Chicago/Midwest NextChaptr Places 2nd in StartupBus Pitch

The NextChaptr Team (L to R) Jay Clouse, Greg Sostaric, Michelle Dash, Chris Courtney, and Zack Price.

Coming into this weekend, I considered taking part in the StartupBus competition (or maybe more aptly called StartupBus “social experiment”) as a sort of mix between a challenge and a vacation.

My priorities were 1) meet new people, 2) build something fun, and 3) take a week off from classes. That quickly changed on the Midwest bus.

Within the first hour, we faced our toughest and most enduring decision: of these 26 strangers, which will we choose to work with for the next three days? What idea would we pour our time and soul into for the next 72 hours?

I cannot underscore the importance of that decision enough. Just minutes after 26 separate ideas were pitched, we were charged with recruiting for or abandoning our own idea in the process of deciding our best friends for the next three days.

Our team organically formed around the idea for NextChaptr. Pitched by our developer Greg, the basic premise was a Kickstarter for books. Joining our team was Zack, a publisher for the last 13 years; Chris, a designer/developer with the Chicago Tribune; Greg, our developer; Michelle, our user experience maven; and myself, a marketer with a background in crowdfunding.

For the first day we struggled define our concept and our target audience. Who could this help most, and how could it help them? We gradually discovered our market and its needs. Seven million original manuscripts are submitted for publishing each year – and 200,000 are professionally published. That is less than 3 percent.

A book is just an idea that has been published. Why is it that so many great ideas are going unpublished? How can it be that New York Times Best Sellers The 4-Hour Work Week and The Help get rejected 25 and 60 times respectively before a publisher takes a chance on publishing them? The story is not uncommon.

That is where we saw our niche. Where publishers see risk, we see opportunity. We mitigate the risk by leveraging the crowd to filter up the best, original content.

We worked night and day on our Beta, often getting less than four hours of sleep per night. And along the way, we made more great friends on the bus. We were incredibly supportive of each other’s projects, often “reaching across the aisle” to help another team get a task finished. Technically, we were competitors. But being on a bus for 12+ hours a day, we sort of galvanized.

NextChaptr made strides. Zack was constantly practicing his pitch – even in rest stop bathrooms. Chris continued to improve the design while Greg built the site. Our message became concise, and our audience became clear. We were ready for the competition.

On Wednesday, we met StartupBus founder Elias Bizannes. Elias listened to each and every team pitch their concept, along with a couple of other bus conductors. After each team had their private 10 minutes to pitch, the field was narrowed down to 12.

We were a little shaken.

We crushed our practice pitches all morning, but when our time came, we stumbled a bit. We recovered well and answered all of the judges’ questions with confidence and conviction. When the 12 semi-finalists were announced, we were one of three representatives of the Midwest bus.

The 12 semi-finalists then had an hour to prepare before pitching to the entire crowd with the finals on the line. Chris put a stellar presentation together, and Zack delivered his best pitch all week. The judges loved the simplicity of the idea, and together, that was enough to propel us into the finals.

Day five was another long night. Our team got little sleep as we refined our pitch, presentation, and prepared some metrics. NextChaptr was a viable business model, and we knew it; we just needed the projections to back it up.

Once we hit the stage for the final pitch, we had not been more confident. Each of the six final teams made incredible strides between the semi-finals and the finals, and we knew it would be a tight decision.

After much deliberation, the champions were crowned: First place went to CareerMob from New York, and Second place went to NextChaptr!

We were incredibly proud of our accomplishment as a team. In fact, we were numb. We thank everyone for the help and support and are excited for the future of NextChaptr. The StartupBus odyssey was an incredible adventure that I cannot recommend more highly.

Huge thanks to Manta, Venture Highway, Big Kitty Labs, inmobly, Eric Corl, Ray Bohac, Brian Billingsley, and Benjamin Stafford for sponsoring me on the trip. Without them, none of this would have been possible. ❒

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