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LISA CHOW: Before we get started, a quick warning: there’s some swearing in this episode.
ERIC MENNEL: New Orleans has always had a unique relationship with death. Perhaps most famously, the elevation here is so low, and the water table so high, that the city historically had trouble keeping people buried. One doctor was at a burial in the 1840s—and he watched as water filled the grave so quickly that men had to stand on the coffin to keep it below ground. The cemeteries of New Orleans are known as cities of the dead, because the architecture and layout match that of an actual city so closely. Not to mention the funeral parades and the voodoo kitsch sold to tourists around town. In a lot of ways, death is celebrated here as just another part of life. It seems impossible to walk around the city and not feel that.
COLLEEN LAVIN: They said I was free this morning.
ERIC; It’s Friday morning. The final day of the competition. In just a few hours, Colleen Lavin will be pitching Daisy, the funeral planning app, in the finals. But she’s never spent any time in New Orleans. So she woke up early this morning to take a walk, see the sights. And she let me tag along.
ERIC: We left our hotel on St. Charles, and headed east, past the Walgreens on Felicity
ERIC: This is the most epic Walgreens I’ve ever walked into. Why is this playing outside of a Walgreens?
COLLEEN: It’s better than the typical muzak, or Matchbox 20.
ERIC: That’s true. I love Matchbox 20.
COLLEEN: Yeah, but it’s in every Walgreens.
ERIC: We pass under the Pontchartrain Expressway and jog to the left. Neither of us has much idea where we are or where we’re going.
ERIC: Wanna turn right?
ERIC: Despite having spent an entire week on a bus with Colleen, I don’t actually know that much about her. And she doesn’t know that much about me. So she asks me about work and whether I like it. I ask her about growing up. Turns out, before being a computer whiz and hackathon regular, she was a bit of an athlete.
COLLEEN: I was once the Illinois Knights of Columbus free throw champion for girls age 14.
COLLEEN: I was like getting my school volunteer hours, helping my dad at the free throw contest, and I was in the right age range, so he made me compete. I made two baskets, because I was not a basketball player. But no other girls in my age range showed up, and he made me go to the next competition and no other girls my age range showed up. Finally, I was almost sent to D.C to compete in the nationals after making a total of like four baskets.
ERIC: Because nobody had showed up?
COLLEEN: In my age competition!
ERIC: So that is how you became the Knights of Columbus of Illinois State Champion.
COLLEEN: Age 14, 13-14.
ERIC: We cross Canal Street near Rampart. There are signs for the French Quarter, so we head in that direction. Colleen grew up outside of Chicago. Her mom teaches elementary school and her dad (when he wasn’t entering Colleen into free throw competitions) spent most of his career working for a big market research firm.
ERIC: During your Q&A yesterday when someone asked you about the origins of Daisy, you had mentioned, was it your dad?
COLLEEN: Yeah. He asked me what the origins were. And I mentioned that I’d been worrying about my dad’s health, because he’s been having some heart issues lately. I don’t know all the medical terms. But I do know he’s had like three or four heart surgeries. His carotid artery was like 98 or 99 percent clogged. And when they removed the blockage they damaged his vocal cord. And so he can’t talk really.
COLLEEN: Really. And my dad had this large booming voice beforehand. Like, when I met my college roommate, the first thing she said when my dad left the room was, “Oh my god, that voice.” He had a radio voice.
ERIC: I had no idea.
COLLEEN: Well, it’s not something you randomly bring up in conversation. Have you talked about your family’s health problems?
ERIC: I haven’t, that’s fair. But I guess, like. Oh boy, run across the street. Um. I feel like when I asked you about, like how you came up with the idea for Daisy that first day you were like, I think if I remember correctly you said, ‘Oh, I just thought about it like five minutes on the train over here.’
COLLEEN: I did. Not even train over there. I thought about it when we were on the bus. My original idea was a packing calculator.
ERIC: A what?
COLLEEN: An add-on on for travel sites, they tells you how much to bring on a trip based on where you’re going and how long. It’s a really bad idea. But there’s no major competition.
ERIC: Well then what was it that made you go with Daisy?
COLLEEN: Like my strategy for hackathons is I think of things that have been bugging me the past week. Like packing. So I thought of like something that I was worried about and I was like, “OK, death.” And there weren’t really that many death apps out there.
ERIC: Good car honk. I can use that for a transition later.
COLLEEN: Oh good!
ERIC: How long has your dad been going through some of that stuff?
COLLEEN: I think it was January or something?
ERIC: That’s really new.
COLLEEN: Pretty new.
ERIC: How do you feel like you’ve been dealing with it?
COLLEEN: I live far away so. I haven’t really been dealing with it. My mom and my brother are more in the thick of it, because it’s their everyday reality. And my dad obviously. And he’s not bedridden or anything like that. Well he was. But now he’s not.
ERIC: I mean, like I live pretty far from my family too, and I know…my dad, he hasn’t had any specific troubles yet, but he’s like getting to the age and he’s like, every time I get a call from him that’s like at a weird time of day I’m like, oh shit.
COLLEEN: Yeah, like what happened now?
ERIC: Yeah. So I think about it a lot too, especially being far away.
COLLEEN: Right, how are you going to deal with that? It’s easy to not notice the changes over the phone and then go home and suddenly like, who are these old people who replaced my parents? Not you, mom! I feel like people deal with death in different ways, and like my way is super healthy. It’s called repression and humor. It’s great.
ERIC: Yeah. Are you scared by it?
COLLEEN: Of course. If I wasn’t scared of it why would I like build this whole thing around making it easier.
COLLEEN: Oh, Knights of Columbus we were talking about them.
ERIC: We should see if they got a hoop out back.
ERIC: I’ve heard Colleen pitch maybe 20 times over the course of the week. I feel like I could almost give the pitch myself at this point. But this conversation, about our parents getting older and the hard decisions we’ll have to make—it does more to convince me of the value of something like Daisy than any of those pitches. But as Colleen walks back inside the hotel to get ready for the finals, I remember: I’m not the one she needs to convince.
ERIC: This is StartUp, the show about what it’s really like to start a business… on a bus. I’m Eric Mennel. After four days and multiple rounds of pitching we are now down to the final day, the final five companies vying for the title of StartupBus Champion, 2017. And these companies are pretty diverse in terms of what they do. There’s Daisy, of course. They’re the only New York company still in the competition. Then there’s Course Align, run by those two fast friends from Tampa, Fl.
ROBERT BLACKLIDGE: Yes. Validated validated validated!
ERIC: They’ve built software to help University syllabi match what jobs are on the market for college grads. Then there’s Drop-In-Pedals—a device that converts racing bike pedals into regular pedals so you can wear normal shoes on your fancy bike. Initiate Today is an employee onboarding program. And finally there’s Del Campo—a Mexico City company connecting farmers to retailers. In the hours before the finals, there’s a strange mood flowing through StartupBus. People are whispering, to each other, to me, about how they think something shady is happening in the background of the competition. Something that caught everybody off guard. To understand what’s going on, we actually need to jump back a few hours, to Thursday night.
COLLEEN: We probably have enough that we could….
ERIC: We’re in a hotel room with team Daisy and Alex Romero. Alex is the developer who created Phishly, which was knocked out in the first round of competition. Since Daisy is in the finals, they’ve asked him to help spruce up their site. That’s allowed. So Daisy and Alex are in this hotel room, coding, joking about all the stuff that happened this week.
ERIC: And then someone mentions: the sixth team. See, after the qualifying round ended, the founder of StartupBus, his name is Elias Bizannes, he told everybody who wasn’t moving on to the semis, to come to a room for some feedback. Alex went. And now he’s telling Daisy what happened.
ALEX ROMERO: They told me go to a room, they’re going to give you constructive feedback on your pitches.
REBECCA BATTERMAN: They told you that?
ALEX: Yeah they told me that. So I go to the room, and it’s the guy pitching, one of the judges, the Australian guy.
ERIC: He’s talking about Elias, the founder. It turns out there was no constructive feedback. Instead, Elias tells everyone that he is forming a sixth team, a team made up of all the people who lost today, from all of the busses. And this massive sixth team will automatically get to compete in the finals. Elias has an idea for the product they’re gonna build, this team just needs to do it in the next 24 hours. And here’s the idea: A blockchain voting app. Remember the technology Denari was using to do bitcoin donations? Elias wants to use that same technology to build a secure, transparent voting platform. And he wants the people who didn’t make it to the finals to help him do it. When Alex Romero heard this, he wasn’t exactly jumping at the opportunity.
ALEX: He was like, democratic, blockchain, change the world, and I was like… I heard this pitch the entire bus ride here. So the guy starts pitching us and I was like like, “Hell no.” I wasn’t even like subtle about it. I was like, I gotta go. I’m leaving. The second I knew they were trying to get us through this, I was like, I’m out. I felt phished.
ERIC: The way Alex tells it, he wasn’t the only person in the room who felt like something was off. People started filing out, and pretty soon after that, all these questions started to circulate. If the plan all along was to have a sixth team, why wouldn’t they announce it until just now? And if a bunch of people built this thing for Elias, who would own it? StartupBus? People kept coming to me to speculate, but they didn’t want to be on mic. At one point someone looked at me and said, “Eric, there is some dark shit going down right now.” Before long, it was a full-blown conspiracy theory, the theory being that the competition was rigged so certain teams would lose and they could then help build a product for StartupBus, that StartupBus would own. At first I wasn’t sure how seriously to take these claims. I mean everyone was tired, I was tired. But enough people seemed concerned that I figured, I don’t know, maybe I should look into it. So I went to a hotel diner, sat down in a corner booth, ordered a chicken sandwich and some fries, and tried to outline the evidence for what, if anything, was going on here. Exhibit A: Denari. There was only one team in the entire competition who built a blockchain product. And as far as anyone knew, they were the one team with developers who knew how to build stuff using blockchain. When Denari was eliminated, and then they were immediately asked to be part of building another blockchain app—to some people that looked fishy. And in the end, nobody from Denari joined the sixth team. Exhibit B: The question of IP, who would own this new product? This is a very big deal. Entrepreneurs can become overnight millionaires because of the things they build and the intellectual property they own. When it came to the blockchain voting app everyone just assumed: this is the StartupBus founder’s idea, so StartupBus would own it. What’s in it for me if I help build it for free? Sitting in my booth, considering these questions, it all starts to feel like maybe there is something here. So I call back to the office in New York to tell my boss that this whole competition might not be what it seems. That maybe there’s something shady going on, and I’ve been following the wrong story all week. She tells me I sound very tired, and I should try to get some rest if I can. And maybe get to the bottom of the rumors after we see what happens in the finals. So I finish my fries, and stare at the complimentary slice of pickle on the side of the plate. I didn’t ask for this pickle, but now that it’s here, somebody’s gotta deal with it. I pay the bill. There’s still one last round of pitches to cover. After the break…
COLLEEN: Hi, I’m Colleen, and I’m here today to talk about everyone’s favorite topic.
PARKER MCCURLEY: Thanks to our sponsor, close.io
ERIC: It’s ten minutes before the final pitches begin, and the venue needs to do a mic check.
PARKER: And now to hear from Daisy.
ERIC: Parker McCurley from Team Denari, and Colleen Lavin, who’s about to pitch one last time, just happen to be by the stage. So, at the request of the sound guy, they grab mics and start talking.
COLLEEN: Woof. Woof.
ERIC: There’s a slideshow playing behind them, showing the different buses and listing the conductors by name.
PARKER: Max Gaudin. And Allison Guilday.
COLLEEN: Parker proving that he is literate. We’re very proud.
PARKER: New York City bus conductors Madelena Mak, Ajay Desai and Amy Hua!
COLLEEN: He reads at at least a third grade level!
ERIC: So Colleen seems to be doing just fine heading into the pitch. In the lobby, however, Madelena, the conductor, is not so relaxed.
MADELENA MAK: I mean, I’m really nervous right now. I mean like, when I was in 2014, my team was a finalist as well. And that memory is coming back to me right now. I feel like as if I’m in team Daisy.
ERIC: You’re definitely, you’re more nervous than they are.
MADELENA: I’m more nervous than they are?
ERIC: I think so.
MADELENA: I mean, I’m definitely a little sad that it’s all coming to an end. I cried like when, when the bus was driving away. I was like, oh no. When will I see the bus again?
WILL YAWORSKY: Alright StartupBus, let’s give a big round of applause for our finalists.
ERIC: Back inside the auditorium, the finals kick off. They’re in a fancier space today, called the New Orleans Jazz Market. It seats about 350 people, the stage is this luminous, light wood. The floor is a dark gray polished concrete. And it’s kind of jarring to see all these familiar people—people who I know didn’t shower for much of the week—in such a beautiful setting.
WILL: Our finalist teams. We need two people from all of the finalist teams.
ERIC: The teams gather for some last minute logistics.
ORGANIZER: Do I have Del Campo? Yeah. All right. Do I have Daisy? Do I have Initiate Today? Did I hear a yep? Where’s Initiate Today? Right there. Alright, Course Align…
ERIC: There are five judges for this round, only one of whom sat in on an earlier round. The teams will each get five minutes to pitch and then five minutes Q and A. And from the moment the pitches begin, it’s apparent. This is a very different level of competition than yesterday. The presentations are all well-crafted. Each of the products makes sense. You could imagine people making these pitches to actual investors. This is Initiate Today, the employee onboarding company.
INITIATE TODAY: So, what did we do? We created a solution that integrates to an applicant tracking system. So that as soon as you hire on a new employee we start triggered communications with them immediately. Hey, what type of computer do you prefer? Is it a Mac? Is it a PC? Hey, here’s a video from our CEO welcoming you. We’re really excited to have you here. Feel the impact.
ERIC: They say they’ve only got one competitor, an Australian company. And they project they can bring in 1.2 million dollars by year three. Big numbers. The team building the device to convert racing bike pedals is up, and they make a real entrance.
WILL: So up next is drop in pedals. Come on up. Oh wow, look at this. What are we in for?
ERIC: They take the stage with one guy riding a fancy racing bike, and wearing those fancy shoes that lock into the pedals. And then they pull up a picture of their friend Zach, a cyclist.
MORGAN THACKER: So Zach is going to use his high performance clipless pedal system to go on his usual 40-mile loop on Saturday. But he also would like to take his bike out to the bar on Sunday night with his boys. But, there’s a problem.
ERIC: The problem standing between Zach and his boys? His fancy pedals. Zach could carry regular shoes for when he gets off the bike; he could switch out his pedals entirely which takes fifteen minutes and a bunch of tools; or…
TYLER BAUMGARDNER: Enter Drop In Pedals. It’s a universal clipless adapter system. All Zach has to do now, instead of spending 15 minutes, is this.
ERIC: Boom! They snap this pedal adapter onto the bike, and, like magic, you can ride this bike with any shoes. Next…
ANNOUNCER: Del Campo from Mexico, let’s get up on stage.
ERIC: Del Campo takes the stage. It’s probably the most surprising of the pitches so far, because they’re going after a totally different market than the rest of the teams. They’re building a platform to help small farmers sell directly to retailers and food companies, knocking out middleman distributors.
DEL CAMPO: So we met on Monday. We met Monday morning at 7am. In the past two days since this online platform has been functioning, we’ve been able to sell $723 worth of products. These are products that range from corn all the way to honey…
ERIC: Then, of course, is Course Align, the two guys from Tampa wanting to match school curriculum with job opportunities on the market. All week they were confident in what they were making, and rightfully so. They’ve made it to the finals, and not only that, they’ve got traction with actual universities.
TREY STEINHOFF: This solution has proven to be so valuable that in just three days we got commitments from the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and the University of North Carolina to pilot our program this fall.
ERIC: The pitch is good. The software seems valuable. And the crowd can tell.
ERIC: When the sixth team, the blockchain voting app, gets up to pitch, the room gets quiet. This was the team pulled together by the StartupBus founder, the team that got people thinking there might a conspiracy afoot. They’ve chosen the name Project 24, and when they’re called up, you can sense how uneasy the audience is.
WILL: Let’s check it out and find out what they did. Project 24 where you at?
ERIC: The cheering only starts after the organizer kind of forces it…
ERIC: And the woman doing the pitching takes the stage.
PROJECT 24: It’s just not working. I’ve thought a lot about it. It’s not me, it’s you, it’s also probably you. And I don’t know you, but it’s probably you too, and, in fact, it’s all of us, and it’s the way we make decisions, and it’s just not working.
ERIC: The long dating analogy leads to an explanation of something called dynamic voting, and the idea that you could let someone cast your vote for you, who could then pass your vote on to someone else, who could then pass your vote on to someone else. It’s kind of confusing and the idea seems a little problematic. There’s a demo but it doesn’t really clear anything up. Watching all of it, the team just doesn’t seem like the threat the conspiracy theories made it out to be. That feeling I’d had of suspicion, now it’s just confusion. What was the point of the sixth team? What did the organizers think would happen? Later I would call up the founder of StartupBus, Elias Bizannes. And I’d ask him about the sixth team, about Denari being eliminated, and the fear that the competition was rigged. He’d literally laugh.
ERIC: He’d tell me he wasn’t surprised people started thinking that way. It happens every year… people always think there’s an agenda…
ELIAS: I’ve had people storm out of the audience yelling at me about how could they not be selected, and then they go onto YCombinator just to prove me wrong. And not responding to my emails after that because they’re still angry about it.
As for the IP, the other thing people were concerned about—it turns out it would be open source. So, nobody would own it, really. So why even bother having a sixth team? According to Elias, it’s pretty simple.
ELIAS: To mess with people to be honest. Because that’s what we do with StartupBus, we push them and we break them. And what happens is this remarkable thing comes out when people go beyond the limits they think they can, they actually step up. And so by introducing a new team, it was gonna add another level of competitive threat to the finals.
ERIC: Honestly, I should have seen it coming. It’s classic reality TV. They did it on “The Bachelor” just last season, when they brought back one of Nick’s former loves. It was just before the finale, and they were trying to resurface old feelings, to throw him off his game. StartupBus is meant to mimic what it’s like to start a company in real life. And it does. But it also mimics reality TV. And in every reality TV show, there are producers in the background pulling strings, creating drama. That string-pulling got the sixth team onto the stage, but it does not guarantee them a win.
PROJECT 24: We are creating a platform that empowers users to make dynamic decisions. I guess you could call it a revolution.
ERIC: It’s a few minutes before Daisy’s final pitch. Outside the auditorium, Colleen Lavin and her teammate Cal are making their way through the hallway that leads backstage. They see the guys from Course Align and give them a high five.
COURSE ALIGN: Good luck you guys are gonna kill it.
ERIC: Cal is doing his best to keep Colleen’s energy up before she takes the stage. He’s shadowboxing with her.
CAL COSTANZO: Shadow box, Shadow box.
ERIC: And then—there’s a surprise! Back by request for an encore performance. It’s Marilyn! From Yetigram!
YETIGRAM: You just got to enjoy the ride, and always shine!
WILL: Sorry Colleen for putting you up after that. But I think if anybody’s going to be able to do it, it’s going to be Colleen from Daisy. Let’s go.
COLLEEN: Hi, I’m Colleen, and I’m here today to talk about everyone’s favorite topic. Death. We’re all going or die. Many of us have friends…
ERIC: She walks the audience through the numbers, the average funeral costs between 8 and 10 thousand dollars she says, and costs are rising, fast. Then, she shows us the site.
COLLEEN: Enough of talking about it. Let’s see Daisy. Alright, first thing we do, fill out your form. Now lets say we want to choose our flowers. Now let’s get our event page so we can send it out to our guests. Seymore Graves, all his friends know what to do now.
ERIC: And I gotta say, the bright lights, the beautiful venue—it all feels a little surreal. When this is all over, Colleen will still be looking for a job. Adam, from Denari, he’ll head back to Cleveland, where he and his wife will welcome a new daughter in just a couple of weeks. They’ll name her Lilah. Madelena will spend the next several months trying to get her own startup off the ground. But right now, during this pitch, the world is in suspension. Like a snowglobe, with a young woman in the middle, wearing a bright orange tank top, reminding us in her very particular way that our time here is limited.
COLLEEN: With no major competitors, Daisy is poised… to kill it. Thank you.
ERIC: The rest of the team joins colleen for the Q and A before making their way backstage. Rebecca, the team’s CEO tells them what a good job they did.
REBECCA: I think it went really well, you guys did great. I was just on stage.
CAL: Bring it in. Team hug.
ERIC: Everybody heads out to the lobby. Anne-Gail from team Denari is there to congratulate them.
ANNE-GAIL MORELAND: I’m so proud of you guys. And honestly, that was such a difference from yesterday. Such a difference.
ERIC: Over at the bar, Alex Romero is sitting with another member of Phishly. Alex, remember, helped clean up Daisy’s design overnight. But he told me he noticed something during the presentation.
ALEX: Did you notice there was an error? No? When they showed up the list? Did you look at it? You didn’t see anything?
ALEX: Oh that’s awesome.
ERIC: The problem was on the checklist page.
ALEX: So the way the checklist was, “1 2 3 4 4.” Like it had the number four repeat twice. So I pointed it out to these guys and they’re like, “You fucked them up, man.” And so I kept asking people, like, “Did you notice the error? And nobody notice so I was like… they’ve got a shot.
ANNOUNCER: The judge have deliberated for quite a while, that was a very long deliberation session. And they have decided that they would like to be the ones to announce the top three of StartupBus North America 2017.
ERIC: The auditorium is packed for the final results, standing room only. The judges will announce third place. Second place. And then, the grand prize. I’m sitting toward the front with Daisy, Madelena and a handful of other New Yorkers, all staring at the stage in anticipation. One of the judges takes the mic, and the room goes silent.
JUDGE 1: The third place is for Del Campo from Mexico.
ERIC: The entire Mexico bus jumps out of their seats, shouting, cheering, hugging their teammates.
CROWD: Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!
ERIC: Another judge takes the mic to announce second place. The New York bus is looking more and more anxious.
JUDGE 2: So the second team is the team that did a great job of demonstrating what is possible on three days on a bus. They have really kind of taken a solution that kind of caught me by surprise. I referred to it in the preliminaries as, how is this not an upside-down ketchup bottle. How did this take, how the hell did this take so long to come up with. So, from Tampa, Florida. DropIn Pedal, second place.
ERIC: I lean over to Colleen. She’s pretty sure she knows who’s going to win at this point.
COLLEEN: It is definitely going to be Course Align, I called it.
ERIC: One last judge. One last team. The winner.
JUDGE 3: This was tough. I say this every year. I say some version of this bullshit story every year, which is like, Oh, we argued and argued and fought and we had conversations and like…. It’s Daisy, guys. Congratulations!
MADELENA: Yes. Yes!
ERIC: Everyone is up, leaping over chairs, screaming—other members of the New York bus appear seemingly out of thin air, slamming into each other. It’s a lot like that first morning on the bus, when the riders were fighting their way through the aisle trying to find teammates. Everyone starts jumping in unison and chanting.
CROWD: New York! New York! New York!….
MADELENA: I’m so happy for all of you. Oh my god.
COLLEEN: Holy shit! Don’t put me swearing on the podcast, my mom’s going to listen.
ERIC: Daisy makes their way to the stage for photos. Alex Romero, from Phishly, sits back down in the audience, and I sit next to him.
ALEX: It’s just. It’s crazy. Wow. I’m so glad to be part of that bus, right? It feels like everything on that bus is now worth it. You know it’s now, it brings validation to the pains and struggles that everyone on that bus went through, just to see one of your peers make it. Like, everyone came together to help them out. And I think it’s… wow. I love it when a plan comes together. I guess nobody noticed, I guess nobody noticed the error. If they didn’t win, I would have felt guilty.
ERIC: In the weeks after the competition, the teams largely remained in touch, but fell back into their regular lives. Adam, the dad from Cleveland—just a couple months after his daughter was born, the company he and his teammate Parker were working for folded. And on the verge of being unemployed with a toddler and a newborn, Adam went down to Austin, Texas with Parker for a blockchain conference. While they were there, they found a lot of people who need help building blockchain products. And so they have gone all-in on their own blockchain development startup. It’s called Decent Technologies. They’re now booked with work for the next several months. StartupBus, Adam said, was the first step in making that change. Colleen Wong, Denari’s C-E-O—she took the idea for Denari and entered it into another hackathon, a month-long hackathon focused exclusively on blockchain. And she won! And this one actually came with some prize money. She now lives in Myanmar where she’s working for an NGO. Phishly, the phishing app, they’re still up and running! Apparently, on the last day of the competition, Alex Romero forgot to turn off some Facebook ads he’d set up for the company. And when he got back to his room that night and realized what had happened, he’d already spent like $450 on these ads. Because it turns out, a lot of people clicked through. There was a lot of interest in Phishly. So, they’ve been working to get it ready, and now they’re in beta. Phishly.io. And the winners: Daisy? Well, the thing about StartupBus it isn’t really set up to support companies after they win. There’s a network of people, but no official follow ups or intros to investors or anything like that. Colleen Lavin and Rebecca, Daisy’s CEO were having weekly calls after the competition. They were trying to determine what it would take to really get the company off the ground. And they decided to put Daisy on the backburner for a while. But, just recently, they’ve started talking again about moving it forward. In the meantime, Rebecca is working as a marketing consultant. Colleen Lavin is still looking for a full-time job. When I first got on StartupBus, I was trying to understand why people would sign up for something like this. It’s stressful, you don’t win anything. There’s certainly no guarantee you’ll walk away with a viable company. But after spending a week with these people and seeing where they’ve wound up since, I realized you get on the bus the same way you try on a new outfit at the mall, or the way you walk across a room to ask a stranger to dance. It might only be for a week, a night, or that brief moment standing in front of the mirror, but even for that short time there’s a possibility you can be exactly who you want to be.
ERIC: Oh, and one final update. At the top of the show, Colleen Lavin mentioned how her dad had been sick and lost his voice—his radio voice—because of a surgery. Well a few weeks ago, his voice came back.
JOHN LAVIN: I had surgery the last day in May. I lucked out…
ERIC: And so he and I are gonna close the show out together. Take it away John.
JOHN: This StartUp miniseries was hosted by Eric Mennel. The show is produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Simone Polanen, Amy Standen, and Max Gibson. StartUp’s senior producer is Molly Messick.
ERIC: We’re edited by Annie-Rose Strasser, Lisa Chow, and Alex Blumberg.
JOHN: Mixing by Andrew Dunn and David Herman. Our StartupBus theme is by Bobby Lord. The credit song, “Roll Bus Roll,” is by Jeffrey Lewis. You can see the full music credits on the website. GimletMedia.com/startup.
ERIC: Special thanks to Emmanuel Berry, Phia Bennin, Katelyn Bogucki, Jorge Just, Julia Botero, Matthew Boll, Jim Grau, Ali Bengochea, James Cabrera, Victoria Barner, Kevin Turner. To Jagged Jaw for the song at the end of the episode. And to the entire New York StartupBus. We had special artwork made for each episode this week – by the illustrator Josh Kramer.
JOHN: You can see more of Josh’s work at www.JoshKramerComics.com. And you can listen to more of this show at GimletMedia.com/startup. While you’re there be sure to sign up for the newsletter for exclusive behind the scenes content. And check out all of Gimlet’s other great podcasts.
ERIC: Startup will return in the new year with new seasons. The show is going back to covering one story over many episodes, embedding with people as they try to get their big ideas off the ground. If you have something you think would be good for the show, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And put the phrase “next startup” in the subject line.
JOHN: Thank you so much for tuning in. We’ll see you soon. And one last thing—hire my daughter, she needs a job. That was her idea. That was her idea.
I’m just like my comp’ny, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.
LISA CHOW: Before we get started, a quick warning. There is some swearing in this episode.
ERIC MENNEL: It’s Thursday morning in the garden district of New Orleans. The rain started overnight and there are no signs of it letting up. Outside the hotel, a shuttle is waiting to take teams over to the venue where the StartupBus pitch competition kicks off in just a few hours. Teams from Florida, San Francisco, Ohio—they’re all milling about in the lobby, eating a continental breakfast. Colleen Lavin from Daisy, the funeral planning app, is practicing her pitch to herself, under her breath.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Daisy will be joining a rapidly growing, $20 billion a year industry. With no major competitors, Daisy is poised to kill it.
ERIC: There is one team I don’t see: Denari, the blockchain team. So I head up to the floor where they’re staying.
ADAM GALL: Uhhhhhh.
ERIC: and it’s like a scene out of Scooby Doo. People are running across the hallway, they’re in between rooms, opening doors, slamming them. I spot Colleen Wong and try to stop her.
ERIC: Hi Colleen. How are you ?
COLLEEN WONG: We are freaking out now. We don’t have our pitch deck ready because Anne-Gail and I both fell asleep because we set our alarms…she set her alarm for 30 min I set mine for like five am and like I woke up and it was like 8:30. I was like, “Fuck aren’t we supposed to be downstairs by 8:30?”
ANNE-GAIL MORELAND: Dude, I am freaking out. Why? I’m just so fucking mad at myself.
ERIC: I walk into the room and Anne-Gail is sitting on the bed, knees propped up with the laptop resting on them.
ANNE-GAIL: I’m just so mad at myself.
COLLEEN WONG: We’ll pull together something. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
ANNE-GAIL: It doesn’t have to be perfect, but my whole pride as a designer is that I can make something that looks beautiful, and if I make something that looks any less than what the vision is my head, I feel like I genuinely, I’m just so disappointed. Oh boy. Our alarms just didn’t go off.
ERIC: From Gimlet Media, this is StartUp, the show about what it’s really like to start a business. I’m Eric Mennel. All this week we’ve been following a group of young entrepreneurs as they compete in the StartupBus competition. Today is day four of our trip. It is the day we have been careening towards at 60 miles per hour, all week. It’s competition day. The teams from New York will be facing off against the rest of the buses in the preliminary round of pitching. Now, if you haven’t listened to the first three episodes of this series, I would highly recommend you go back and do that, and get to know some of the people competing today. Alright, let’s get to it.
ERIC: The teams get on the shuttle and head over to the pitch venue, about a mile away. It’s a three-story coworking space, a giant concrete room, with glass offices along the edge and a lofted second floor. Every corner, every office is filled with different teams from around the U.S. and Mexico. One of the first teams I see is Course Align, from Tampa.
COURSE ALIGN: It’s the Gimlet Media guy, again!
ERIC: It’s the Gimlet Media guy again!
ERIC: You may remember Course Align from Tuesday. I met them in Charlotte—they’re the two guys who seemed like the best friends there ever were, just rolling right along. This is from that conversation the other day.
ROBERT BLACKLIDGE: Within the first hour we had already pivoted two or three times. It was incredible. Like, yes, validated, validated, validated!
ERIC: When I see them here in New Orleans, I think to myself, surely they must have had some hiccups by now. Here’s one of their founders, Trey.
TREY STEINHOFF: Honestly, I’ve competed in a lot of these competitions – this is one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of.
ERIC: Damnit, really??
TREY: One of the most well-composed, driven teams, immediately sat down and got to work. I think because of that reason alone I’m feeling pretty good about where we are.
ERIC: It’s about 10am now, an hour or so before the pitching starts. I walk upstairs and in a back corner of the building I find team Phishly. They have big grins on their faces, and they’re high fiving each other. Turns out, last night they launched a beta test of their software. They tried to phish all the people who run StartupBus—the mentors and organizers. They wanted to see whose passwords they could steal.
ALEX ROMERO: We just found out that, we just got the data back. We ran… Vaed talk to them
VAED PRASAD: This is the stats of all the people we attempted to fish and got.
ERIC: This is Vaed, a developer.
ERIC: How many did you get ?
VAED: Of the conductors, of the 13 conductors we got six of them.
ERIC: That’s amazing.
VAED: But think, we could have gotten the passwords for the emails of six conductors. It’s amazing that such a simple thing could have compromised the livelihoods of six people. But like, we got actual people!
ERIC: Almost directly below Phishly, on the ground floor, Colleen Lavin from Daisy is pacing by herself.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Getting close to the wire here.
ERIC: Yeah. Just practicing?
COLLEEN LAVIN: Yeah, practicing. Took a little time to like listen to the Hamilton soundtrack to just amp up.
ERIC: What song?
COLLEEN LAVIN: I’m not throwing away my shot. I’m not throwing away my shot.
ERIC: Let’s get this girl in front of a crowd! Hamilton? Anyone? No? Alright… Around the corner, Denari is out of bed and at the venue. I spot Ash. Ash had a tough week. He was at the center of a couple arguments on the team. At one point there was discussion of him even leaving Denari. But the turnaround has been pretty remarkable in the last 24 hours. And he feels good about what the team’s done.
MOHAMED “ASH” ASHMAWY: Everyone should really be proud that like we’re all here in one piece and everyone has something to show to someone. That’s a, that’s a great achievement, regardless of anything else.
ERIC: You look proud.
ASH: Yeah. I’m, I’m proud of everyone, I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of Colleen. I’m proud of AJ. I’m proud of… I really am happy to see … like, this is why I love the U.S.
ERIC: Ash, remember, moved here from Egypt when he was 17.
ASH: It’s good. That people are having this kind of like opportunities here. This reminds me of why I packed my bags, and I decided to make an opportunity here for myself, so I can help other places, like my home country, become something similar to this, you know?
ERIC: While Ash is taking the time for some reflection, two other members of Denari, Adam and Parker, look like they’ve just walked out of a hall of mirrors. They have these completely freaked-out expressions on their faces.
PARKER MCCURLEY: This entire thing is like a some kind of weird Truman Show psychotropic experience.
ERIC: At first I think Parker’s talking about me. I mean, I’ve been following him around with a microphone for four days straight. But he’s actually realizing some deeper truth about StartupBus itself. The teams have been getting different information about the competition all day. They’re hearing conflicting things about timing, about whether or not pitch decks are allowed. And this confusion, it all feels weirdly intentional. Parker thinks he’s figured out why.
Parker: This is a Navy SEAL training program for startups. This is like we’re going to push you to that to the limit of your mental strength, like every single person on their team is that like living in a role that’s very different from what they walked on the bus wanting to do. You’re pitching.
ERIC: Parker is talking to Adam here, who is about to pitch for Denari on the main stage. And I feel like it’s worth hearing what Adam sounded like when he first got on the bus. This is him on Monday.
ADAM GALL: I’m nervous
ERIC: Yeah what about?
ADAM: I’m new to this thing. I’m new to hackathons and startups. I’m a risk averse, cautious person so like me doing this is very outside my element.
ERIC: Compare that to Adam now, as he stands across from Parker, here in New Orleans.
ADAM: This whole thing has been what I’ve been about for so long, like this whole idea that we’re pitching here. I’m like, now I’m on a bus, where it’s like I’m being taught how to like raise myself up to realize it, you know. There’s no reason not to be hyped as fuck. Like that’s the point right. Like I’m here. Take advantage of it.
ERIC: Adam punches one hand into the other. And then, as he walks away, jumps to smack the low hanging balcony.
ANNOUNCER: Alright startup bus let’s get this competition underway.
ERIC: Everybody gathers on the third floor in this giant concrete space as one of the organizers kicks off the pitches. So, here’s how the next three hours are going to go. There are 22 teams in total. The judges are a few people who help run StartupBus, along with some guests from the New Orleans tech community. About half the teams—10 of them—will move on to the semifinals later tonight. And of those 10, only five will move on to the finals tomorrow. The setup for the pitches is, in a word, janky. There’s a microphone plugged into an old guitar amp, and it’s very prone to feedback. And given the size and concreteness of this room, the teams all sound like they’re pitching from the bottom of well. There are about two hundred people milling about at any given moment, watching the pitches, preparing their own. The first team up to pitch is called Presence. They’re a team of people from San Francisco and Ohio. And the room goes silent. This pitch will set the baseline for the rest of the competition.
RAPHAEL: Hey guys, I’m Raphael and we’re working on presence. A meta social media platform. We are your online passport. The Rome of social media. A contacts book with superpowers. Your facebook about section on steroids.”
ERIC: Huh. OK. But it doesn’t take long for the energy to pick up. You might remember Yetigram, the singing telegram company from Tuesday, in Charlotte. Well today the woman pitching comes out in a full Marilyn Monroe costume—white dress, wig, the whole get up—and she’s written original lyrics.
YETIGRAM: You’ve just gotta enjoy the ride and always shine, refresh your site because of terrible wifi. Cause baby you’re on startup bus, show them what your pitch is worth, make them go ah ah ah, as your value goes up up up.
ERIC: With 22 teams, it’s inevitably a mixed bag. Some of the ideas seem a little half-baked, others are good ideas with a lackluster pitch. Still others seems like they’ve really got it together.
ANNOUNCER: Alright, give it up for team Course Align from Tampa.
ERIC: Take Course Align—the two guys from Tampa who became fast friends. Their company is trying to help universities offer classes that actually match the jobs available on the market. And, as you might expect, given how well their week went, the audience and judges are really responsive to their pitch.
TREY: “Hi everyone, my name is Trey and I’m going to start this pitch with some audience participation. So raise your hand if you graduated from a university?
ERIC: Almost everybody in the crowd raises their hand.
TREY: Now raise your hands if you graduated from university and you felt like you had the skills you needed to get the job you wanted and make an impact?
ERIC: At this point maybe two people raise their hand.
TREY: Not many. And you’re not alone. Universities can’t keep up with the changing job market.
ERIC: On the other side of the room, Karim and Alex Romero, from team Phishly are practicing their pitch.
KARIM EL GAMMAL: Hello everyone. Thanks having us here today. Do you know that 85% of US companies this year are compromised by a phishing attack?
ALEX: What’s phishing?
KARIM: That’s a good question.
ANNOUNCER: Alright send up the next team. Give it up for team Phishly from New York City.
ERIC: Alex and Karim take the floor. Alex bends over to grab the microphone and then he yells into it “we’re not gonna need the mic!”
ALEX: We’re not going to need the mic.
ERIC: And drops it on the ground, directly in front of that janky guitar amp.
mic dropping noise
KARIM: Hello everybody. Thanks for having us here today. Did you know that 85% of US companies this year were hacked and compromised by a phishing attack?
ALEX: What’s phishing?
KARIM: That’s a good question, Alex. Thanks for asking that. Phishing is a real problem.
ERIC: The rhythm is good, their timing is down. They tell the audience about their little phishing experiment the night before and there are audible gasps.
ALEX: And it’s not good news. Over 40% of conductors actually clicked the email and tried entering their credentials. Had this been a real attack, their credentials would have been compromised.
ERIC: And then, they layout the platform, and all it can do.The whole thing is a little corny, but Alex and Karim seem totally aware of that. It’s a real show. People are loving it.
ALEX: Tell them the good news.
KARIM: Are you sure?
ALEX: Tell ‘em!
KARIM: The good news is Phishly if officially live.
ERIC: After the pitch there’s a Q&A, which goes pretty well. They walk off stage, and everyone has huge smiles on their faces. Alex, in particular, has this sort of A-Team quality about him.
ALEX: I love it when a plan comes together.
KARIM: It feels so good. You can see it in everyone’s smile and eyes and like they were laughing and that was the key. That was great.
ERIC: Denari is up soon. And like a drummer in an 80s hair metal band, Adam has decided to perform without any shoes He’s walking around the room in his socks. Grounding himself, he says…
ADAM: I’m in a zone of transcendence right now. I’m trying to stay very focused and in the moment, because, because something big is going to happen. So I’m trying to stay very aware of what’s happening. I’m calm. I’m good. I’m good. I’m in the zone.
ANNOUNCER: So we’ve got another team from New York City coming up here right now. Give it up for Denari.
ERIC: Adam takes the stage, besocked.
ADAM: Luis is a pumpkin farmer in Venezuela. Six months ago a storm ripped through his town and destroyed his farm and his home. He lost his crops, he lost his business, and he lost his potential to earn money.
ERIC: Parker McCurley, Adam’s friend and teammate from Cleveland, is standing right next to me. He’s watching Adam like a proud older brother.
PARKER: I mean, I think this is his purpose, and I think if someone follows their purpose, then all the world conspires in your favor. So, I’m just gonna watch that happen. It’s beautiful.
ADAM: Introducing Denari, the first universal peer to peer giving platform that connects people around shared values. Over the past 24 hours, we’ve had over 250 people express interest in our platform. We’re currently in conversations with CEOs from Amnesty International, MercyCorps, Women2.0, and social entrepreneurs in Myanmar, Singapore, Italy, and Egypt. We’re Denari, and we’re here to make giving easier for everyone.
ERIC: The rest of the team comes up for the Q and A. There’s a question about whether the app works yet and Denari says they can demo it later tonight, if they make it to the semi-finals. The team mostly has solid answers for the judges… but about 30 seconds before time is up… they get a tough one. A judge asks Colleen Wong: How is this not just going to turn into a money laundering platform?
JUDGE: How is this not going to get turned into a money laundering platform overnight?
COLLEEN WONG: Of course, there are, there are concerns about money laundering and funding terrorism. But we down the road are exploring a process in which we can have a solid vetting process, in which we have people on the ground in these communities in these countries.
ERIC: She gets through it, but it’s never a great sign when you have use the phrase “concerns about funding terrorism.” They leave the stage, and after they’ve had a minute to collect themselves, I find Colleen Wong and ask her how she thinks it went.
COLLEEN WONG: I’m feeling bad about myself. I feel like I fucked up the Q&A. Like I am terrible when I’m in front of people, like in a crowd. And I think my team was upset with the way I handled it.
ERIC: You think they’re upset?
COLLEEN WONG: Yeah. I totally got that impression. And, I don’t know. I just, I don’t feel like I’m a good leader most of the time.
ERIC: Are you kidding me?! Have you, like, seen yourself this week?!
COLLEEN WONG: I’m like, I don’t know. I’m just not like very confident and like. I’m not like a typical like outspoken person.
ERIC: But you, like, pulled together the, like, craziest team on the bus. It was a great thing.
COLLEEN WONG: I don’t think it was me. I think it was just like timing and how things went. So.
ERIC: But you were in charge.
COLLEEN WONG: Eh, I don’t know.
ERIC: The next and last team from New York is Daisy. They’re huddled together on the far side of the room. Colleen Lavin and Rebecca, Daisy’s CEO, give their thoughts on the competition so far.
REBECCA BATTERMAN: I mentioned to Colleen that I thought that the telegram singing was a little pitchy.
ERIC: And then, Colleen Lavin gets up to pitch. No microphone.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Alright, can you hear me in the back? Awesome. Hi, I’m Colleen, and I’m here to talk about everyone’s favorite topic … death. We are all going to die and many of us have friends and family who we care deeply about who are also going to die. So most of us in this room, at one point in time or another, are going to have to deal with the horrific circus that is planning a funeral.
ERIC: Daisy is one of the last companies to pitch this afternoon. 20 other teams had gone at this point. And through almost all of those pitches, the room remained pretty busy. People were walking in and out; they were mumbling in the back, typing away on their computers. It felt a little like a school cafeteria that happened to have a pitch competition going on in the corner. But as Colleen starts talking, something remarkable happens. The room goes silent. People in the back shuffle their way forward to the stage. They pull out cell phones and start taking videos. She commands the room in a way no other team has managed.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Daisy is a funeral planning platform that guides next of kin through each step of the funeral process from start to finish. It offers a funeral planning checklist, connects you to florists, caterers, funeral homes and reception venues, showing you the average price per item for your area, so you know what you’re getting into and don’t get oversold or scammed.
ERIC: Her teammates are smiling from the side. They know it’s going well. And then, that last line.
COLLEEN LAVIN: With no major competitors, Daisy is poised. To kill it.
ERIC: The team comes up for the Q and A. There’s a question about how Daisy is going to market their product. And then there’s a question that catches me off guard. Well not so much the question as the answer. A judge asks what inspired the idea.
JUDGE: What inspired thIS idea?
COLLEEN LAVIN: Inspired the idea? My dad’s been having a lot of health problems lately. So when I was visiting home last, we had to go to the estate lawyer, my mom mentioned buying a funeral plot, and I realized that I had no idea what I would do during that time. And I figured there are more people like me. So we decided to make this.
ERIC: The Q and A wraps. Daisy exits. The pitches end.
ANNOUNCER: Alright, that’s the last of our teams for the preliminaires. Let’s give it up to everybody who made it through this experience and just pitched for you. The judges from here are going to take a 30-minute deliberation break and we will announce who is making it into the second round tonight, which starts at five.
ERIC: The judges pack up their things and head to another room. I ask if I can join them for the discussion. They tell me “no”. But after about 20 minutes I get a tap on the shoulder. And that’s how I wind up … in the room where it happens… the room where it happens… the room where it happens… Hamilton? Anybody? No?… Alright. That’s after the break.
ERIC: So it had been about 20 minutes since the judges disappeared, and then something strange happened. One of the competition’s organizers came up to me and said, “Hey – I was in there with the judges, they know you’ve been recording a lot, do you want to come in and listen to the last few minutes of their discussion, before we announce the winners?” And I said, “Yeah, that would be great.” So I follow the guy downstairs, and I wait outside the glass room where the judges are. And then, one of them signals for me to come in. I walk into the room with my microphone turned on, and I say…
ERIC: Hey everyone.
ERIC: “Hey everyone…” and that’s it. For the rest of the time I’m in that room, I just record, I don’t interject. What they explain is that they have made their decision. They’ve voted, and they know who they’re sending to the semi-finals. And what they want to do is just re-enact the end of their conversation. So this tape starts right as I walk in.
ELIAS BIZANNES: So. We’ve decided. We want to be careful though what gets recorded. So
JUDGE 2: We can discuss a couple of teams but just say that team or this team instead of saying…
ELIAS: Should we just replay the last conversation we had?
JUDGE 2: Sure.
ERIC: To be honest, I didn’t think this would be that interesting. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t even use it, because, I don’t know, it’s fake. But, let’s just let it play out.
ELIAS: We’ve said we’re only going to send 10, which means we need to cut one of the last group. So the last group is a bit of a mixed bag. But we have Titan, Phishly, Yetigram, Money Expert, and Lucking. Now, how are we going to decide what to cut there.
ERIC: So ten teams are moving on. They’ve got 11 they like. So they’re choosing one from the bottom five to cut. Those teams—Titan, Yetigram, Money Expert, Lucking…and Phishly.
JUDGE 2: There’s, one of those that is a product that’s already been done several times, and that would be my vote for who we decide to cut.
JUDGE 3: Yeah if it exists, why should we…
JUDGE 4: Yeah it’s already been done all over the place, there’s no question.
JUDGE 2: If we’re talking about the same team, their presentation was off the chain. It was amazing. And was probably one of my favorite pitches but the fact is it already exists 3, 4, 5 times over.
ELIAS: But isn’t that how most, like you think about most businesses are successful, it’s already been a mature, commoditized industry.
JUDGE 2: But in their pitch I didn’t see how they’re going to execute better.
ERIC: Now, I’m standing to the side, trying to piece together who they’re talking about. Because, remember, at this point, this is supposed to be a reenactment. No names or anything. And best I can gather—a great pitch, a product that kind of already exists—I’m pretty sure they want to cut Phishly.
JUDGE 2: I mean it really looked like an identical product with an identical client base and delivered in a near identical way.
ERIC: And this is where things start to take a turn. The conversation the judges had been reenacting, they now just slip back into just having that conversation. They start relitigating the decisions they’d made before I walked in the room. So one of them asks, “If we’re worried about identical products, what about this other app from Mexico, called Lucking? It’s also been done before.” “Yeah,” they say, “but it could also tie into other apps, so that would make it more valuable.” Then someone mentions Denari.
JUDGE 3: I thought the presentation was really slick.
JUDGE 2: That’s a shitstorm waiting to happen, are you kidding me? One, like they have so many regulatory hurdles. That’s like a go-to-prison kind of app. A user or the people behind it, someone’s getting arrested for that app.
ERIC: Then one of the judges, the founder of StartupBus, a guy named Elias, he makes an observation.
ELIAS: Just one other thing. If we cut Phishly, which I think we’ve got a split table on
that, there is no New York team appearing in the semifinals.
ERIC: This really surprises me. You know as well as anyone that the New York bus had its troubles. But everyone I talked to felt pretty confident at least one New York team would be moving forward. As it stands now, that is not the case. And it’s then that Elias points something else out. Something about the judges in the room.
ELIAS: I only want to flag. I don’t think we need to have each bus represented, but I want to account for a bit of bias here, because three of the five of us here each have a geographic bias.
JUDGE 2: There’s no New York rep in the room.
ERIC: When you look around the table, there are judges from Tampa, New Orleans, and Mexico City. The Mexico City judge was actually one of the mentors on the Mexico City bus. But nobody affiliated with New York is in the room. And there was one interaction I observed that actually makes this point feel pretty relevant. The judges were talking about a company called Money Expert. It’s a company from Mexico City. Most of the judges were on the fence about it. Money Expert didn’t actually have a working product yet. But there was one judge, the judge affiliated with Mexico City, who was convinced they could make the working product by the semi-finals, that night. And she put up a real fight for Money Expert. So they moved forward. Back at the table, the judges take another look at the New York teams. Just to see.
JUDGE 2: Who’s the highest ranked New York team that we ranked collectively who almost made it.
ELIAS: The highest ranked New York team? Phishly was the highest ranked.
JUDGE 5: Oh no I have Daisy as my highest ranked New York team.
JUDGE 4: Actually, me too.
JUDGE 3: My 11 and 12 are tied with Daisy, so I….
ERIC: It seems like the judges actually liked Daisy, but it kind of fell into this weird middle ground where, because of the ranking system, they never discussed it once they got in the room. This is the first time they’re bringing it up.
ELIAS: I actually went through this when my father passed away a year ago. And what actually happened was, the whole family is in shock. Thank God for my sister in law, she knew exactly what to do.
JUDGE 2: And the easier and more user friendly you can make that, the better off you are.
JUDGE 4: I mean her pitch was hilariously awesome… we all laughed about death. Even the corniest the last line, it was so cute!
JUDGE 2: They couldn’t have gone out and casted a better person to do that pitch.
ELIAS; Ok, so people like Daisy.
JUDGE 2: Yeah
ELIAS: Let’s drop Phishly and swap it out with Daisy. So now we’ve got a New York team that’s swapped with another New York team. But we still need to drop a team.
ERIC: So this means we’re back where we started when I first walked in. They are letting 10 teams move forward. They have 11 they like. So they need to cut one from the bottom. All that’s different is they’ve swapped out Phishly, and put Daisy in. This feels a little weird. The judges had made up their minds, and then they invited me in the room, started talking again, and they changed their minds. But also, I don’t know, I didn’t say anything. Mostly I think that, when I walked in, it gave them an extra five minutes to think about their decision. And if something else happened, like if the lock on the door broke right now, and that gave them another five minutes, I’m not so sure things wouldn’t change again. Anyway, they take another vote.
ELIAS: So I’ll include all the bottom ranked ones. So Titan, Daisy, Yetigram, Money Expert, and Lucking.
ERIC: The judges are out. Everyone is gathering on the third floor to hear the announcement. Frank from team Denari is standing in the middle of the crowd, his arms folded.
FRANK CARINGI: We’re going the find out soon who’s going to the next round, so I hope it’s some New York people.
PARTICIPANT: The moment of truth. The moment of truth.
ERIC: The judges gather up front.
JUDGE 2: First of all, everybody who pitched today, give yourselves a hand. We had a lot of tough choices to make. Actually we thought we had made the choices and then we started talking again.
ELIAS: We didn’t want to get recorded by the StartUp podcast, and then we said once we decided, we allowed them to come in and just pretend to talk, and we completely changed the results.
ERIC: Oh boy.
ELIAS: It was actually interesting. And I’m glad we did that, it was a much more effective judging process
JUDGE 2: It really was. And so no one should be disappointed with the results today.
ERIC: They start announcing the teams moving onto the next round.
JUDGE 2: So I think I’ll start announcing who’s going to be pitching in the semifinals. The first team…
CROWD: Wait wait wait, no, I’m just kidding
JUDGE 2: Is everybody calm, ready for this? The first team is Yetigram from Tampa. The second team is Del Campo from Mexico City! Daisy from New York City! You guys killed it!
COLLEEN LAVIN: Oh my gosh! I totally was ready for disappointment.
ERIC: In the end, only one New York team moves forward, Daisy. You can tell Phishly and Denari are both disappointed. Everyone genuinely thought at least Phishly would be making it through. But it’s not pure heartbreak. Anne-Gail and Adam are standing next to each other.
ERIC: How you feeling?
ANNE-GAIL: A weird sense of relief and a weird sense of sadness.
ADAM: Yeah, I’m bummed we’re not going on, but I think we all did the best we could here. I’m not disappointed with what we accomplished.
ERIC: But there is still one New York team in the running. Daisy. And right now they are literally running down the stairs to find a quiet place to prep for the semi-final round. It starts in just an hour or so. The next 60 minutes are a whirlwind. The team decides what they want to add to the pitch for their next round, and what they hope they don’t get asked about.
COLLEEN LAVIN: And I really hope they don’t look at this code. It’s kinda lame. Take that out.
ERIC: But it’s so funny!
COLLEEN LAVIN: No, but I want someone to hire me!
ERIC: Focus, focus.
ERIC: The next thing you know, Colleen is in a back on stage, pitching her heart out.
COLLEEN LAVIN: The average funerals costs eight to ten thousand dollars apiece. That leaves grieving families to deal with making difficult, expensive decisions in an already emotionally challenging time.
REBECCA BATTERMAN: How are you feeling? You did a great job with your memorization.
COLLEEN LAVIN: I had to check twice.
REBECCA BATTERMAN: That’s ok
ERIC: The rest of the teams pitch. The judges disappear again. I DO NOT ASK TO SIT IN THIS TIME. I LEARNED MY LESSON. Woof. The judges come back, and they take the stage to announce who’s going to the finals. Only five teams will make it.
ANNOUNCER: So the moment that you’re all waiting for, the people who will be pitching tomorrow. The first team is Course Align! The second team is Daisy!
MADELENA MAK: Yes yes yes yes.
ERIC: That’s Madelena, who’s been standing with Daisy this whole time.
MADELENA: Yes! Yes!
ERIC: In the end they announce 5 teams. Course Align—the two guys from Tampa, Daisy, Initiate Today—an employee onboarding software, there’s a company making specialty bike pedals, called drop-in-pedals. And a website from Mexico called Del Campo, that cuts the middlemen out of produce distribution. A DJ starts blasting music as soon as the finalists are announced. The teams have until tomorrow afternoon to work on their products. And Madelena makes it clear. for Daisy, work is what’s in store.
MADELENA: No parties for all of you tonight. No parties.
REBECCA: So let’s leave this room and go have a talk.
MADELENA: Alright let’s do it, work work work. We did it! Daisy Daisy Daisy.
ERIC: StartUp’s regular host is Lisa Chow. This episode was produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Simone Polanen, Amy Standen and Max Gibson. Our senior producer is Molly Messick. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser. I’m Eric Mennel. Our theme song is by Bobby Lord. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. “Roll Bus Roll” is by Jeffrey Lewis. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup. David Herman and Ian Scott mixed the episode. Special thanks to Alex Blumberg, Emanuele Berry, Bobby Lord, Matthew Boll, and Alvin Melathe. To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you like to use. And while you’re there, leave a review! It’s your chance to tell the world how you feel.
COLLEEN LAVIN: I’m not throwing away my shot. I’m not throwing away my shot.
ERIC: Find out more about the show at the Gimlet Media website: GimletMedia.com. Thanks for listening. There is one more episode left in our series, the big reveal, the grand finale. That is coming your way tomorrow.
“The more you know, the more you realize ‘I don’t know sh*t.'”
LISA CHOW: Before we get started, a quick warning: there’s some swearing in this episode.
ERIC MENNEL: OK we are entering the house, leaving the bedroom…
ERIC: It’s about eight in the morning on Wednesday, and I’m making my way through Providence Lodge—the big cabin we stayed in last night.
ERIC: All the lights are out.
ERIC: I’m trying my best to be quiet, but it’s the kind of home that creaks no matter how light you step.
ERIC: People asleep on all the couches out here. It’s kinda cute.
ERIC: When I went to bed last night, most of the riders were still awake. They worked late, some of them just setting their laptops on the ground and drifting off to sleep on the furniture. Team Denari, however, was having a frank discussion about some concerns they had with one of their teammates, Ash. Ash has been at the center of a lot of Denari’s problems—there was the argument about being a dysfunctional team on Monday, and later that conversation about choosing a CEO. And late last night the other members of Denari talked about whether he should even be allowed to stay on the team. From what I’ve gathered, a lot of this centers around a conflict with Anne-Gail, the sophomore from Mount Holyoke. This tape is from when we talked on Monday.
ANNE-GAIL MORELAND: With tech, I have no idea where the hell i’m going. I have no idea where I’m going to be in ten years, I have no idea where I’m going to be in a year. I have no idea where I’ll be in five days.
ERIC: Apparently Ash said something about how Anne-Gail was expressing opinions.something to the effect of: ‘You’re really young, and you don’t have enough experience to make big decisions for the team.’ Anne-Gail saw this as a personal attack. But Ash saw it as feedback, nothing more. Team Denari wanted to talk with Ash in private last night. So this morning, when Ash wakes up, I pull him aside to ask about the meeting. He still seems pretty tired.
ERIC: So I noticed last night that the team was having a meeting and they woke you up for that meeting.
MOHAMED “ASH” ASHMAWY: Yeah.
ERIC: You want to talk about it at all? What happened there?
ASH: No, I mean they just wanted to make sure that everyone is on the same page. They wanted to resolve as many conflicts as possible. So I think they voiced some concerns and I heard them loud and clear. So to avoid like lack of productivity we should really try to put our differences aside, so…
ERIC: And you feel like whatever was said in that meeting you feel like you heard them like you’re working how to process the problem?
ASH: Yeah, I mean obviously there are things that I did disagree with and I will keep on disagreeing with. If I said something then I believe in it.
ERIC: Ash doesn’t seem to think this interaction with Anne-Gail was particularly serious, more that, other people made it serious. But he also knows he doesn’t have much choice but to make things work with his teammates.
ASH: There are usually many options. Not in this case. One of us can’t just leave. That’s not what I’m planning to do for sure. I’m gonna work through this. We’ll just see what happens.
ERIC: Having fun still?
ASH: Relatively, relatively.
ERIC: Relative to what?
ASH: Relative to the situation like that we’re in. So, relatively.
ERIC: This is StartUp, from Gimlet Media. I’m Eric Mennel. We are on day three of our five-day series on StartupBus—StartupBus, the competition where teams have just a few days to start companies from scratch. While on a bus. We are on our way from New York to New Orleans, and this is the last day on the bus. It is the last day to actually build the companies before the pitch competition tomorrow. Now, every day has brought new challenges for these teams. The same challenges faced by lots of people when they start a company. These challenges can be professional. They can also be intensely personal. And today we’ll see how the bus forces people to confront these challenges head on—even if they’d rather avoid them.
ERIC: Back on the bus. Everybody loves the bus.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Don’t be mean, Eric.
ERIC: I love the bus. I am one with the bus.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Stockholm Syndrome.
ERIC: So here we are, Wednesday. We get on the road at about 9am, leaving from the mountains of Western North Carolina, heading South, toward Atlanta. The bus itself is starting to look and smell more and more like a college dorm room. There are junk food wrappers in the aisle, discarded Red Bull cans in the crevices between the seats. People have been in the same chairs long enough that if you sit in the wrong place the cushion doesn’t quite conform to the shape your butt.
BUS RIDER: Nothing I drink will ever fit in the damn cupholders.
ERIC: Once we hit the highway, I make the rounds, to see how the different teams are doing heading into the day. Team Phishly, the email phishing app—they’ve actually got a working product now, that other people can test out. They launched an ad campaign on Facebook yesterday to try and attract users, and I ask how it went, how many people clicked through. Here’s Alex Romero, the developer who came up with Phishly.
ALEX ROMERO: The Facebook campaign was a $65 mistake. We were looking at the traffic and we had 65 clicks from Facebook and I was excited and then we look at our Google Analytics and it was zero. I was like, “What just happened?”
ERIC: Apparently, when Alex set up the ad, he directed it to the wrong URL. He set it https://Phishly.io. The problem is, they’d registered a different address—http:… without the “s”…
ALEX: which meant that all the traffic went to a page that doesn’t exist.
PHISHLY TEAM MEMBER: They click on the link but they go nowhere.
ALEX: Yes. $65 typo, man. No other way of saying it, man.
ERIC: Across the aisle, Daisy is quietly plugging away. The window by their table is covered with a curtain of post-it notes, outlining the different tasks for the day.
CAL COSTANZO: What do you need from us to help you get your job done? The design stuff?
COLLEEN LAVIN: The design stuff? I’ll probably incorporate the design stuff later rather than sooner…
ERIC: And toward the front of the bus is Denari. Last night, on top of working through the situation with Ash, they also decided to elect a CEO. They asked Colleen Wong to do it. She agreed. And today she’s really settling into the role. Right now she’s helping Adam, the dad from Cleveland, focus the team’s pitch. They want to show that Denari is not just about blockchain technology. It’s also about helping people and NGOs.
COLLEEN WONG: When we do get to the pitching, I just want to clarify the stuff with the NGO…part.
ADAM GALL: Yeah. I get way too, like, “fuck everything else except blockchains” but you’re right.
COLLEEN WONG: Alright. Well, we’ll talk about it, but keep coding. Don’t want to distract you guys.
ERIC: Over the last couple of days I’ve spent a lot of time with the competitors on StartupBus, getting to know them, and why they’re here. But there was someone else on the bus I wanted to talk with. Someone who’s competed on StartupBus before, and so has a little more perspective on the competition. She’s also the person who planned the New York route this year—Madelena Mak—she’s the conductor you’ve heard making announcements over the last couple of days.
MADELENA MAK: The number one rule on StartupBus is there’s no number two on the bus.
ERIC: Three years ago, on the bus, Madalena started a company called “MiniMap.” It’s an app that tells you what events are going on nearby, and the best way to get there. She made it all the way to the finals, and lost. But she’s still working on the idea. It’s actually in beta right now. And when we talk about her relationship to StartupBus, it becomes clear: Madelena was made for StartupBus. And StartupBus was made for her.
MADELENA: Yeah, it’s like StartupBus is like a weird childhood dream become true, almost.
ERIC: Madelena grew up in Hong Kong, where she went to a Catholic school. And it was there, during recess, that she got her first taste of mass transit.
MADELENA: I literally would organize and do these fake subway lines. Everybody, like, put their hands on each other’s shoulder, you know, and form a train, and just run across the playground. It’s fun to be, like, the train conductor, you know, and now we’re bus conductor doing the same thing.
ERIC: Now, if you were to look at a map of this trip on StartupBus, you’d realize it’s a pretty insane route. It jogs and meanders. It’s nowhere near the quickest path to New Orleans. I mean, we spent a full 24 hours just in North Carolina. But Madelena says this was all very intentional. She wanted to take the riders to places they may never visit otherwise.
MADELENA: We definitely took some risks in terms of planning the route. I was pretty scared to go down south.
MADELENA: Yeah, like, this whole trip I was kind of worried.
MADELENA: I mean, you know, the current political climate, you never know if things would break out. You know.
ERIC: I should say, I know how this sounds. I grew up in the South, I’ve worked in the South, when people from New York say they’re scared of the south, it can be kind of annoying. But Madelena has a reason to feel this way. She identifies as transgender. She started transitioning when she moved to the U.S. for college. And leading up to this trip, the trip she was planning, she was reading these headlines that made her wonder: is it even safe for a person like me to be going to places like this?
MADELENA: I mean like, the day we departed, you know. July 31st, a trans woman got murdered in Atlanta. In New Orleans there were already…like in the Louisiana area already three people died, just because they’re trans.
ERIC: This year?
MADELENA: This year. Personally, I don’t want to stop by North Carolina because of all the bathroom bills that happened.
MADELENA: So that was pretty scary to me.
ERIC: It’s like a real thing.
MADELENA: It’s a real thing.
ERIC: Given this fear, you might wonder why Madelena even signed up to do this. To answer that, you need understand how deeply StartupBus runs in her veins, how important it is to her. She started going to hackathons about 4 years ago. At first, it was an isolating experience—she wound up making projects by herself, instead of with a team.
MADELENA: It was very difficult, like just me going by myself to Techcrunch Disrupt. You know the first hour, you’re in this giant hall, you know, everybody talking to each other. Mostly guys very excited about their ideas. And I’m just standing there and just being ignored because I don’t look like anybody. So I felt very left out and excluded.
ERIC: But as crummy as some of those hackathons were, Madelena did notice one thing that kept popping up.
MADELENA: From the hackathons that I went to before the bus, I learned that quite a few winners were teams formed with people wearing shirts that says, “StartupBus.” Like, what the heck is StartupBus? Like why are these people winning hackathons?
ERIC: They all knew each other from this thing. And like, oh this might be the trick.
ERIC: And this realization came at a really pivotal time for Madelena.
MADELENA: The startup that I was working for, they only have a few months left and they’re probably going to go bankrupt, my romantic relationship was failing very badly, and my immigration visa was going to expire in three months. I mean when I come on the bus, I felt like that ,that might be my my hope. It cost $300. I didn’t have any money left at that time, so I made a deal with my employer. If he can give me $1000, so that I can go on StartupBus. And he agreed. So thanks Kevin.
ERIC: Yeah, thanks, Kevin. Anyway, with all the visa stuff looming in the background, Madelena was really feeling the pressure to make StartupBus work.
MADELENA: I think I took it way too seriously. I definitely felt that that’s my chance to stay in the United States, you know. Like I have to form a company on the bus. If I don’t, I don’t know who’s going to sponsor me for another three years.
ERIC: You have to form a company because then you’ll have a company to sponsor you.
MADELENA: Exactly. It’s like literally that’s my survival.
ERIC: Did you tell anybody that?
ERIC: Because why would you?
MADELENA: Yeah. That’s way too much, man.
ERIC: So she gets to the finals, and loses. But after the competition, Madelena was able to find a visa sponsor and stay in the U.S. She got about a half dozen letters of support from the StartupBus community. The whole thing changed her life in this really tangible way. And it helped her understand why people sign up for StartupBus.
ERIC: What is the point of StartupBus to you?
MADELENA: What is the point of StartupBus? I mean, what is the point of life?
MADELENA: StartupBus was appealing to me because it sort of was a wildcard. And I know that I need to break out of my mold but I don’t know how to. I think, like, to throw a wildcard at yourself is one of the many ways to do that. One of the most effective ways of doing that. I mean, I think like lot of people who join the bus have that same feeling I felt, like that they want to be dealt a wildcard. That they want to be pushed to the limits so they can break out of their own old molds. Like they want to be something more than who they think they can be. It’s not about the bus. It’s about learning something about yourself.
ERIC: When Madelena said this, I thought of Adam, the dad from Cleveland, who was working a dead end insurance job, but now feels like blockchain is his chance to leave a lasting impact on the world. I thought about Colleen Wong, who had just quit her job, and is now leading a team of unruly developers to build a massively complicated project. I thought about Anne-Gail who had thought their life was set in stone, med school or bust, until they got involved in tech. And I thought about myself, and why I was starting to feel so connected to these people. When I first heard about StartupBus, I thought the idea was insane—a recipe for total disaster. But I’d also just spent the better part of a year trying to get my own projects off the ground, and they’d largely gone nowhere. I was in a long term relationship that was starting to fade. I was unhappy. And I couldn’t figure out what to do to change any of that. I needed a wild card. So a week on a bus, with a bunch of strangers with big ideas? I mean, why not? If you don’t like the direction your life is taking, why not set out on a journey where you’re totally blind? Who knows what you’ll bump into.
MADELENA: So we are going to be in Atlanta in 50 minutes.
ERIC: After the break, the teams get a harsh reality check from some business owners down South. And I check back in with Ash, to see where things stand with him and the rest of Denari.
MADELENA: Welcome to Atlanta, Georgia.
ERIC: It’s almost noon by the time we make our last major stop of the trip: downtown Atlanta. We’re at another co-working space. And the teams are about to pitch to some local founders. On the face of it, it’s not so different from our stops in D.C. or Charlotte, but this stop will actually be much more challenging for the teams. It’s their last chance to practice the pitches with actual founders—founders who, it turns out, will give them crucial feedback. The space is called digitalundivided. It’s an incubator program specifically for black and Latina women. It was founded in 2012 and has helped launch more than 50 companies founded by women of color. Inside the building, the walls are lined with Shepard Fairey-style prints of women from diverse backgrounds. There’s a giant poster from Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential campaign. People settle in as Madelena gives a welcome.
MADELENA: Thank you so much for being here everybody and thank you so much to digitalundivided. Let’s have our pitching begin. The first team is Daisy!
COLLEEN LAVIN: Hi! I’m Colleen. And I’m here to talk about everyone’s favorite topic. Death!
ERIC: Colleen Lavin’s pitch for Daisy is feeling really tight. It’s like you’re watching your comedian cousin do her fourth or fifth open mic night with the same material, and finally all the jokes are starting to land.
COLLEEN LAVIN: With no major competitors in the market, Daisy is poised… to kill it.
ERIC: Colleen takes some questions. The first one comes from a woman who goes by the name X. She works for Microsoft. And she asks if Daisy is only going to deal with the funeral event itself, or if it’ll be helping with all the other stuff that happens when someone dies, all the paperwork…
X: Cause I’m thinking like how do I get their death certificate, how do I get…like there’s so many things when a person dies when you start thinking about it.
DARLENE GILLARD JONES: Yeah, because I actually did go through a family member dying and having to have death certificates.
ERIC: This other voice is Darlene Gillard Jones. She’s one of the directors of digitalundivided.
DARLENE: For like the insurance people, like all these different people, so I think adding that component to it could be interesting.
ERIC: This idea, of helping people get their loved one’s death certificate, it hadn’t really come up during the pitches in the other cities. People had been asking questions about monetization and marketing—pretty standard stuff. But this death certificate idea felt different. And Daisy wound up adding it to their platform that day. When Denari steps up, it feels like this might actually the best audience for their company so far. X, the woman who’s been asking questions, is a co-founder of a blockchain company. So she understands the technology and its value.
COLLEEN WONG: People want to help people, and right now the platforms that exist to allow people to give money, they’re flawed systems.
ERIC: Colleen Wong starts by outlining the problem. GoFundMe only exists in 19 countries, she says That means 177 countries don’t have access to that kind of fundraising.
COLLEEN WONG: There are people everywhere who need money, want money to live their lives, to help other people.
ERIC: It’s more pulled together than their other pitches so far. But the questions they get from the panel are tough. X, the judge, she raises a point that hasn’t really come up at the previous stops: What about financial regulation?
X: You are talking about now securities exchange over multiple countries. Maybe there are reasons GoFundMe only deals with 19. Which I haven’t heard you guys say. Is it cause they don’t want to? Because that’s kind of what it comes off as. It’s like, “GoFundMe is the largest one, they’re only in 19 countries.” Why is that?
MADELENA: All right. Great pitch.
ERIC: This stop in Atlanta is a stark reminder: these teams are trying to build working companies, and there are things that still aren’t working. The pitch competition starts tomorrow. And there is still a lot to do. We leave digitalundivided and people scatter for lunch downtown. A small group heads to a cheap Greek place around the corner, and I find Alex Romero there, from team Phishly. Phishly’s made a lot of progress—they actually have a working prototype now, and Alex is starting to do that thing where you visualize your victory.
ALEX: It’s like the A-Team, right? I just want to be there tomorrow on stage, completely destroy the audience. Just wow them. And then just tell them, “I love it when a plan comes together.” I just want to say that. Like, if you come to me and tomorrow I get to say that. Oooo. Isn’t that the A-Team? I love it when a plan comes together?
DEVON VINCENT: I don’t know.
ALEX: No one watched the A-Team?
ERIC: After lunch comes together we make our way back to the bus. It’s then that I notice Ash, from Denari. He’s been quiet most of the day, clearly taking a step back, not interacting with his team much. But here, in Atlanta, he pulls Anne-Gail aside. Remember, they hadn’t been getting along since Ash implied Anne-Gail was too young and inexperienced to make big decisions for the team. While we’re waiting to get on the bus—I see the two of them talking by a light pole, maybe 10 yards away. I can’t tell what they’re saying, but it looks calm, professional. I eventually had a chance to sit down and talk with Ash about it. And about this question of what makes something a personal attack rather than professional feedback. I asked him how he determines where that line is.
ASH: Yeah, so I like being true to myself. Because I could have easily you know, just like, ‘Oh yeah but I’m sorry I guess I crossed the line. I was like personally attacking her.’ But admitting that would just be a lie. There is no second that I believed that at any given point that I was personally attacking anyone anywhere.
ERIC: But what’s important is that like they felt like it was personal and like–
ASH: And it’s OK, and it’s OK I guess, like I mean, honestly. Anne-Gail can feel like, she has the right to feel whatever she wants to feel, right, because she is the opposite party.
ERIC: A quick note here: while Anne-Gail asked me to use they/them pronouns, this is not something they brought up with everyone on the bus, that’s why Ash is using “she” and “her.”
ASH: They heard her story but no one ever got a chance to hear my story directly. And it’s very easy to like take sides with someone who’s like saying that they’re being attacked by someone who seemed to be intimidating in the beginning. The narrative, you know, flows. It flows. It’S not really like Ash was receptive and no, I mean it flows. It’s plausible.
ERIC: The thing about StartupBus is that it really is like a reality TV show. It’s so intense that every interaction, every personality can feel like a caricature of real life. And when you become the outsider, like Ash has, you feel that in a serious way. I imagine this caught Ash off-guard. Cause in his own life he’s grown comfortable being the outsider. In fact, that’s where he thrives. Ash was born in Cairo. He says he comes from a long line of contractors and business owners, largely in construction. Which in Egypt can mean you’re pretty well off financially. But that also meant there were expectations, and a very particular road he could follow for his future—the road to running his own construction business in Cairo. He didn’t want that. He remembers sitting in grade school, hearing the name Mark Zuckerberg for the first time. Facebook had just become a billion dollar company, with influence all over the world. And Ash was angry. He wanted that for himself. Not the money, but the impact, the scope. He wanted to be attached to something bigger than himself and his family. And he knew how difficult it would be to get that in Egypt. So at 17, he packed his bags and flew to America. First it was Ohio. Then Nebraska, then Minnesota. He’d be in college somewhere for a year and then transfer, a sort of pioneer’s trek across the Midwest in search of some key that would unlock his future. He did all this alone, leaving much of his family back in Cairo puzzled.
ASH: I didn’t really have anyone to help or like pull strings. So I was more and more conditioned to keep emotions aside and really you know just try to force the other to like respect to you.
ERIC: I imagine those are strange places to move from Egypt too.
ASH: Absolutely, absolutely. No one knows what Nebraska is. I like the unknown, I like being thrown with no floaters. To see if you can just swim, just swim.
ERIC: This was the moment I really started to understand why Ash is the way he is. I think there are usually two ways to respond to being alone in a place: you can put a lot of trust in the strangers around you, assuming they’ll look out for you, or you can put that trust in yourself, and go it alone. Ash seems like the latter to me. He likes being thrown into the unknown as a way of pushing his own limits, to see what he is capable of. I asked him about that moment in Atlanta, when I saw him talking with Anne-Gail by the light pole.
ASH: In Atlanta, I did take Anne-Gail aside, and I did give her a quick idea about how I rethought everything. And then I, I think perhaps I might have been a little bit rough in giving that feedback. and perhaps that’s where the misunderstanding came in. But I also made very clear that my feedback is not different. Maybe the delivery. I failed the delivery right there. But I guess that calmed things a little bit down. Like, she thanked me for you know at least revisiting that and trying to reflect, I guess.
ERIC: I talked with Anne-Gail about this. And they said things did get much better after the talk with Ash. The two of them started joking, they were sending memes to each other. Anne-Gail also felt like the questions Ash raised about age and experience were just less relevant by day three. At this point, Anne-Gail had designed a beautiful front-end for Denari, and the rest of the team loved it. Before we wrapped up, I asked Ash if he learned anything going through all this stuff with Denari.
ASH: I think it’s really just more of a reinforcing of a concept that I’ve always believed in. The people who choose to work with it, this is what will make or break anything. It’s not the idea, it’s not the technology, it’s not, you know, the business solution that you’ve came up with, it’s not the revenue model. It’s none of that. It’s the people you choose to work with, and if that is not 100 percent working out, nothing will.
ERIC: Can I ask how old you are?
ASH: Yeah sure. I’m 23. I’m actually, I’m turning 24 in a week.
ERIC: What things do you feel like you still have left to learn?
ASH: A lot. Everything. Everything. I know I might come off like giving a strong opinions about things. But no, I am truly self-aware of my shortcomings, which are a lot. There’s so much out there still to learn. Really, the more you know the more you realize I don’t know shit.
MADELENA: In two hours you’ll reach your final destination in New Orleans.
MADELENA: Alright? Alright.
ERIC: The last two hours on the bus before New Orleans are a whirlwind. People are giddy, like they’re cramming in every last ounce of goofiness while they still can. Over on Denari, Ash and Colleen Wong are joking. They’re sitting across from Adam and Anne-Gail, who are losing their minds, pretending to pitch blockchain.
ADAM: Put it on the blockchain
ANNE-GAIL: Put it on the blockchain. It’s the ledger, it’s public.
ADAM: Yes, it’s backed by people.
ANNE-GAIL: By people. Not by government.
ADAM: Us. It’s about us.
ERIC: Up at the front of the bus Colleen Lavin tries to pitch Daisy one last time. But everybody’s heard it so much, they can’t help but heckle her.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Can you hear me in the back?
BUS RIDER: We can hear you in the front.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Oh good. I don’t care if you can hear me.
ERIC: We’re just a few miles from New Orleans, now. You can see the lights in the distance, and then we pass another bus.
AMY HUA: Look guys it’s another StartupBus!
MADELENA: Now we are racing! Now the two buses are racing!
ERIC: Despite all their troubles—the personal dramas, the failed ad campaigns, the miscommunications—the teams all feel really good. They’ve overcome a lot. And they’ve built actual working products. In three days. On a bus.
MADELENA: Welcome to New Orleans, everybody. Congratulations! You made it to Louisiana.
ERIC: It’s late, after 10pm. Everyone is wiped and walking around with whatever the bus equivalent of sea legs are. People head to their rooms, planning to work through the night—to put the finishing touches together. Along the way we pass the teams from Ohio, San Francisco, Florida. It all feels very real again, like walking blurry eyed out of a theater after a long movie. Tomorrow, teams will start being eliminated. Everything they’ve been working toward comes to a head in the morning. The forecast calls for rain. The first pitch is in about 12 hours.
StartUp’s regular host is Lisa Chow. This episode was produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Simone Polanen, Amy Standen and Max Gibson. Our senior producer is Molly Messick. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser. I’m Eric Mennel. Our theme song is by Bobby Lord. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. “Roll Bus Roll” is by Jeffrey Lewis. For full music credits, visit our website. GimletMedia.com/startup. Andrew Dunn and Mark Wilkening mixed the episode. Special thanks to Alex Blumberg and Emanuele Berry. To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And leave us a rating! Five stars! Six stars! 10 stars!
MADELENA: Yeah, that’s way too much man.
ERIC: Find out more about the show at the Gimlet Media website: GimletMedia.com. While you’re there, you can see the special episode art we have for this series. Thanks to illustrator Josh Kramer. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. Thanks for listening. We’re back tomorrow.
Life’s a pitch.
LISA CHOW: Before we get started, a quick warning. There’s some swearing in this episode.
ERIC MENNEL: When I was growing up, my family was very into a particular kind of reality tv—competition shows. On Sunday night, it was The Amazing Race, where teams scoured the globe in the largest scavenger hunt in history. Then on Tuesday it was American Idol. Some nights it seemed like there were different competition shows playing on every TV in the house. My dad in one room watching Big Brother, me and my actual brother in the other room watching Fear Factor. Honestly, some of the best memories I have of my family growing up are when we would all sit down and watch Survivor. As a kid in suburban Florida, my world was kind of small. I didn’t travel much. I didn’t have a ton of crazy experiences. But watching competition shows, a bigger, higher stakes world felt more within reach. You could pray with Buddhist monks in the mountains of Tibet, or sing “Black Velvet” to Paula Abdul in front of an audience of millions. It was exciting. I wanted to be a part of it. When I decided to ride StartupBus this past summer, I thought I’d be reporting on a hackathon. I’d find one person, going through something interesting, and we’d just see how their week played out. Pretty simple. But when I woke up in a hotel in Raleigh, North Carolina that Tuesday morning, and I saw a giant “StartupBus” decal on the charter coach outside my window, I had this realization that would have thrilled my younger self to no end: “Holy shit. I’m not just reporting a story about a hackathon, I have landed inside a real life competition show.”
ERIC: Welcome to StartUp, the show about what’s it’s really like to start a business. I’m Eric Mennel. It’s Tuesday, day two of our five day trip on StartupBus—where a bunch of strangers launch businesses from scratch… on a bus. If you didn’t catch our first episode yesterday, you should definitely go back and listen, so you know what is even going on here. I’m riding from New York to New Orleans, embedding with three of the teams on this bus. There’s Denari, a bitcoin GoFundMe app.
ERIC: Can you do this in three days?
PARKER MCCURLEY: Oh, fuck yeah.
ANNE-GAIL MORELAND: Oh, we can at least build a hell of a concept in three days.
DENARI: We building shit.
ERIC: There’s Daisy, a website to help people plan funerals.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Because death is uncomfortable. Nobody likes to deal with it…
ERIC: And then there’s Phishly, an app to stop people from stealing your sensitive data.
ALEX ROMERO: And you may not think there’s a lot in common between my mother and John Podesta. But there’s one big thing. Which is, they’ve both been phished.
ERIC: Yesterday on the bus, I was very caught up in all the personal drama playing out. People were arguing, scrambling to come up with ideas. But now we’re 24 hours in, and I have this pretty simple question. One that’s key to any good competition show: Who’s winning? Who’s in the lead? So that’s what I’m trying to assess this morning. First, there’s Denari, the blockchain GoFundMe team. I spent a lot of time with Denari yesterday, and, put simply, things were a mess. They spent most of the day just coming up with a workable idea, even shouting at each other about it.
PARKER: We need to be more direct.
ASH: I am very direct. I was very direct…
ERIC: But this morning, when I find them outside a coffee shop near the state capitol building, things seem to have turned around. They worked through the night, and now, everyone is dialed in. They’re all on the same page.
COLLEEN WONG: We just snagged our Twitter handle.
ERIC: This is Colleen Wong, a 23-year-old who just quit her consulting job. She and her teammate Anne-Gail have been setting up the company’s social media presence.
ERIC: What’s it going to be?
COLLEEN WONG: Denari give.
ANNE-GAIL: Let me create the Facebook page.
PARKER: Want to hear something beautiful?
ERIC: And this is Parker McCurley, another member of Denari, who, I gotta say, at least in terms of charisma, bears more than a passing resemblance to T.J. Miller’s character from “Silicon Valley.”
PARKER: Denari is the world’s first truly international direct-giving platform.
ANNE-GAIL: Hell yeah.
ERIC: One of the teams I didn’t spend as much time with yesterday was Phishly, the phishing app. To be honest, Phishly struck me as the sort of class clowns of the bus. The team is a bunch of young guys, they’re all pretty goofy, they sit all the way in the back of the bus, like it’s middle school and that’s the cool place to be. And don’t get me wrong, they seem like they’re having fun. But they had a messy pitch in D.C. yesterday, and I just don’t know how seriously to take them at this point. That is until we get back on the bus. It’s about 9am, and we’re heading west. To get the day started, each team sends one person to the front of the bus to practice their pitch over the intercom. This is something that happens a lot on StartupBus—people are practicing their pitches constantly.
KARIM EL GAMMAL: Good morning.
ERIC: When it’s Phishly’s turn they send up Karim El Gammal. Karim is in his late 20s, boyishly handsome. He’s kind of got this Stefan Urquelle, “Family Matters” vibe to him.
KARIM: My parents are new to the internet, and as many of you may know it’s so hard to train them on how to prevent and detect any social engineering attacks. After doing some research, quickly realize that companies also face the same problem. And that was the birth of Phishly.
ERIC: Karim moved to the U.S. from Cairo in 2012. He was actually protesting in Tahrir Square right before he got his first job offer here in the States, working for a hotel. He works for a tech firm, now, but he really wants to start his own company. Which is why he’s here on the bus.
KARIM: Phishly is a very intuitive and easy-to-use platform.
ERIC: And his pitch goes really well. Far better than any of Phishly’s other pitches so far.
KARIM: Thank you so much.
PHISHLY: That was awesome. Yeah! Nice.
ERIC: All of a sudden, this group of goofballs looks like they are actually in really great shape. This is part of what makes figuring out who’s ahead on StartupBus so difficult. Over the course of just a few hours, you can go from stumbling along, to being the only team on the bus with a coherent product. The reverse can also be true. A few rows away, I can hear some raised voices. It’s team Daisy, the funeral planning app. And there’s trouble. Yesterday, I would have put Daisy on solid ground. They had a great pitch in D.C. There were no major problems, no drama. But today they’re struggling to find their momentum. And now they’re arguing.
REBECCA BATTERMAN: What changed?
CAL COSTANZO: I did research.
REBECCA: What research did you show that, that negates our…
ERIC: Two team members, Rebecca and Cal, can’t agree on who their funeral app is actually for.
CAL: These funeral homes aren’t getting value from being on our site.
REBECCA: It’s not about funeral homes. It’s about the consumer who, whose process is simplified.
CAL: Okay. I’m trying to make a story to convince investors to invest in the company.
COLLEEN LAVIN: No, no. But that wasn’t your job.
ERIC: That’s Colleen Lavin—the woman who pitched Daisy initially. Apparently, Cal was supposed to call some funeral directors yesterday and get feedback on Daisy. He says he tried calling, but nobody answered.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Your job was to have a five-minute conversation with one funeral home and then get us all that stuff based on it. Those were your tasks before ten, remember? Like I…
CAL: Okay, who is deciding..?
COLLEEN LAVIN: We agreed on it.
REBECCA: We all agreed that’s why we wrote it down.
CAL: How are we making money? We’re not offering any value to the investors or to the funeral homes or investors right off the bat.
REBECCA: They are not our target, the consumer is our target.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Talk to your funeral home. Isn’t that what you’ve been wanting to do?
ERIC: They’ve spent half an hour arguing, as the teams around them pushed ahead. When they finally do reach a conclusion, Rebecca and Cal decide they need some space. So Cal gets up, and moves across the aisle…two seats over. Two hours pass, almost entirely on the interstate. And then, in the distance, tall buildings come into view. Madelena, the conductor, gets on the intercom.
MADELENA: On the right is Charlotte, North Carolina. The place where they care too much about who is using the bathrooms.
ERIC: It’s time for the day’s main pit stop, a coworking space in Charlotte. Just like in D.C., a bunch of local startup folks are here to weigh in on the teams’ pitches. Only this time, there’s a curveball.
MADELENA: Oh wait there’s another bus here?
ERIC: As we pull into the parking lot, there are already two other buses parked there. Madelena, who has clearly set this all up, feigns surprise.
MADELENA: Are they doing startups, too?
ERIC: Remember how there are six startup busses across the country all headed to New Orleans? Well, it turns out, the busses from Akron, Ohio and Tampa, Florida are also in Charlotte today. And for this round of pitches, they’ll all be up against each other. That question I had earlier this morning, about who was winning, that looks to have gotten a lot more complicated now.
BUS RIDER: Oh hey, what’s up?
ERIC: At first glance, the Tampa bus looks like it spent the night in Margaritaville. They’ve drawn their company names and little messages all over the side of the bus using those car-safe markers. But their energy is really high, they seemed focused and enthusiastic. And the Ohio bus is impressive in its own way. It turns out they teamed up with some people from San Francisco, and they’re manufacturing physical products. So they have 3D printers and computer aided design software. The whole thing feels like that scene in “The Sandlot” when the other team shows up in their actual jerseys and matching converse sneakers, and all of a sudden you realize, “Oh… this is some real competition.”
NICK PERSICO: All right. Welcome everybody. At long last, we’re going to start, okay.
ERIC: The pitches are happening in a back room. There’s a concrete floor and folding chairs set up for about 100 people. The audience for this round works in this building full time, running their own companies.
NICK: Each team is going to come up and do a two minute pitch.
ERIC: One the pitches from the Ohio bus is a company called See Searcher. It’s a rescue robot that can locate and dive for victims underwater before they drown. The guy making the pitch is a tall, burly paramedic who rescues drowning victims for a living. And boy does he know how to grab an audience.
SEE SEARCHER: Last week I watched a 21-year-old man drown because I didn’t have the time, resources, or the technology to get in there and save him in time. Our team of designers, engineers, researchers, and first responders such as myself, have created a tow-behind, underwater device that can drastically reduce the time it takes to locate, identify, and rescue a victim.
ERIC: There are other ideas that feel a little wilder. Yetigram, for example, is a website that helps you send…wait for it…singing telegrams.
Yetigram: (Singing) Diamonds are a girl’s best, best friend. Don’t give them a gift, give them an experience.
ERIC: As a reporter, I would call this moment both a gift AND an experience. One of the teams that to me seems the most promising is this team from Tampa, called Course Align.
COURSE ALIGN: We’ve done a ton of research and we’ve noticed universities aren’t preparing students adequately to get jobs.
ERIC: Course Align is software to help universities match the courses they offer with the jobs available in the market. It’s being run by these two guys, Robert Blacklidge and Trey Steinhoff. Robert and Tre just met yesterday, and they might be the fastest friends I’ve ever met. It’s kind of charming. I talked to them right before their pitch.
ERIC: I don’t know like, how’s the team gelling like how’s it how’s it been working together.
ROBERT BLACKLIDGE: It was incredible. We hit the road running. I mean with a lot of startups there’s that you know initial get to know you. We skipped right over that. Within the first hour, we already had pivoted two or three times. It was incredible. like yes the validated validated validated. And it’s just been an incredible roller coaster ride.
ERIC: I mean you’re talking about it like you just went on the best date of your life.
TREY STEINHOFF: I think that the hardest part of these competitions is that first bit when you realize that your idea is not as good as you thought it was and you have to like justify what you’re doing. And so many teams fall apart in that part of the process. And we just powered right through that.
ERIC: Robert and Trey, very on top of things. It’s a world of difference from any of the teams on the New York bus.
ERIC: When it’s Daisy’s turn to pitch, the rest of the New York teams gather to cheer them on. The team sends up Colleen Lavin, the 24 year old developer who you might remember is a hacklete—she competes in a bunch of hackathons every year. While Daisy was her idea originally, she hasn’t actually had to do this pitch on her own yet. And just a couple hours ago, her team was arguing about who the site was even for. So given all that, this pitch feels like it could go either way.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Hi! I’m Colleen, and I’m here today to talk about everyone’s favorite topic: Death! We’re all human, we love humans, and we’re all gonna die. So we’re all going to have to deal with the horrific circus that is planning a funeral.
ERIC: It’s smart. And people are really paying attention. The mood is good. The whole thing lasts about two minutes. She’s even got a great kicker lined up for the end.
COLLEEN LAVIN: And with no major competitors, Daisy is poised to kill it.
JUDGE: Definitely keep that last line in there. Alright, questions, feedback?
ERIC: The pitching wraps up and everyone heads to the brewery next door to grab a drink. This was just a practice round, but it does seem like it shifted the mood of the bus. All of a sudden there’s a camaraderie. Two guys from Phishly, Devon and Alex, are at a table holding court with the other New Yorkers.
DEVON VINCENT: I think the ideas on our bus have the potential once we finish to actually move on and create these businesses.
ALEX: New York is forged in the concrete jungle. Only the best comes out of there.
ERIC: Walking into Charlotte, I had this sense that it was Daisy vs. Denari vs. Phishly. But walking away, it feels bigger than that. Colleen Lavin would later tell me that the support from the other teams on their bus was really nice, and surprising. It made it feel less like New York vs. New York, and more like New York vs. The World. Back on the bus. We’re on the road for another hour… then another… It’s all strip malls and tobacco shops. I think we’re heading West. It’s hard to tell. At some point the Internet starts to give out. The strip malls recede into the distance. The telephone polls are replaced by poplar trees. And we start to climb.
MADELENA: And where we’re driving right now is the Blue Ridge Parkway.
ERIC: The Blue Ridge Parkway is a highway that roughly follows the Appalachian Trail through parts of North Carolina and Virginia. It’s more than 450 miles long—the longest linear park in the U.S, and beautiful barely begins to describe it. It’s got some of the lushest scenic views east of the Mississippi. After seeing nothing but concrete barriers these past 48 hour, it’s like that first cup of coffee when you’re hungover. Everyone shuts their computers and looks out the windows. As we reach the highest point of the parkway, Madelena puts some music on over the intercom. People get up off their seats, and they stare out the window at the valleys below.
ERIC: They’re laughing, joking. Everyone is having a good time. We stop the bus and get out at one of the overlooks. People file out and start taking selfies.
BUS RIDER: Guys, let’s take that team picture.
ERIC: They’re running around, giving hugs. Team Daisy actually finds some daisies in the grass.
COLLEEN LAVIN: Dude, those are daisies!
ERIC: Some people even ask me to get in their photo with all my recording gear, like a mascot at baseball game.
BUS RIDER: Yo. One with Eric.
ERIC: A very lame mascot.
BUS RIDER 1: Yeah, Eric is the man.
BUS RIDER 2: With the mic in his hand. Did you get it?
ERIC: It starts to rain. And everyone scatters. I think this is the part of competition shows I never fully grasped when I was watching them as a kid. Yes, they pit people against each other, head to head. But the experiences along the way feel so singular, and so high stakes, they may actually do more to bring those people together, than push them apart. I mean how often do you find yourself on the side of a mountain, running through the rain with a bunch of people you just met yesterday? On a bus? It’s not exactly Buddhist monks or Paula Abdul, but it still feels pretty special. Coming up…
ERIC: I’m not trying to be accusatory.
FRANK CARINGI: No no, I don’t want him to paint you… I don’t know him.
ERIC: No no no no and what I’m saying is I’m trying to…
FRANK: I get it now, that’s not what you meant.
ERIC: Things get tense for Denari when they nominate a CEO. That’s after the break.
ERIC: Welcome back. We pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside Asheville, and by 9pm we’ve stopped for the night. We’re at a place called Providence Lodge. It’s a retreat center built in 1915 for Methodist pastors. After spending the morning focused on the competition, I wanted to circle back to check in on one team in particular: Denari. Yesterday, Denari was having leadership problems. They had a bunch of big personalities trying to negotiate an idea. But there was one person on the team I really I hadn’t heard much from, someone quieter, observant. Her name is Colleen Wong. Colleen quit her job as a consultant last week, right before getting on the bus. She’s 23 years old, and there have been moments when it seemed like she was being talked over by the rest of her team. She says it’s the kind of thing she has to deal with a lot, because she’s drawn to ambitious projects and people. But she doesn’t always know how or when to assert herself, let alone take the lead. I talked with her outside the lodge.
COLLEEN WONG: I have a different way of leading. This has come out in like past scenarios, where I’m usually the one who is facilitating and making sure things get done. But I’m also not a very loud and vocal person. I have a lot of self-doubt. That’s something that I’m working on. I like physically get tired if I repeat something like 10 times and no one is listening to me. And like because of my past, when I do speak up, sometimes I have been physically reprimanded for that. So it’s hard for me, because of my culture and my personal experiences, to speak up loudly amongst a bunch of bro personalities.
ERIC: You’ve been reprimanded in the past for having spoken up. This is in your personal life, I imagine.
COLLEEN WONG: Yeah. There was physical violence. And at one point that really, really, really took a toll on my own mental health, my academics, my well-being, my social life.
ERIC: Colleen says in her teenage years, she experienced significant physical and emotional violence. We can’t go into too much detail about it, but it was at the hands of an authority figure. Colleen was a good student, but after the problems began, her grades plummeted. She developed mental health issues. Things have gotten better now, but for several years it was a very bad situation.
COLLEEN WONG: That experience has really shaped who I am. And like how I see the world and how I see people and experiences and opportunities and suffering.
ERIC: I can see why, like, being in a scenario with three or four pretty loud guys who are like pretty strong personalities, why you wouldn’t necessarily naturally think to yell back.
COLLEEN WONG: I mean I do. I can get pretty like aggressive and catty if I feel like doing that. But it takes me time to sort of loosen up, And like be my genuine self with people. And, I learned so much from recovering from all of that, and from learning how to grow and, like, become the person that I want to be. But it takes time for me to get there with a group.
ERIC: Colleen settles into the room she’s sharing with her teammate Anne-Gail. There are more than a dozen rooms at the lodge, and a big balcony overlooking the yard. There’s a spot for a campfire. I head out to the balcony where I bump into Frank and Ash from Denari. Frank and Ash were the two guys dominating the argument in D.C. yesterday, when Denari still didn’t know what it was building. We start talking, and they tell me that earlier today, one of the mentors suggested Denari elect a C.E.O, someone to be a decisive voice. Ash and Frank talked about this with Adam, from Cleveland. And the three of them had an idea. Here’s Frank.
FRANK CARINGI: We thought that that was something to consider. And we are, me and Ash and Adam, are going to pitch to consider electing leadership. And also, we all agreed that Colleen would do a very good job.
ERIC: Colleen Wong, that is.
ASH: So we will…
FRANK: So we want to talk to them and see what they think. Talk to Anne-Gail and Parker…
ASH: And Colleen, all three together. Tell them that we think that Colleen would do a good job and that all three of us are on board with that decision, and get Parker’s and Anne-Gail’s vote, essentially.
ERIC: What is going to be solved by having this sort of position on the team?
FRANK: We have to do a lot tomorrow in one day, and a lot of us have strong personalities, that’s why we’re here. And we have, we have stake in this and we want to do really well. Sometimes we disagree, and I think that it would be useful to have a person who, who you think will make a really good decision, and who has a good head about, you know, being the final call.
ASH: That person being we think is unbiased.
ERIC: This is Ash.
ASH: And also, honestly, like to be very, very honest, like we, not only do we think Colleen is like qualified as a person but we, I personally speak for myself, but I also know Frank would probably agree with me on this. We’d like Denari to have a woman for a CEO. We think that’s something that we’d like to actively work on.
ERIC: And why is that?
ASH: Well, because there are few women in tech, and this is something that we could do, and this is someone that we trust. We see that they’re qualified.
FRANK: She can do a great job. They’re all checkboxes.
ASH: So why not.
FRANK: So we think it’s the best move.
ERIC: I think if people heard there were three men who were strategizing about the potential and future of one of the women on the team, like it might sound a little funny. Does that, like, does that sound weird to you guys at all?
FRANK: I mean it was, the way that it came about was mostly just that, you know, Adam thought Colleen was the best choice, and I agreed.
ERIC: I’m not trying to be like accusatory about it. I’m just like, I’m like imagining this, I had this picture in my head of you guys on the porch, and like you guys are the stronger personalities on the team, like that’s totally obvious. And…
ASH: This is not a decision, like we haven’t decided that this person is going to do X, Y, and Z. We’re simply electing to go and tell Colleen, “Hey, we think that you should take that position.” I get, I get the notion. I get the point. But I don’t think there’s anything funny about us, consciously, initially just thinking of Colleen as a qualified individual. And it happens that she’s a woman, honestly. It did not… we first weren’t looking for let’s make sure it’s a woman, and then let’s also find someone who is qualified. That’s not how this team operates.
FRANK: Adam just said, “Colleen would be a good CEO.” And after you know, after quite a while of like, lots of good reasons why she would do a good job of diffusing and making the right decisions, you know, the fact that she’s a woman and there are few women in tech as CEOs, as a fact, you know, it was brought up. But I don’t think that’s what Ash meant when he said that. You know, I don’t think he meant it in that kind of way….I don’t want him to paint you in that… I don’t know him.
ERIC: No no no, and what I’m trying to say is like, like look what I’m doing is trying to…
FRANK: I get it now…
ADAM: See, this is exactly why I suggested it.
ERIC: Now at this moment, Adam walks out onto the porch (he’d been doing something inside), and he tries to get this conversation back on track.
ADAM: When you guys get into it, there’s no stopping you… she’s knows how to rally people. And so she would be good at managing us.
ERIC: Despite how much I’m pushing back, I do recognize the awkward position they’re in. For one, Colleen would be very good in this role. And it makes a lot of sense to suggest her for it. Looked at one way, this is a progressive move. They’re elevating a woman into a leadership role. But I think there is something else going on here that I don’t think Ash, Frank, and Adam totally recognize.
ERIC: They’re asking a woman to do a job none of them are fighting for, a job they don’t want to but probably should do themselves: manage their behavior. Later that night, they offered Colleen the C.E.O. job, and she accepted. It’s dark out now. Down in the yard, some people are starting a campfire. Me, on the other hand, my podcast spidey sense is tingling. I hear an opportunity for some of that sweet, sweet nature sound. So, I head down the hill to record the summer crickets and katydids. In stereo.
ERIC: They’re on the left…they’re on the right….They’re on the left…they’re on the right…
ERIC: It’s like being wrapped in a nice warm audio blanket. It’s cozy.
ERIC: Almost makes you just wanna drift off to sleep. Call it a night. Yeah, me too. So I walk back up to the lodge to turn in. But when I get to the front porch, I see Team Denari huddled there, together, talking. It looks serious. Everyone is there, except one person—Ash. He’s asleep inside. People’s arms are crossed, and they’re all standing up. So I walk over, and I turn on my mic. This is Anne-Gail.
ANNE-GAIL: It would be very productive for us right now as a group to just sort of come together for the next two minutes, discuss, you know, what we all want from the future, and basically discuss how the person who’s creating friction, do they have a role here?
ERIC: It takes a minute, but here’s what I piece together. There’s been some tension between Ash and another member of the team. And last night he said something that upset this other person. The team won’t tell me who it is, or what was said, but they feel it’s serious enough to warrant this discussion. And they’re asking themselves, should Ash even stay with Denari? Here’s Anne-Gail.
ANNE-GAIL: And I think this depends on his response to the situation that we bring. I 90% think we have to… we can’t just leave him out of this 100%. We can’t just pop, like, have a vote count out, and just pop in and be like you’re out.
ERIC: One of the bus conductors, a guy named Ajay, is there, listening to this unfold. And he urges some caution.
AJAY DESAI: You guys learned something really valuable here. And now there’s an opportunity to kind of come together as a group and just deal with it. And I think you guys have a good idea. Before you guys deal with it, because it involves another individual. And I think it is incredible….
FRANK: With feelings and like… there is a nice and sensitive way to approach something like this.
AJAY: There’s passion. There’s passion. You’re learning that right now. It’s friendship, it’s relationships, relationship management. You can always cause somebody to help and grow. And what I don’t like to see is I don’t like to leave anybody behind.
ERIC: Ash is asleep, so they’re going to go wake him up and talk to him. The team asked that I turn off the mic and let them do it in private. They told me that they would fill me in later. It’s late by now, probably around midnight, so I go to bed, not knowing what things will look like tomorrow.
ERIC: StartUp’s regular host is Lisa Chow. This episode was produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Simone Polanen, Amy Standen, and Max Gibson. Our senior producer is Molly Messick. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser. I’m Eric Mennel. Our theme song is by Bobby Lord. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. “Roll Bus Roll” is by Jeffrey Lewis. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup. Andrew Dunn and Ian Scott mixed the episode. Special thanks to Alex Blumberg and Emanuele Berry. To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you like to use. And while you’re there, I don’t know, leave a review!
BUS RIDER: This is just the best podcast ever.
ERIC: Find out more about the show at the Gimlet Media website: GimletMedia.com. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. Thanks for listening. We’re back at it tomorrow.
Lisa is co-host of StartUp. Previously, she was a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight and a reporter at NPR's Planet Money and WNYC. She has an MBA from Columbia .
Alex is the host of StartUp, and CEO and cofounder of Gimlet. He 's an award-winning radio journalist and former producer for This American Life and the co-founder of Planet Money.
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