Adapted from my 2018 Ignite Talk

For most people in the tech world, life can be fairly drab They sit in cubicles, at insurance companies, writing code, designing their millionth, mind numbing button, or making cold calls to hostile schmucks all day. It’s a job right? Something you have to be paid to do, because no one in their right mind would do this for free.

On the other hand, we have the guys in Silicone Valley, wrapped in hoodies and self righteousness, planning on getting rich and changing the world (not necessarily in that order). But how do you get from cubicle to your dream? Working on what you love?

“I’m never doing this again”

I would like to tell you about one the best dumb ideas of recent history: The StartupBus. A Navy Seal boot-camp training program for tech entrepreneurs. Or so I like to think.

In 2010, my friend Elias, was working in Venture Capital, and wanted to get a bus with a bunch of friends and go to South by South West – the huge film, music and tech conference in Austin. He thought would be funny to semi-mock Startup Culture in Silicon Valley by having everyone on the bus try and build a tech startup in the three days it would take to get there from San Francisco.

It sounded crazy to everyone, but they all had so much fun, that a group of them decided to turn it into a “my-city-is-better-than-your-city” tournament the following year. They all went back to their respective states, and started recruiting riders for a full-blown competition. 

The format is simple: 30 strangers get selected to get on a bus, as long as they are extremely competent and fall into one of three clichéd categories: Hipsters Hackers, and Hustlers: Graphic designers, Computer programmers, and Marketing and Business Development people.

They then get on the bus day one, introduce themselves, and pitch an idea for a startup. Groups then form around the ideas, and then the teams work like crazy, for three or four days, to make an actual business. With REAL products, and even Customers – In three days!

I was first invited to ride the 2011 Miami bus. I worked on two separate teams, competed against 10 other busses, 60 other teams,  and didn’t sleep for four days, and met some of the most amazing people that are still in my life to this day.

Since then, the competition has grown. There are more and more busses every year from more cities, a separate European competition, and I’ve recently gotten back from the inaugural StartupBus Africa trip, which was epic! But why would anyone do this?

Well, most people are just… terrible at their jobs. I assume you’ve found this yourself. But the bus is different. The sheer caliber of the people you meet if off the charts. Everyone works so hard, and is so good at what they do, that there is a feedback loop of inspiration; You WANT to work harder to show that you belong. 

The result is productivity to an extent not seen in the real world. What can you create on a bus in three days? How about a fully fledged, artificial intelligence food ordering system that will automatically order you lunch every day? Yeah, we did that. 

Nomscription – Built in three days. On a bus.

Internet free chat system for disaster areas? Yup. A career matching system for Veterans? Check. Customized cereal delivered to your door? Yup. A full social network for selling what you grow in your back garden – a team from Tampa built that!

And there are hundreds of others. But the bus isn’t all flowers and roses. In fact it is totally awful. And that is one of the reasons it’s so successful. If you can build something amazing in three days next to a chemical toilet, you can do anything.

There is bad food, motion sickness, team melt downs, spotty power and internet access, and every new hell you’d find in a real startup, but compressed into the equivalent of a long weekend.  As a result, you learn to be flexible, to deal with the chaos, and to thrive.

Then there is the physical side.  Try having a normal conversation after writing code for ten hours doing this. Also, after four days without sleep, you can have some pretty inspiring insights, as well as some mind-blowing hallucinations. Not to mention all the caffeine and alcohol.

The pure squalor of the situation, combined with the amazing team work that goes on, binds you so closely to those people, that you instantly have 30 new best friends. I started referring to the processes as entrepreneurial Stockholm Syndrome. 

But the process opens your eyes. A passionate, five person team, working 16 hour days, for four days straight, produce 320 hours of actual work. That’s an equivalent 40 work days of super productivity. 

If you can build a complete product, create marketing materials, pitch decks, business cards, have customers and sales, etc., all in three days, ON A BUS, what could you do if you gave yourself six months?

I bet that you’re pretty amazing. You just can’t begin to realize how freaking amazing you REALLY ARE until you’ve HAD be amazing waste deep in crap and sleep depravation. There are no excuses. Go and build something, right now!

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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A Simple Communication Framework

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

Why a Framework?

The single most important thing that we do at work is communicating with other people. It’s generally how we are able to come up with ideas and execute them in ways that a single person could not.

It does seem that this whole “talking to each other” thing can get complicated. “Miscommunication” seems to be the number one excuse for something getting messed up in a knowledge worker environment. There are a whole host of reasons why this is the case. But one of the easiest ways to combat the lack of retention, the lack of comprehension, or simple miscommunications is to start with the way that we express ourselves.

At Sourcetoad, we use an adapted communications framework that has made life a lot easier for everyone involved. We have set up some basic rules for communication that are easy to remember, and we use keywords so that people receiving the information can context switch into the receiving framework mode. In other words, when people incite the framework, everyone changes their mental stance and prepares to communicate.

An Adapted Simple Model

This framework has been adapted from an amalgamation of numerous other frameworks. It takes a lot from military communication tactics (where being understood can be the difference between life and death) and a number of other popular communication frameworks. This is just the simplest way that we’ve been able to express it. It has been hacked together from too many sources to cite, but it is still simple enough to work well for us.

The Framework

Our framework has only four key pieces:

  • Intent
  • Context
  • A sketch of the desired outcome
  • A sketch of a strategy to get to that outcome

These four items can be placed in various orders, but typically they start with intent and end with a strategy.


Stating your intent, or at least clearly knowing what your intent is, is the most powerful part of this framework. Understanding your own intent in everything is extremely powerful, but that’s another blog post. Conversations that do not have a well-understood intent are just “chats.” They’re not the type of communication that will solve any problem.

Stating your intent at the beginning of a conversation does two very important things:

  1. It switches the receiver’s brain into “communications framework mode.” It allows the other person to understand that you are about to use the framework.
  2. Stating your intent allows the person to whom you are speaking with to know why you are talking. If I don’t know what you want right at the beginning, we’re probably not going to have a fruitful conversation.


Context is the backstory or history that your receiver may need to fully understand the conversation. Telling the person you’re talking to about the players involved, what previous conversations touched on, or what the stakes are can be extremely useful.

The three main questions you should ask yourself when giving context are:

  • What are we talking about?
  • What do you need to know about this?
  • Have I told you everything you need to know?

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure your receiver knows you are using the framework:

  • “For a little background…”
  • “For context…”

Sketch Desired Outcome (End State)

After you’ve laid out your intentions and the context the receiver needs, it’s time to actually tell them what you want. This involves explaining your vision of the outcomes, or the “end state.”

An outcome or end state might be as complicated as: “I think what I want is for the company to open a new line of business, complete with staff and warehousing. I also think we’re going to need to custom build an entire logistics software system over the next few years.”

Or it could be as simple as: “What I would like is that at the end of this conversation, we set up a time to have a formal meeting about it with the team.”

You need to be flexible here because even though you might know what type of outcome you are looking for, you need to leave room for the solution to include new ideas from your audience. That’s why we call it a “sketch.”

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure the receiver can envision what you want to happen:

  • “What I see happening…”
  • “My desired outcome is…”

Sketch a Strategy

You know what you want (intent), the receiver knows what you want (end state), and they have the backstory (context) to understand what you’re talking about — we can now move on to action.

In this phase, we outline a possible method of getting to that end state I mentioned earlier. This is up for discussion, of course. The person you’re speaking with is not required to follow your sketch. Rather, this phase invites them to build a strategy with you to accomplish the desired outcome.

The person you’re speaking with might have a much better idea of how to get there than you do, especially since they now understand your intentions and what the end goal is. So keep an open mind, and enjoy the brainstorming.

When describing the strategy you envision, Use triggers like:

  • “A rough strategy we could take is…”
  • “A path I see is…”
  • “I’d suggest x as the next steps. What do you think?”

Example 1

Intention: I want a dashboard to show the ten most important KPIs for our internal product. I want the team to manage the build-out and timing to balance client needs. I’m prepared to invest about 100 hours for the MVP.

Context: Hi Joe, some quick context: I would like for the team to build a dashboard that provides a brief overview of the system – I want this to show the variety of features for sales calls and to be useful for current clients.

Outcome: My desired end state is I get a demo-able dashboard on our test instance within the next four months. It should have 70% of the functionality shown in the mockups.

Strategy: I think the rough path to getting there is for you and Jane to meet and work out which features are doable in the next four months while balancing client requests. Then you can create tickets for the segments and decide how flexible the dashboard could be. Let’s get together for a review and approval meeting when that’s done. After that, we can start handing out the tickets to the team.

Example 2

Intention: I want to get James to switch the DNS servers for a client.

Context: Hey James, for some context, Martin asked me to help him with their new mail server. They’re going to be setting this up on their side with Office365. I’m not sure what is required 100%, though.

Outcome: I would like to send Martin an email with the steps he needs to take to prepare for the switchover and the dates when we plan on doing it. If we have any questions for him, I’d like to include those in the email by the end of the day tomorrow.

Strategy: My strategy here is that I will follow your advice and guidance to the letter because I’m not the expert.


If you are talking to someone at work, they might not actually be paying attention. Having a communications framework with key phrases and trigger words can make a huge impact on changing the mindset of the sender and the receiver. When both parties know that information is going to be transmitted in a certain way, retention and accuracy rates are way higher.

At Sourcetoad, we use the trigger words and key phrases below to help change our thinking, speaking, and listening modes:

  • Intent
    • “My intention is…”
    • “What I’m looking to do is…”
    • “What I want is…”
  • Context
    • “For some context…”
    • “A little background…”
  • Sketch of my desired outcome
    • “The outcome I’m looking for is…”
    • “When this is all done, I’d like to see…”
  • Sketch of a strategy to get there
    • “I think a rough path to get here is…”
    • “The strategy I imagine is…”

That’s it! It’s a very simple yet powerful tool to help improve communication. You can alter this plan or invent your own, but the key is that both parties know the rules. The idea that people can switch between a conversation and “communication” is life-changing – but it requires training on both sides.