Entrepreneurship Lessons from a Bus Ride Through Europe

StartupBus-BeNeLux1

“He that is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else”.
– Benjamin Franklin

Starting a company nowadays is pretty easy. You just need a designer, a hacker, and someone doing the marketing. Give three people an internet connection and they are off to go, right?

The answer to this question seems to be divided. Lean startup enthusiasts will typically chime in with a big ‘yes.’ But the rest of us? We’re convinced that it should take years to get up and running.

We come up with excuses like “I’m not experienced enough,” “I can’t find a co-founder”, “I don’t have an idea” etc. Yeah, some of those excuses are valid. But most of the time, we’re wrong. We end up wasting time waiting for a jump that never happens.

This was something that I wanted to prove — that the ‘jump’ seems much crazier than it actually is. So, I joined the StartupBus, which is exactly what it sounds like — a bus ride where entrepreneurs get together and launch companies. Within 72 hours, I was part of a team and bringing a business concept to life. On paper, it was crazy. But in reality, it was one of the sanest things I’ve ever done.

Here is the formula:

-Put together a bunch of stranger on a bus
-Recruit for three skill sets (we always try to put 50% hackers, 25% designers and 25% business people on one bus)
-Pitch a business idea while the bus is moving with 60 miles per hour
-Give them 72 hours to conceive, build and launch a startup while driving between 1,000 and 1,500 miles.

Yes, it sounds a little far fetched. And yet, it was one of the most intense experiences of my life. But I ultimately learned more about myself and entrepreneurship than I ever thought was possible.

Lesson #1: Crazy-talk could be the next brilliant idea

StartupBus is an annual competition, now in its third  year. In other words, it’s become pretty popular. Somewhere and somehow, someone decided that it was a good idea.

But the reality was that it started as a joke.

The story got some momentum, and people started talking about it. So, the founder had no choice but to make the bus ride really happen. In 2010, StartupBus made its first journey from San Francisco to SXSW in Texas in 2010. Now, it’s even running in Africa.

After the first trip, everything got more and more serious. The applicant pool started becoming more competitive. Ideas became more viable. People were committed to building real businesses with total strangers — on a bus.

Nothing about the decision to do it felt sane. I couldn’t rationalize it. But somehow, it made sense and proved — to all of us — that we should focus less on over-thinking what we could be doing and instead, spend more time following through on what we say.

Lesson #2: Windows of opportunity will go away

Entrepreneurs take the jump when the stars seem to align. It just “feels” right. The problem is, many entrepreneurs are paralyzed by fear, thinking their ideas are completely ridiculous. What ends up happening is that the jump never feels right.

Take the StartupBus as an example. It sounds totally crazy when you hear about it for the first time. But the window of opportunity to join is a simple moment. You don’t have time to second-guess that you’re making the right decision. It will never stop feeling weird. But remember — it’s just a moment.

If you want to do it, you have to make the decision without second-guessing yourself.

You can take a few minutes to deliberate, but at some point, you need to cut the cord and go.

-On our opening day in Amsterdam, we met these two guys from Estonia. After some conversations, we let them know that our StartupBus had some last-minute openings. It took them just a few hours to overcome their hesitations and just get on board.

-We met this amazing woman with a brilliant app idea, a woman from Cologne who found out that she’d be joining us just one day in advance. Suffering from depression, she found it non-discreet and troublesome to fill in big sheets of paper about her feelings. She had an idea to resolve this pain point and joined the StartupBus without hesitation.

It’s crazy when you think about it — 25 people who’ve never met, in our case even from 12 different countries, trying to conceive, build, and launch at least four companies together while driving through Europe.

But that’s the heart and soul of entrepreneurship. The moment of deciding is just that — a moment. What follows is a once-in-a-lifetime journey that few people are fortunate enough to experience.

It takes 5 minutes or less to commit to your decision. Once you say yes, you’re in. And you start putting in all your effort towards pursuing your goal.

Lesson #3: Down time is a myth

During the trip we (the organization team and the extra mentors on board) organized random challenges, gave coaching, and hosted pitch sessions. Only, we didn’t do this at 9AM as we would in the normal business world.

No. We hauled ass.

I woke up my team at 4AM to start pitching. They didn’t expect it. They were pissed. But you know what?

We loved every moment of it.

There’s nothing quite like waking up unexpectedly, in the dark, on a moving vehicle, to start pitching on command.

As entrepreneurs, we need to be prepared for anything. We need to be on our top game, even when we’re sleeping. If that means waking up at 4AM  to practice?

Hell yes. Do it.

Courage is one thing. But a moment is just a moment, and entrepreneurs need to stay strong for the long-haul.

Most importantly, the experience created bonds for life.

We took advantage of every moment — especially our down time — to train ourselves to be stronger. It’s the same as entrepreneurship — you won’t have work/life balance.

Why does this relate to you?

In the end, life and entrepreneurship are all about making choices, sometimes these choices become game-changing decisions and can make or sometimes break your business. So let me end by summing up my three final learnings from my journey:

Always support your team. You spend more time with these people than your friends, better make sure to have each others backs.

Sometimes you just got to take the plunge. When you let serendipity take its turn, beautiful things can happen.

Stop seeking perfection. As Reid Hoffman said: If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late. You need to launch your MVP as soon as it is ready enough don’t start focussing on extra features that maybe nobody even wants.

The jump will never feel perfect. Your product will never feel perfect. What ultimately matters, however, is that you take that first step.


Hans van Gent co-leads the digital department at Ogilvy & Mather in Belgium. His experiences include:

  • Teaching early stage startups about customer development and lean startup mechanics to marketing, product development, and launch. 
  • Working on various campaigns for big brands  like Unilever, Nestlé, and others.
  • Taking a 72-hour ride through Europe on a bus full of amazing hackers. 

Set up a call with Hans to learn about SEO, online marketing, customer development, and anything ‘lean.’

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