buses arrive to their destination. Sounds like fun? If it doesn’t, you should just give it a try :)

Palm Springs morning before heading out.

I had no idea what to expect and when I heard the pitches that Tuesday morning, rolling out of San Francisco on the highway, I was thinking to myself: what do I do here? What can I contribute? There are just so many amazing developers, setting the bar. But I could choose a project in the end, something that was close to my heart since I do love to travel: Fly By Miles (the site went back to pre-launch mode for a bit, but that’s where it will be ;) – a site that wants people to use their frequent flyer miles well and easily. Our team had 8 members altogether: 5 developers (with yours truly), 2 designers and a business strategist. Of course these are lines drawn in the sand, everyone chipped in a bit in each role.

I have to say, thos ~3 days are close to a blur now. Should have continued writing my journal but there was just no chance for that. We were mostly hopping from co-working spaces to hotels and back, all through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. I should know where, I wrote the Android app that told the map where we all are. There were some very nice places, interesting scenery that I haven’t seen much of. There were challenges like walking up to people in Santa Monica and getting feedback on our project – and taking a video of it (before this I’ve never thought I could do that. But got our 3 recorded videos and a few people’s thoughts off-the-record). There was always something to do and I enjoyed being left to my own devices and coming back with a solution. Not the best solution usually, so there were usually more than one iterations for solving each of the problems I tried to tackle, but at least there was a good modus operandi: give Greg a task, some time, maybe a couple of Red Bulls and he’ll come back with something.

By the way, Red Bulls: don’t let them anywhere near me for the time being. Lost count at 7, but the shakes stayed for a couple days after I stopped so it must have been more than that. Haven’t had it since high school (which has been a while) and under this hackathon circumstances they are very addictive…

Startup bus life snapshot
Life on the bus: laptops, getting contacts on phone, powernaps… Intense and awesome.

Well, after a few hotels and sleepless/frantic nights, we arrived to Austin. Finished up a proof-of-concept, working prototype and got some sleep. The next days were about taking Austin in, with Ignite, with SxSW, flashmob, friends, places, food… There was some programming as well, since Fly By Miles got into the semifinals, then into the finals, held in the Hilton. It was great, I really enjoyed it, an albeit we didn’t win, there was a lot to take home. Also, since that was my last night in Austin, I haven’t actually slept (again) and it was surreal to leave the place at 5am. Missed our CNN interview, but well, if we do it right, there will be more than enough to make up for that. ;)

What do I think I learned:

  • Now I can code everywhere. In the park, on the curb, on the plane, on the bus… Though Taiwanese buses have more hectic drivers and their suspension is worse than the Bus was so better hold on to that computer. Haven’t been coding on a motor-scooter yet, but I will…. probably won’t try that. :)
  • It is worth knowing the popular tech in the field I’m interested in even if I’m not using it (yet). In our group Ruby on Rails was the thing – and I’m a Python hacker. It was quite confusing for the first time, but I can see the advantages. This stands for other fields as well: mobile development, databases, design, front end interface…. There’s a lot of interesting tech out there, and I believe that one should try things out before the need arises. That makes educated choices down the road.
  • Have a niche. I might be biased, but I think this is even more important than the previous point. Know something else than others. Networking, game development, Big Data, Python, functional programming, myriads of 3rd party APIs (Google, Twillio, …), and so on. Anything that excites you.
  • Be quick learner. Before the trip I had to (well, wanted to :P ) pick up Android development in a week. And it produced something that crashed fewer times than I thought it would. :) After coming back I wanted to pick up Django in a week because I was curious. There’s even a result (Wanna see? There will be a proper post about that). I believe everyone can do that, so no excuse for not learning a new things ever week.
  • Choose carefully in what things you rely on others. It is easy to get burned and few things are worse than having your fate in someone else’s hand.
  • Take note what people say, but don’t have to take them too seriously. Everyone’s been excited at the end of the trip and wanted to continue the project. Two weeks passed and 2 (and a half) people left of the 8. No hard feelings, that’s how things work and there will certainly time to work with them together.
  • Getting in touch with people is easy. Not just technically, but nothing should hold you back. Fire off that email to the big shot you met, talk to the 2nd level contact on Linked In if you need to… Most of them will love something personal, just keep it simple, honest, and no hard feelings if it doesn’t work out. This liberated me on so many levels
  • Startup life is a test on one’s liver. I’d thought it is a marginal issue, but better be prepared. Not sure what way (no, I don’t mean training), but got to.
  • The best is always what you have but it’s always good to look out for more. For example. the Silicon Valley bus was undoubtedly the best bus of them all! :D But that won’t stop me from knowing as many amazing folks from each of the buses and off the buses as well.
  • Silicon Valley at least was Mac World. Been an outsider with my Lenovo, but I don’t mind if I cannot share the power plug with the other 29 peeps on the bus. Penguin power!
  • Laptop stickers are cool. I’m late to the party to say that (seeing some of the laptops there) but anyways…. I got to be selective, though, otherwise just too many stickers flying around.
  • Now I just cannot stop the flow of ideas. It is not a question that I’m a “starter”. What I need to learn how to select the good ones (or, probably I should select the “ridiculous” ones, they seem to work the best), and how to be a “finisher”.
Todo list
Morning results of the todo list after a whole night of hacking

Probably there are more lessons, but that’s enough. Now off to do some practice. Let’s see what happens until next year’s Bus :)

The power of not caring

I’m reminded time and time again, that the best things I do come from fun and passion, not mere sweat and grinding teeth.

Recently I read about a project called The Startup Bus. It’s a bunch of strangers getting on a bus going from A to B, for 48 hours, in which time they build a startup company from 0 to launch. It looked very intriguing and I applied even if I couldn’t imagine going there (after all, it’s in the US and I’m in Taiwan). Wrote up an introduction that was… how shall I put it? Ordinary? Bland? (maybe even that’s generous). Then I started to hear from more and more people on Twitter that they got on it and I did as most people do when they cannot get something: started to want it :) On the other hand, looking at who got on I had no hope that I’d be selected, none at all.  So instead of revising the application I had, just gave it up…. but also just wrote another one application. In true nerdy fashion in a programming language. And made it actually run. Just for fun. It is not perfect (can see it on Github) and actually I cannot imagine that no-one else thought of it… When I was satisfied, just sent it in, closed the browser and walked out. Not even an hour passed, I got my invitation…

So I’m heading off to San Francisco this weekend to mingle with a bunch of very clever people, do a lot of programming, most likely things I’ve never tried or even imagined trying, go all the way to Austin, when maybe could pitch to possible investors. What will come out of all this, I have no idea. But certainly glad I “didn’t care” for long enough that creativity (no matter how shallow) started to flow.

For me this whole story is brings up a poem by Dallas Clayton:

Good/Bad

How a bad idea starts:
“That looks easy… I could do that.”
How a good idea starts:
“That looks fun… I should do that.”

I like this way of thinking a lot, I even got it on a bag to remind me. :)

Now all the preparation is on the way, I’m helping by making an Android app to be able to track the buses en route. I week ago I didn’t know anything about Android apps. But there you go, it’s working, more or less. :P

BusDroid running on HTC Desire
A little side project for the Bus.

… and soon I’m hoping to use the power of not caring for many other things in life.