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Kansas City team CropRate competes in Startup Bus semi-finals

Each year, Startup Buses around the country head towards Austin for the South By Southwest Interactive Festival. Startup Bus is a competition where businesspeople, designers and coders — buspreneurs — create a startup, from idea to pitch, while on a three-day bus trip to the finals in San Antonio. Caitlin Cress, reporter for The Hale Center for Journalism, is riding along in the Midwest Startup Bus, which left KC Sunday morning. For information about the competition, read an explainer here.

The semi-finals of Startup Bus 2014 took place Wednesday. Sixteen teams from all seven buses made it past the preliminary rounds, which were judged by Startup Bus conductors. One team from the Midwest Bus, CropRate, competed in the semi-finals. The team, made up of Ashley Holbrook, Param Rengaiah and Melissa Roberts, impressed the judges enough to pitch before a panel of veteran conductors in the semi-final round of the competition. They did not, however, make it to the finals, which will be held Thursday afternoon.

They pitched to the judges and received good feedback, Roberts said. Startup Bus director Jon Gottfried said it was rare to see a non-software startup pitched on the Startup Bus. He appreciated the social mission of the team, which is to bring farmer’s markets to corporations with corporate wellness missions.

In the end though, the non-software focus of the company is ultimately why it did not advance. Roberts said the team was told by judges that advancing a team who did not build a software product on the bus could be seen as unfair to the teams who did. Roberts recognizes this as fair, but said her team did hustle hard to build a business from the bus.

“Even though we didn’t have a software product, and we weren’t hacking in that sense, I think we hacked the network,” she said. “We hacked those relationships that are out there in Kansas City: the great support from the corporate community. We hacked relationships.“

Startup Bus founder Elias Bizannes speaks to buspreneurs Wednesday. (Photo by Caitlin Cress/The Hale Center for Journalism)

The team did receive four commitments in under 24 hours from Kansas City–area companies to host test farmer’s market events. One of these $500 commitments came from KCPT’s CEO Kliff Kuehl.

The presentation went well even though the team had technical difficulties. The slide show they worked quickly to re-do between preliminaries and semi-finals was not seen. Holbrook said she wasn’t bothered by this.

“I felt like we conveyed that presence and that message and the whole scope of the problem and the solution without (the slide show),” she said. “That, to me, was incredible.”

Holbrook said the team has not yet decided whether or not to continue pursuing the company once returning to Kansas City.

Gottfried pointed out before finalists were announced that several teams that did not make the finals or semi-finals in past years continued to run their business without winning Startup Bus. He encouraged the buspreneurs to continue working on their startup regardless of how they did in the competition.

Midwest team Academe.io is a team that plans to continue working once returning to KC. Team member Timothy Gaull said the Startup Bus experience was enormously valuable even without a team win. He said they plan to move forward with holding the Academe curriculum-development event in Kansas City.

“I feel like we really generated an immense amount of knowledge and huge traction around this event,” he said. “And frankly, losing the pressure of the competition has freed up a lot of clarity of mind to the process.”

He said the team has discussed assembling a team of business developers to see how sustainable Academe.io really is.

Roberts expressed her appreciation for the Startup Bus experience, echoing a sentiment this reporter has heard time-and-time again in the past day.

“Getting on a bus full of twenty strangers takes a special kind of crazy, but I was happy to meet a group of other people with my same kind of crazy,” she said.

She plans to remain involved with Startup Bus and entrepreneurship in Kansas City. She thinks the entrepreneurial community of Kansas City has a responsibility to fulfill in order to gain more success at national competitions like Startup Bus.

“I think the thing that put us at the greatest disadvantage was the lack of real tech talent on the bus,” Roberts said. “It’s on us, as a city, to do a better job of supporting our tech community and supporting those developers that we know are there… making them a more integral part of our startup community.”

The Midwest teams and the teams from all other buses will arrive in Austin tonight after the winner of Startup Bus 2014 is announced. Check this page later today for an update on the winner.

More stories and daily updates: Startup Bus Midwest 2014 home page

Updated to add: After deliberation from judges like Guy Kawasaki and Robert Scoble, Smart Host from the New York Bus was named the winner for Startup Bus 2014. Mexican team Bridgefy was named runner-up.

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