Startup U, Episode Two: “This could potentially change society as a whole”
Remember last week when I said the reality show “Startups U” represented nothing approaching the truth of Silicon Valley, but could show a brighter future of gender and race diversity in entrepreneurship?
That future is looking dimmer after episode two, “The Hackathon.”
The trouble started right about the time one of the teams proposed a “Bang for Your Buck” app -- but I’m not going to start there. There are just too many other can’t-look-away moments to discuss first.
Like the moment when Jesse Draper marveled at the gender diversity in the room, saying to the group excitedly: “Raise your hand if you are a woman!” The well-trained group awkwardly compiled before Draper realised how idiotic her demand sounded.
And then there was the moment when Tim Draper -- eyebrows longer and more combed out than usual -- imagined out loud a future in we will be able to “transport ourselves using something attached to our bodies.” At that point, Paul Carr suddenly yelled at the screen: “YOU’RE IMAGINING LEGS!”
The eldest Draper, Bill, -- a true pioneer of the industry -- was wheeled out briefly to share his own vision for the future, but wouldn’t prognosticate further than to announce his plans to have steak for dinner.
The Drapers, ladies and gentlemen. Silicon Valley’s own living, breathing, walking reality show whether cameras are rolling or not. Our answer to Donald and Ivanka Trump. I call them “our weirdos;” Startup U calls them the people you need to impress to win the competition. And oh, did the students try this week.
Step two of that process was a hackathon. The students were given 36 hours to build a brand new company... that had to involve a toilet plunger somehow. Because, yunno, innovation. As one of the students said, “It wouldn’t be Draper University if we didn’t have to involve a toilet plunger!”
It would not.
It was also another example of what I wrote last week: Draper University is not an ideal path for actually building a company. If you were really in your early 20s moving to the Valley, you’d do far better to go work at a startup first. But it’s a TV friendly, and somewhat effective Mr. Miyagi-like way to teach some of the skills you might need to be an entrepreneur. You thought disrupting the rules of Volleyball was silly… I’m teaching you to question every given!
Wax on! Wax off!
Hokey yes, but it also does make a point about what it takes to create companies that change industries. Again, if it were a high school course, I’d sign my kids up for it as soon as they hit the age. But make no mistake: This is not the next Y Combinator. (Not least because, unlike Y Combinator, Draper University once allowed Pando’s Dan Raile to wander its halls.)
Draper teed up the hackathon saying “I want them thinking we can get to Mars! We can live forever!”
The viewers were promised Mars, but for now they got… Spermy.
Spermy: A mashup of Tinder and sperm donation, where you swipe through photos of potential sperm donors until you find one you like the look of (or as Paul yelled at the screen: “THAT’S JUST A MASHUP OF TINDER AND TINDER.”) It’s exactly how a 20-something dude would assume women must go about finding the vital DNA combo they’ll carry for nine months and then raise for the next 18 years. Yep. We just go by a profile pic. Medical info? IQ? Family history? Phssshhhh! Stop being such a buzzkill, grandma!
This is before we get into anonymity issues around sperm donation, and that some men may not want their photo on a public site declaring their seed open for the swiping.
And yet, after the Hackathon, Draper declared Spermy a company that could “potentially change society as a whole.”
Serious question: Is Draper trolling us, trying to inspire the students ala the Volleyball challenge, or does he actually believe women want to base one of the most important and emotional decisions of their lives on a single photo?
“The random, off-the-wall is what matters,” he tells the students. At least he genuinely lives those words. Reminder: This is the guy who wants to divide california into five states and rename San Francisco-- a place in the throes of tech class warfare-- Silicon Valley. In every episode so far, Draper is seen proudly wearing a special broken-up California tie.
I feel like one day Draper will just reveal he’s been doing a Borat-like hoax all these years to entertain us. Either way, thank you. It’s working. I can’t stop watching.
David -- “CEO” of another team-- was livid at Spermy’s victory. It’d be easy to agree with him, except the producers have cast David as the villain, meaning he’s impossible to root for. From the version we’re shown on screen, David is clearly one of the more together would-be entrepreneurs in the group, but he’s also a ginormous douche.
Tell-it-like-it-is Keyonna nailed it: “When I first looked at you, I thought this is the playboy douchebag.” Except maybe the playboy part. Oh, Keyonna, we’ll get to you in a second.
David spends the episode bragging about how 36 hours is way more time than his team needs to build his idea of an automated metro card that he estimates will disrupt the entire world of public transportation. Not by introducing a new service, or changing anything about public transportation. Just by not making you carry a piece of paper anymore. He basically created a mobile boarding pass the airlines introduced years ago, and thinks it’s a company. Bless his heart. But -- hey-- give David credit. This is at least something people would use.
I sort of felt bad for the producers’ vilification of David until he said this: “When I first hear transportation I think of Uber, because I want to build something that’s as disruptive as Uber is.”
Yeah, ok, you’re definitely the villain.
The David we see is basically the guy everyone worried would flock to the Valley after the Social Network came out, reveling in his wounded no-one-gets-me entitlement, with a vision that he’s building something far greater than he is. I don’t know what is worse: The fact that he didn’t build anything remotely disruptive or that he worships Uber. (I do know.) Say what you want about Travis Kalanick (And I have) he doesn’t take the afternoon off for FroYo, because he tells himself he works more efficiently than his competitors.
David’s company-- predictably-- is the only one that doesn’t win a prize at the hackathon. On merit or to teach the cocky villain and those of us watching a lesson? Who knows. These people thought Spermy would change society.
And who cares? This isn’t really about creating companies. It’s about teaching them what it takes to be an entrepreneur. And, yunno, entertaining viewers. As I wrote last week, what’s captivating about this show is it doesn’t pretend to actually be about Silicon Valley in any way -- it’s just a well-done reality show with the Valley as its hook.
So that’s David. Then there’s the sleeper villain, Tony. Tony came into the house with his wife, Erin, a former Miss USA. Both of them spend half the first episode telling you how he’s the experienced, seasoned entrepreneur while she’s just the babe in the woods. And yet, in both episodes, the producers convey that she’s by far the smarter, better entrepreneur.
Tony’s shining moment this time around was a proposed app for the Hackathon called “Bang for your Buck.” Yep -- husbands or boyfriends can either buy flowers and dinners or do chores around the house and get sex points that can be redeemed for various sexual favors. Sex coupons! It’s an app that tracks how much money you spend in accordance with how much sex you are owed. Intra-relationship prostitution. Lovely.
All of the women on his team-- unsurprisingly-- look disgusted. Watching his wife’s face as he proposed this, I wondered if we were not only watching their journey as would-be entrepreneurs but the beginning of what would later be played out in counseling. When they do an impromptu poll on the streets of Palo Alto, everyone they meet confirms this is a gross idea.
With both Bang for Your Buck and Spermy, the men were delighted by the salacious branding, and the women were shifting uncomfortably. So much for gender inclusion. It was “Tit stare” and “the Airbnb logo looks like a vagina” all over again. We’ve got enough of that here already, thanks.
Let’s get back to Keyonna, who I genuinely like despite her horrible face-palm-makeover idea from week one. The people I’m mad at are the producers who keep cutting away to her testimonials about how “hot” one team is. I’m sure she really said those things, but I’m sure she said other things too. Let’s not invite women onto the show to score diversity points, and then force them into the role of sideline lovestruck cheerleaders, please. That’s why Tony’s pageant wife who is far better at pitching than he is comes as such a welcome surprise.