December 11, 2017

StartupBus 1: Monday

by StartUp

Background show artwork for StartUp

The Story This summer, 20 strangers got on a bus headed from New York to New Orleans. For five days, they had one goal: to build and launch companies while on the bus. We’ll be telling this story as it unfolded — with one new episode, every day, over the next five days. Today’s episode: Monday. Day One. The Facts David Herman and Ian Scott mixed the episode. Mark Phillips wrote and performed our original theme song. Bobby Lord wrote the special StartupBus theme song. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. Additional music by Bobby Lord, Will West, Legs, Dream Junkies, Jupyter, Andrew Joslyn, Michael Smith, John Kimbrough, Sam Kogon, Danielle Grubb, and Jeffrey Lewis.   

Correction: This episode originally contained an error. The original audio referred to Anne-Gail Moreland as "she" instead of "they" in one instance. The audio has been updated with correct pronouns.

Where to Listen


LISA CHOW: Before we get started, a quick warning. There is some swearing in this episode. From Gimlet Media, I'm Lisa Chow. This is StartUp, the show about what it's really like to start a business. And today I am joined by reporter Eric Mennel.

ERIC MENNEL: Hello, Lisa.

LISA: Hey, Eric.


LISA: How are you doing?

ERIC: I'm great. Good to be back on the StartUp feed. Been in a cave since the last time I was here, just waiting for my time.

LISA: To shine.

ERIC: To shine.

LISA: Um, so Eric you've been working on a story.

ERIC: Yes, I’ve been working on a story. It started back at the end of July.

SIRI: Drop off Eric on the right.

ERIC: It all started on a Monday morning. I was in the backseat of an Uber heading through midtown Manhattan. It’s very early, still dark out, and I was on my way to a competition.

ERIC: Thank you very much.

UBER DRIVER: You're welcome. Have a nice day.

ERIC: You, too.

DRIVER: Please don't forget, rate me, ok?

ERIC: Of course. Yes, thank you. 

ERIC: So, it's a weeklong competition called StartupBus.

LISA: StartupBus.

ERIC: StartupBus. And the premise of StartupBus is that you take a bunch of strangers from around the country, you put them on a bus together and get them to form and launch companies. Over the course of a week.

LISA: In a week.

ERIC: In a week. Yes, so it's three days on the bus, on the road, launching the company while you're on the bus. And then two days of a pitch competition at the end.

LISA: Wow. So it's basically kind of StartUp condensed.

ERIC: Yes. It's like MTV's “Road Rules” meets Y Combinator. It's all of the, like, drama and frustration and excitement of launching a company, in, like, three days while you're on a bus. You just happen to be on a bus.

ERIC: Hi, I'm Eric. Yes.

MADELENA MAK: Very nice to meet you.


MADELENA: Welcome to StartupBus.

ERIC: Thank you. I'm very excited.

ERIC: There are six different buses around the country. They're all in different cities, and they're all heading towards New Orleans, Louisiana, and that's where the pitch competition will be at the end of the week.

LISA: And so what's the prize?

ERIC: There is no prize.

LISA: No prize?

ERIC: There’s literally no prize. You win nothing. There's no money, there's no investment guarantee at the end, there's no contract. There's nothing.

LISA: And so why are these people doing it?

ERIC: That is an excellent question and it is exactly the same question I had when I first read about this. So I decided to get on the bus here in New York and ride it to New Orleans with 22 of these strangers, to see, like, what is the thing that's pulling them to this bus.

NEW YORK STARTUPBUS: Ayyyyy. Ayyyyyy. Ayyyyy.

LISA: Wow, that's exciting.

ERIC: So, we're going to try something new on StartUp this week.

LISA: Yes.

ERIC: We're going to tell this story in real time. We're going to be releasing one episode every morning, Monday through Friday this week, following the competition as it unfolds. We're going to get to know these teams, we're going to get to know these individuals. I've got to say, this is one of the weirder reporting experiences.

LISA: Really?

ERIC: Yeah. But also really gratifying. I feel like I got to the end of this week and I really knew these people and liked these people in a way I hadn't anticipated.

LISA: That's awesome.

ERIC: Yeah. It's actually…actually I do have a little bit of a surprise for you.


ERIC: So this whole thing sort of reminded me of a season of “Road Rules,” the old MTV show. And I asked our resident engineer-musician Bobby Lord to draw up a little StartupBus theme song for us.

LISA: Wow, this is exciting. New theme music.

ERIC: Inspired by Road Rules.

(MUSIC: StartupBus Theme by Bobby Lord)

ERIC: So. Here we go. It's Monday. December 11, 2017. Episode one of StartupBus. Are you pumped?

LISA: I'm pumped!

ERIC: You look pumped. Your hand's shaking a little bit from the adrenaline. All right.

LISA: OK. So take it away, Eric.

ERIC: All right. Here we go.

MADELENA: You are in the bus. The actually real startup bus is in your eyes. In front of your eyes. Welcome aboard. Congratulations. You made it.

ERIC: It’s first thing Monday when everyone arrives and loads on the bus. It’s your standard charter bus—blue carpeted seats, little lights and ac vents up top—Wi-Fi that works most of the time. There are 18 riders and four mentors. The mentors rather adorably call themselves “conductors,” though they aren’t the ones driving the bus. There is an actual bus driver. This voice welcoming everyone aboard is Madelena Mak. Madelena is one of the conductors and the main organizer of the trip. At six-feet-tall with long pink hair and big, black-rimmed glasses, she’s a presence. She starts by outlining the rules of the trip. Well, just one rule really.

MADELENA: The number one rule on StartupBus is there's no number two on the bus. You get what that means? Rule number one. No number two on the bus.

ERIC: Up towards the front, I see someone with a look on his face like he might need to number two. His name is Adam Gall. Adam’s from Cleveland, Ohio. He’s 30 years old—tall, skinny, with short brown hair. He’s sitting with his leg folded under him, his arm over the seat, keeping mostly to himself.

ADAM GALL: I’m nervous.

ERIC: Yeah. What about.

ADAM: Well, I'm...I'm new to this thing I'm new to hackathons and startups. I'm like a career working guy, you know, like I've always had a good job. And so I'm putting myself out there right now. I’m going to miss my family. I have a wife and a young daughter. And my wife's very pregnant right now with my next daughter.

ERIC: How pregnant is very pregnant?

ADAM: I hope she doesn't have a baby while I'm on a bus.

ERIC: Really?

ADAM: Yeah she's pretty pregnant.

ERIC: How old's your other daughter?

ADAM: She will be three in October. Yeah. She's great. She's great. Of course.

ERIC: Have you spent this much time away from her before?

ADAM: No. This is my first time away from them, like, for an extended period of time. I’m just like, you know, it's the calm before the storm for me right now, and like I'm just not really sure what we're getting into. And I'm a risk averse cautious person. So like me doing this is just like very outside of my element.

ERIC: You're actually sweating just a little bit.

ADAM: Yeah. I'm getting nervous right now just talking to you about this, right. Yeah, I don’t know. This is new for me.

MADELENA: All right. How's everybody feeling right now?

ERIC: This is Madelena again, conductor, motivator-in-chief. She’s up at the front of the bus on the intercom.

MADELENA: Like, “What the hell am I doing? Why am I on the bus right now?” Remember that feeling. Remember what led you to this bus. Right here, right now.

(MUSIC: High Time (Instrumental) by Legs)

MADELENA: Imagine who you want to become the moment you get off the bus after 72 hours. So before we go ahead with this, all the activities today, let’s do a warmup. All right. Are you ready. All right we need it louder. Are you ready? All right, here we go.

ERIC: We head through the Lincoln Tunnel, into New Jersey. And, one at a time, people make their way to the front of the bus. Every rider has a chance to pitch an idea for a company, if they have one. But they also need to pitch themselves. They need to let the rest of the bus know what their skills are. Colleen Lavin is a 24-year-old developer. She’s what people call a hacklete—like, an athlete but for hackathons. She’s competed in more than 10 this year. And today she’s pitching an idea that I did not see coming.

COLLEEN LAVIN: So, my idea right now is a funeral planning app.

ERIC: A funeral planning app.

COLLEEN LAVIN: Because death is uncomfortable, nobody likes to deal with it, and they upcharge you like mad. There's a lot of money there. There’s a lot of unnecessary complication there. And this idea is doable and needed. We can do this in three days. Thank you very much.

OTHER VOICE: Sign up now.

ERIC: Some of the ideas have a lot of potential. Others are a little puzzling.

KARIM EL GAMMAL: Say “aye” if you heard of Tinder or LinkedIn? You guys need more coffee, huh? All right. Have you thought of combining both of them together in one app?

ERIC: No, I’ve never of thought of that. I’ve also never thought of using closed-circuit TV to stop Craigslist murders—that was a pitch. I have thought about one of the other ideas—a tool to fact check fake news. God, I think about that all the time. Towards the end, this guy Alex Romero gets up to pitch.

ALEX ROMERO: Hey. If you take a second to look at the slide right here. It's a picture of my mother and myself and on the bottom is a picture of John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

ERIC: Alex is a 27-year-old developer from New Jersey. He’s stocky, with slick hair and a black, walrusy mustache.

ALEX: 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: Alex wants to build software that will fake-phish people through email, and then train them so it doesn’t happen again. There’s also this other thing that comes out during the pitches. A handful of people mention one particular technology. It’s called blockchain. Now some of you might know what blockchain is, but for the 98% of us who didn’t until we rode StartupBus, let me try to explain.

(MUSIC: Show Biz (Instrumental) by Dream Junkies)

ERIC: Blockchain is the technology bitcoin is built on. Basically, it’s a database system that allows people to track information more transparently. It’s also super secure. So you can use it for things like new kinds of money, or a voting system, or to track food distribution. Walmart, Nestle, Unilever—they’re all testing it out. It’s sort of the hot thing in the tech world right now. So when people say blockchain, all you really need to know is it’s a super secure technology you can use to build other things. Adam, the dad from Cleveland, he’s just one of several blockchain enthusiasts on the bus.

ADAM: Good morning, everybody. My name is Adam. My passions right now are in blockchain and I come at it from a very technical background...

MOHAMED “ASH” ASHMAWY: I’m Ash. Good morning, guys. My idea is basically, also, because I see a lot of blockchain enthusiasts around here, revolves around blockchain...

PARKER MCCURLEY: Hey, my name’s Parker McCurley. I’m here from Cleveland, Ohio, the mistake on the lake. I’m really big into into blockchain and digital currencies.

ERIC: Once all the riders have pitched, they have to choose teams and circle in on their favorite ideas. And what happens on the bus at this point is just…chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED BUS RIDER: That’s an annualized interest rate of, like, 1000 percent.

(MUSIC: “Keep Movin (Instrumental)” by The Brotherhood)

ERIC: Everyone jumps out of their seats and starts shouting, trying to squeeze through the aisle, which, by now, has completely disappeared.

PARKER: Exciting...

ERIC: One guy is literally climbing over the seats.

AJAY DESAI: Climbing through the seats…

ERIC: The whole thing has this sort of speed dating feel to it. Is this person the right fit? Well, they have a great sense of humor. But can they build a front-end? A good salesman is hard to find. You want people with a variety of skills so you have a well-rounded team. Designers, developers, people with marketing experience. Some riders are trying to convince others to just combine ideas.

FRANK: So I have other ideas for sure. But I like your idea, and I think it might actually work with my idea.  I mean you could….

ERIC: Slowly, the aisle starts to clear, and the riders form little colonies in different parts of the bus. Teams. Four of them. There’s the funeral planning app. They name themselves Daisy.

MADELENA: What’s the name of the team?


MADELENA: How do I spell it?


ERIC: There’s the phishing software to prevent future John Podestas. They name themselves Phishly. There’s an app to help tabletop gamers meetup, called IMGame. And finally, Team Blockchain. There are six members, including Adam from Cleveland. Their name: Denari. Denari has a lot of talented people working on a big complicated idea. And from the outset, they look like the team to beat. Everyone else on the bus can see it.

KARIM: Their team is really solid. The idea is, are you going to join the winning team or just like gonna form another one to compete with.

UNIDENTIFIED BUS RIDER: And I feel like they have all the components that they need, really.

ERIC: And the people on the team feel the same way. This is Anne-Gail Moreland, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College.

ANNE-GAIL MORELAND: I know right now where this can apply. This is badass. Let's do it.

ADAM: Oh my God, it can all be built on top.

ERIC: Can you do this in three days?

PARKER: Oh, fuck yeah.

ANNE-GAIL: Oh, we can at least build a hell of a concept in three days.

DENARI: We building shit.

(MUSIC: “ACT I: Skeleton Jack (Instrumental)” by The Weather Machine)

ERIC: Denari, Phishly, IMGame and Daisy. These are the companies the New York StartupBus is bringing to New Orleans, assuming they get off the ground.

Coming up: one team gets some harsh feedback on their idea, and they do not handle it well. That’s after the break.

ERIC: Welcome back to Startup…Bus. We wind our way down I-95, out of New Jersey, past Philadelphia. We’re about three hours into the drive now. The teams are starting to iron out the details of what they want to make. Colleen Lavin and team Daisy, the funeral app, are setting priorities for the rest of the day.

COLLEEN LAVIN: Can we make our twelve must-haves first? So number one, login. That is a must-have. What's the second must have?

ERIC: Directly across the aisle, team Phishly is jumping right into the design stage. Alex Romero, the developer who had the original idea, has already pulled together a logo.

ALEX: So the logo is a mix between an envelope and an actual fish. So if you were to imagine just an envelope with a fish sort of vertical looking downwards, and the actual word “Phishly” is in cursive to kind of give it like a fun feel.

ERIC: Can I make an observation?

ALEX: Of course.

ERIC: The fish looks a little like an old school atomic bomb.

PHISHLY: That’s true. Should we flip it? So it could be a rocket.

ERIC: I head to the front of the bus and sit down next to Anne-Gail Moreland. Anne-Gail is a sophomore at Mount Holyoke, and a member of Denari, the blockchain team. It’s a good fit—Anne-Gail is ambitious, and drawn to complex ideas. Though, sort of like Adam, the dad, this is also new for Anne-Gail.

ANNE-GAIL: Yeah, this is the first time being on a bus with 20 strangers, at 60 miles per hour, going to a city I’ve never been to before. My parents only figured out I was going, like, two days ago.

(MUSIC: “Moment of Clarity” by Michael Smith”)

ERIC: Anne-Gail says for much of high school, there was a real push and pull at home. And, I should say here, Anne-Gail prefers to go by the pronouns “they” and “them,” so that’s what I’ll be using. Anne-Gail went to a notoriously competitive high school in Manhattan. And they say their parents had pretty rigid ideas about what track to follow. Mom and dad wanted Anne-Gail to go to med school. And at some point, the pressure of all that really started getting to Anne-Gail.

ANNE-GAIL: And I remember one day specifically in my guidance counselor's office talking about college and all the debt I'm about to take on and every single thing that’s about to be locked down for the next four to 10 years. And I passed out in my guidance counselor’s office. And when I say passed out, I mean like awake and then black out. It was just too much. I’d gotten three hours of sleep for a full month at that point. I was running on fumes on fumes on fumes. I knew exactly what my future would be exactly what my career would be. I felt like I was trapped.

ERIC: But now that Anne-Gail is focused on tech, things feel different. And this trip, on a bus full of unknowns, it’s a small version of the life they’ve been hoping for.

ANNE-GAIL: I have no idea where I’m going to be in 10 years. I have no idea where I’m going to be in a year. I have no idea where I’m going to be in five days. Before it was like I had one path in life. And now there’s so much potential for me to build things that actually change things. There’s freedom. It’s freedom that I never really had before. This is definitely the happiest I’ve felt in a while.

ERIC: The teams have settled in. They’re honing their ideas. But Anne-Gail’s team, Denari, is having some trouble. They came together knowing they wanted to work with this specific technology: blockchain. But that’s a little like saying we want to spend the next five days working with cement. Not sure what we’ll make with it, but, we definitely want to use cement. So they’ve come up with this rough idea, a bitcoin lending app. But the specifics are unclear. Are these personal loans? Small business loans? I ask one of the team members, Frank, what’s up.

FRANK CARINGI: the initial idea is really huge. Right. But we have three days to do this, so what we need to do is drill into something that's really feasible. Otherwise we're going to be spinning our wheels for the next 24 hours. And we're not going to get anything done.

ERIC: Just then, Madelena, the conductor gets on the intercom to throw a wrench in everyone’s plans

MADELENA: All right everybody, welcome to Washington D.C.

ERIC: We’re in the nation’s capital, and the teams are about to get their first challenge. Madelena tells them they’ll be pitching their companies to a panel of founders from the D.C. area. After only four hours, it’s their first chance to compare the teams against each other, and to see if the ideas even make sense to regular people. We get off the bus and I ask Adam, from Cleveland, what’s going on with Denari? He doesn’t sound confident.

ADAM: I like our team a lot. I just think we’re trying to tackle a big complicated thing. Did we bite off more than we can chew? I don’t know…I don’t know…

ERIC: We head to a ballroom, with giant windows and a panoramic view of the U.S. Capitol. Everybody gathers for a quick lunch, grilled meat and veggies on sticks, and the panelists take their seats to the right of the stage. Team Daisy, the funeral planning app, they’re the first up to pitch. And Cal, a salesman from New Jersey, kicks it off.

CAL COSTANZO: So there's one thing here that we all have in common. And that's something just as scary as me being up here talking to you, and that's death.

COLLEEN LAVIN: So Daisy is a funeral planning app to do to funeral planning what The Knot has done for wedding planning…

ERIC: The panel is responsive, they like the idea, and they offer a few suggestions to make it better. Remember, this team did just meet each other. Colleen Lavin says she came up with the idea when she got on the bus this morning. All things considered, this goes pretty well.

PANELIST: Yeah, thank you.


ERIC: Just before Denari is set to pitch, the team is standing in a circle. They’re still not sure how to focus the company. Now they’re talking about a pivot.

ASH: If you wanna pivot, if you wanna pivot, I’d be more than happy to pivot. This is a different model.

ANNE-GAIL: I think we need to pivot for our current market. Investors are looking at problems…

ERIC: And then they’re on the stage. All six of them, standing in a row. One team member explains what the company will do, to the extent they even know.

FRANK: What this provides is a method for people to invest their cryptocurrency, gain interest on it, and do so by investing in small businesses anywhere.

ERIC: Perhaps noticing the puzzled faces in the room, Adam jumps back to square one, and he starts explaining why cryptocurrencies are even useful in the first place.

ADAM: They provide a form of value transfer that is decentralized, not controlled by any central entity. And it's on the Internet, so it is instant and the fees to transact on the networks are extremely low.

ERIC: Frankly, it’s a mess. They slog through the next minute or so and then they take questions.

PANELIST: Whoo! That was a lot.

ERIC: Whoo! Tell me about it.

PANELIST: It's just all over the place. There's no clarity to it whatsoever. I mean, I can get pieces, but get your story down or as to what it is is actually going to be doing, is how I would say.

ERIC: The team looks uncomfortable. It’d be one thing if they had a great idea they just didn’t communicate. But they’re realizing they may not have much of an idea at all. The Q and A wraps up and they scatter. I walk out into the hallway where one member of Denari is standing alone, looking frustrated. His name is Ash. He’s an engineer, 23 years old. And he moved here from Egypt several years ago.

ERIC: How's it going, man? 

ASH: Good. This is hard. 

ERIC: It's hard, why? 

ASH: Well, in general like we need to like start establishing more and more defined like dynamics and frameworks within the team, so we can get shit done. I guess I’m going to jump over, like take the seat, like just take the driving seat a little bit. I have been trying to avoid doing that I guess, because I just thought you know it's a three day bus ride, let’s all have fun, but now I’m a little bit agitated because I'm super competitive. Like, fuck this, no. I'm going to rally up the troops.

ERIC: Denari finds a closed room on the other side of the building and they pile in. All six of them. Adam, from Cleveland, gets things started.

ADAM: Now before we get too deep into this, Ash. I know you like wanted to talk to us before we got into all this.

ASH: Yeah, no, I think we're very dysfunctional as a team. I don't, I don't want to sound too tough or any of that, but we need to decide an idea. We need to stick to it, we need to like perhaps, maybe, I don't know, like pick some leadership. Otherwise we're going to keep on wasting time until day three. This is way too much for us. Way too hard way too big.

FRANK: I'm pretty sure all of us want to agree and move on exactly one idea.

ASH: OK, so then I know that we're all on the same page when we talk about blockchain. But be aware that this will have a really, really tough time trying to explain this to anyone in the audience. Trying to explain—let me finish, let me finish, just one second. Trying to explain to them how are you going to make money off of this.

PARKER: Can we build a product around the idea that nobody knows how the hell to use cryptocurrency and why it’s valuable.

ASH: I don't know where, now we're scattering again.

FRANK: You're killing the idea, so you have to have a solution.

ASH: I'm not only killing the idea, but you all agreed that this is way out of scope so not killing something that you are, you're holding tight on and being like… 

FRANK: But what’s your alternative?

ERIC: The voice asking about alternatives is Frank Caringi. He’s a business developer for Denari. And at this point he and Ash start to dominate the conversation. They’re talking over Anne-Gail and the rest of the team.

FRANK: You can’t kill the idea and then get mad that he’s proposing an alternative. That doesn’t make any sense.

ASH: I did not say that we're not proposing alternatives.

FRANK: What's your alternative, though?

ASH: The money transfer idea where…

FRANK: OK, so that was your point the whole time. We should have got there like 10 minutes ago. That's what I'm saying.

ASH: All right.

ERIC: It’s pretty clear things are going off the rails. It’s become the kind of argument where no one is sure what they’re arguing about anymore. They’re just fishing for a solution amidst an ever-loudening chorus of garble garble garble blockchain garble.

COLLEEN WONG: Okay. That’s enough.

Indistinct chatter

PARKER: Everybody pause. Pause, pause, pause.

FRANK: We need to be more direct.

ASH: I'm very direct. I was very direct from the beginning when I said, when I said that we need, this is a dysfunctional team. We need to decide on leadership. The ideas are everywhere. I was very direct.

FRANK: So, I don't disagree that this is broad.

ERIC: This is Frank again.

FRANK: I actually agree. I don't disagree that your initial idea could be an alternative, but  look, I think one thing has been made very clear here. Nobody understands cryptocurrency. Should we do an exercise for 15 minutes and see if we can come up with something else and pivot to just a completely different thing.

ANNE-GAIL: Can i borrow your phone for a timer? Everyone shut your eyes. If you need paper, I'll get the paper. I'm going to think of my own stuff, too. Let’s just do it.

ERIC: The team takes a breather. And about half of them walk out of the room. I follow Anne-Gail.

ERIC: So, that was obviously very intense.

ANNE-GAIL: Yeah, that was very intense.

ERIC: I could see you trying to pipe in a couple of different times, but it's like a hard room with people to like be louder than.

ANNE-GAIL: It’s a hard group of people, especially when they're already at odds with each other. So please…I swear to god, they're fucking talking again.

(MUSIC: “Broken Top Trail 90 (Instrumental)” by Greg Jong)

ERIC: Anne-Gail runs back into the room to try to enforce the quiet time…But then, one of the conductors comes in. It’s time to leave. And Denari still hasn’t settled on an idea. They’ll need to figure it out back on the bus.

MADELENA: So every year, pretty much this happens a lot, is that you end up wasting so much time today trying to validate an idea that has already been invalidated, just now.

ERIC: This is Madelena again, the conductor. A big part of Startupbus is the mentorship along the way. Frequently, one of the conductors, sensing a teachable moment, will pick up the bus’s intercom, and drop some startup knowledge on the group.

MADELENA: By Tuesday morning, you’ll realize that, oh crap, the idea really doesn't work. So as a warning, and also encouragement, if you actually truly worry about the idea, this is the time to pivot. This is the time to really consider alternatives to the idea.

ERIC: Watching Denari argue about their ideas, my attention kept coming back to Adam, the dad. Remember, Adam was nervous about even coming on the bus. His wife is eight months pregnant. And while I knew he was invested in blockchain, he didn’t seem that invested in the competition. When Denari was arguing, Adam kept pretty quiet, to himself. And so I wondered: Why did this mild-mannered guy from Ohio get himself into this situation? At one of our stops, I pulled him aside to talk.

ADAM:  My background is, I mean, in my own opinion, pretty boring. You know, I grew up in Cleveland, and I went to New York for college for a year, and that was a lot of fun, but I felt like I should have been closer to home. So I moved back home, and got an engineering degree, and got a job at an insurance company after college. And you know eventually, I was just like ‘OK. what, you know, what am I doing? This is not, this is not what I'm trying to do right now.’

ERIC: Work in insurance?

ADAM: Yeah, working in insurance, and just, you know, building the same product for a big insurance company every day. You know, I wasn't trying to do that forever. Insurance day in and day out.

ERIC: And so a couple years ago, Adam got a new job. He joined this company that helps other companies build apps. All kinds of apps. Like Circuit, a golf app.

ADAM: It's like, uh, Uber but for caddies.

ERIC: Like golf caddies.

ADAM: Golf caddies. Yeah, the golf caddy industry is extremely inefficient basically like it's a bunch of caddies sitting around and not working. So that really like pushed me to understand how to, you know, think about software projects from the ground up very quickly.

ERIC: After about a year of this work, Adam started reading more about blockchain. And it struck something in him. Part of it was the idea behind blockchain, that it’s transparent and managed by users, rather than some central entity. But also, perhaps even more importantly, he understood it, this massively complex technology that a lot of really smart people are saying will change the world—Adam can wrap his head around it. And in the past couple of years he’s become something of an expert in blockchain.  To most of us, it’s just another backend, a database we can’t fully grasp. But for Adam, who can actually build stuff with blockchain, it’s an answer to an existential question: How do I live a meaningful, impactful life?

ADAM: I guess I've just I've been learning a lot about myself lately. You know I've been learning a lot about myself lately.

ERIC: What's the biggest thing?

ADAM: I can do stuff that is influential. Like, I said at the start of this, like, I feel like I've led a, you know, self-perceived boring life so far. You know, like I don't have a bunch of crazy cool stories about stuff I've done. You know, it was just like school and then like insurance. But now I feel like there's this whole new wave of things happening. And, oh, I can like help shape this future. I feel like as, you know, as a person, I'm really realizing my potential. Like as a human. You know right now it's cultivated in the StartupBus, you know, which I signed up for, it was like last week. Time is crazy in my head right now. I had no idea what I was getting into. But it's just been this crazy ball of energy that's just...I feel like we're all on to something bigger here.

ADAM: That's awesome. This is Eric.

ERIC: Hi, Vivian.

ADAM: That's my daughter, Vivian. Eric's doing a podcast. He's recording all of us all week long.

ERIC: Outside a gas station in North Carolina, Adam is facetiming with his wife and daughter. His friend, teammate, and fellow Clevelander, Parker, walks ahead of us.

ADAM: All right, Viv. We're heading back to the bus now. I gotta get going, alright. I love you. You wanna say bye to Parker, too? He's up there. You can yell for him if you want.


ADAM: “Parker!”

ERIC: Watching Adam with his daughter, everything he’s saying comes into focus for me. He’s here, on this bu, because he finally sees a path that makes sense, one that makes his life in this world less boring, more singular. I guess I didn’t anticipate a charter bus being the key to unlocking that. And it makes me wonder if this whole thing is even about the companies, or if there’s something else going on altogether.

(MUSIC: “Under Your Skin (Instrumental)” by Danielle Grubb)

ERIC: Back on the bus, it’s about 5pm and Denari has made some progress. They’ve got an idea: They’re going to build the GoFundMe of bitcoin—a website where you can donate bitcoin for good causes anywhere in the world. It will be hard to pull off, but it’s more focused, and they feel good about it. Parker McCurley, Adam’s friend, rallies the team with a pep talk.

PARKER: There's a lot, there’s a lot of like emotions. Everybody wants to do really good. We're all very motivated. So I can tell that, so it's difficult. I can say I appreciate all of you. Everyone’s smiling again, bro. I’m magical. Leave me alone.

ERIC: We pull into a Holiday Inn in downtown Raleigh. It’s been 13 hours and everyone already seems exhausted. Some of them will go out for food or a beer. But mostly they’re planning to work well into the night. Two days until the teams square off in New Orleans, and there’s still a lot to build.

(MUSIC: “Roll Bus Roll” by Jeffrey Lewis)

ERIC: Tomorrow on StartupBus, a team struggles with whether or not to ask a member to leave. And then, the competition is turned upside down when one rider discovers a body underneath the bus… I’m just kidding. There’s no dead bodies. This is not that kind of series. But there is a lot of drama in store tomorrow, I promise.

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. Andrew Dunn mixed the episode. Special thanks to Alex Blumberg, Phia Bennin, Jorge Just, and Emanuele Berry. To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you like to use. And while you’re there...

DRIVER: Please, don’t forget, rate me, OK?

ERIC: Find out more about the show at the Gimlet Media website: 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. See you tomorrow.