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get on the bus: SXSW conductor greg svitak discusses ohio's high tech future

Startup Bus. Photos Submitted
Startup Bus. Photos Submitted
Greg Svitak, a Solutions Analyst with Hyland Software who is a lynchpin in Northeast Ohio's tech community, recently served as conductor for the Cincinnati Startup Bus. The bus carried riders from across Ohio to Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest Interactive conference.

The 72 hour trip allowed a group of self-proclaimed “hackers, hustlers and hipsters” the chance to form collaborative teams, invent new products, pitch their ideas to leaders in multiple cities, and compete in a national competition.

After Svitak had a chance to catch up on sleep he missed while slinging code for three days straight, hiVelocity caught up with the tech leader to talk about his trip.

What do participants learn from being on the Startup Bus?

The Startup Bus is a metaphor for what it’s like to create a real startup. People don’t ride the bus for the ideas that come off of it – they do it for the network of people they meet. For 72 hours straight, you go through the high-level steps of creating a real startup. The experience bonds people together and helps to create a great entrepreneurial network that they can use to develop a real startup.

What motivated you to not only get on the bus, but serve as Conductor this year?

My civic passion is helping to create a tech community in Cleveland. I have seen how people in Silicon Valley work together; they are good friends and support each other. Good developers want to be around likeminded people, and they need stimulation. This kind of network was something sorely missing here, so a bunch of us began getting together to do stuff; we formed events like Startup Weekend and GiveCamp. The Burning River Developers Network now meets monthly.

Cleveland has awesome talent, just not the same numbers as other cities. These kinds of events unite the community. When I hear people say there’s no tech scene in Northeast Ohio, I tell them, ‘You’re lying – you just don’t know where it is.’ Based on my experience on the Startup Bus last year, I wanted to give back to people and pay it forward. That’s why I decided to become Conductor this year.

Can you walk us through the experiences you had pitching ideas on the bus?

For the first half hour, people pitched ideas. Then we broke into teams and worked on our ideas. Typically a software developer, business developer and user interface developer would work together. Teams of 3-4 people work best.

Our first stop was at the Youngstown Business Incubator. By then, people had the basics of their pitch down, and we pitched to a panel of investors there. Then we got back on the bus and headed to Columbus, where a group bought us lunch, then to the Brandery in Cincinnati where we pitched again. The first day, my job was to say to this group of buspreneurs, ‘This is what you can do in Ohio.’

From Cincinnati, we headed to Nashville and met up with the DC and New York buses. We ate at the Hard Rock Café there and pitched again. Within the first 16 hours, we’d already pitched multiple times and refined our ideas.

The second day, we woke up after a few hours of sleep. I didn’t tell anyone where we were going, and that was part of the overall experience. All six buses from the East Coast met in Baton Rouge, and that was another networking opportunity.

Finally, we headed to Austin on the third day. After the first round, the contests for the semifinals were announced and people had just one hour to prepare.

Were there any really cool product ideas that emerged during the bus trip?

The idea from Ohio that made it to the semifinals is a product called lisnr. It’s an iPhone app that allows artists to embed silent audio tones into an existing track. Basically, it’s a way for a fan to get exclusive content. So if Justin Bieber recorded some tones, a listener could unlock something like a backstage video, tickets or targeted promotion. Nothing like that exists right now, and the idea came from a Cincinnati team. I’m pretty sure the person who developed it will continue on.

The Startup Bus involves creating a great product in 72 hours while riding in a bus. Oh yeah, and you barely sleep. Tell us about some of the people that are attracted to this tough, competitive experience.

There are three types of people who are attracted to startups. The first is in their mid to late 20s, perhaps a mid-level brand manager at a larger company like Proctor and Gamble, who helps to bring products to market. Basically, this person doesn’t know where to start, and the bus enables him to figure it out. He gets connected to developers, and can continue to do marketing and product work.

The second is someone in corporate America who is sick of mid-level politics and having to ask for permission to do something creative. He or she wants a way to get started as an entrepreneur, and the bus provides that opportunity.

The third is a college student who is interested in entrepreneurialism. What connects all three types of people is that they’re budding entrepreneurs.

I think there’s something about how we’re raised in the Midwest that keeps us from taking these kinds of risks. I was raised in Parma in a very blue-collar family, so I'm a product of this kind of environment. People have this attitude here: ‘Why would you go off and risk your family?’ So I think people don’t start companies here because they’re not surrounded by an entrepreneurial culture.

What the bus does is create a crazy environment that allows people to say, ‘If I can make it through this with no sleep, with great minds, then I can do this.’

What is the reaction of other teams to the Ohio Startup Bus teams?

We still get flak, even from magazines like TechCrunch. They heard about us and said, ‘Ohio? Really?’ Cincinnati is doing a great job, and the Brandery has created a successful mentoring community that is so crucial. The Youngstown Business Incubator has also been amazing. Columbus is farther ahead than Cleveland, I think. Northeast Ohio has a lot more doers; what we really need is more mentors. There haven’t been that many successful exits from Cleveland, at least not yet.

Has the Startup Bus experience helped to link the tech community across Ohio?

Definitely. There’s an upcoming angel investor event in Columbus, and the entire bus has been invited. Also, BizDom offered to host a recap event, and the folks from Columbus and Cincinnati are coming up to Cleveland. The networking really has to go beyond individual people, and create a culture of cross-collaboration. That’s something that you’re starting to see happen across the state.

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