Startup U, Episode Four: Do you even whiteboard, bra(h)?
“Anybody here need a bra?”
Last week, I almost threw in the towel on StartupU. It seems I am not alone. On his Facebook page, Tim Draper offered to give $1 million to charity if more people would watch it this week. Yeeeeeeeesh. Sad trombone disruption.
All my early hopefulness was diminishing week on week-- both that this show could teach anyone anything about entrepreneurship or that it could be good TV.
More frustrating than Tim Draper’s weirdo antics -- which can be entertaining-- or the absurd business ideas-- which can also be entertaining-- is the structure of the show. It’s sort of a competition, in that one startup will get an investment from Draper at the end. But unlike the tried and true format of Project Runway, Top Chef, American Idol etc, no one ever gets kicked off.
That everyone-gets-a-trophy -- or, rather, everyone paid thousands of dollars to come to this “university” and we have to pretend they are all great disruptors-- mentality seeps into every nook and cranny of the show, like a friendly, pink, sparkly poison. It renders the show useless in those two goals: That anyone would learn anything about entrepreneurship or that it would be good television.
Every great reality show has to have tough love, whether it’s Simon Cowell, Nina Garcia, or Tom Colicchio.
The lack of a single character who will say what we are all thinking is made even worse by the fact that everyone watching-- and I mean everyone-- can see many of these ideas are nonsensical. Like mask you could smush on your face that would give you movie star make-up in five minutes or-- this week’s absurdity-- a guy expecting to 3D print a house without having yet figured out how 3D printing works.
The viability of these companies -- which are more accurately described as “ideas” or “daydreams” or “words strung together like a mad lib” -- are never questioned except by the occasional outside guest who looks around awkwardly on camera and says in the nicest possible way, “So…...Mr. Emperor, I don’t want to squash your dreams, but is it possible that you haven’t actually figured out the way to your closet…?” And then a StartupU member will go hug the entrepreneur and say “No, they didn’t mean it!! Those are beautiful clothes!! BEAUTIFUL CLOTHES!”
Last week it was Jane Buckingham of Trendera with the whole makeup on a mask idea. (Keyonna pictured above doing air quotes.) This week it was Michael Volpatt giving feedback to Tony’s “LET’S JUST 3D PRINT A HOUSE!” “company”… that has absolutely no prototype or science or anything behind it. We’re weeks into this “university” and many of the students are still wandering around talking about these ideas in between bouts of “disruption volleyball” and bowls of San Mateo sushi.
Developers-turned-entrepreneurs always talk about hitting the point where they need to stop endlessly whiteboarding and start actually building. But students like Tony haven’t even reached the whiteboard stage. He doesn’t know enough about 3D printing to even know what to draw.
After an earlier review, Tony tried to argue to me on Twitter that this show was like Shark Tank but with a younger generation of “badass” entrepreneurs. The fact that he would write that says everything you need to know about Tony. People on Shark Tank-- to a one-- come in with existing products that they’ve already been selling into the market in most cases. The Sharks rake them over the coals about customer acquisition and margins and scalability before offering a horrific deal for way too much of the company and all sorts of guarantees on revenue.
Nothing resembling SharkTank happens on StartupU. Not the cold-water-in-the-face advice, and not even the actual products to look at, in cases like Tony and Keyonna. If Tony was an example of the younger generation of entrepreneurs, America would be fucked. Fortunately, he’s not. There are thousands of entrepreneurs in the Valley building things right now. Indeed, as we’ve written recently seed funds are demanding more in terms of results and traction before writing a check these days. The show is just out of step with reality.
Which is OK. I like that this show is about Draper’s weird microcosm and doesn’t pretend to be what building a company in the Valley is actually like. But that doesn’t mean the staff should actually try to teach horrible lessons to the students and eagerly applaud their worst instincts.
In contrast to Tony, I should give Sharon credit as the other plot line in this show. Her GIF video mirror she’s peddling throughout clubs in San Francisco may be a good product or a lame one depending on your point of view-- and we saw club owners telling her both this week. But at least she has something to show and is doing something to get it into people’s hands.
Volpatt was called in to talk about brand with these guys. As he realized Tony had absolutely nothing other than the words “3D PRINTING HOUSES!” to show for his company, he had a deer in the headlights expression on his face that seemed to say, “Exactly how mean can I be on camera?” If an entrepreneur were to pitch his communications firm on taking this “company” to market, Volpatt wouldn’t have even taken the meeting.
All Volpatt could say to Tony was “So you’re super, super early stage.” That’s one way of putting it. Just like my four-year-old’s plan to disrupt bedtime through time travel is “super early stage.” Or as Paul yelled at the screen: “YEAH, MY IDEA FOR INFLATABLE RESTAURANTS IS SUPER FUCKING EARLY STAGE. I JUST NEED TO LEARN ABOUT RUBBER, AND AIR PUMPS, AND HOW TO COOK.” Another way to put it is: Not actually a company in any sense other than you paid thousands of dollars to come to a place that hugged you and told you it was. Or as Volpatt said slightly more directly, “You need to figure out if this can even be done.”
Yes, some would consider that the first step before planning the branding around your “launch.”
Those words should be incorporated into Tim Draper’s creepy daily libertarian pledge he makes the students recite each morning.
Volpatt, by the way, looked smashing in his blazer. I mention that because he told me via email last week that the producers had rejected the clothes he showed up in and insisted he change into something different. That’s right: The producers are happy to tell the experts that they have no suitable clothes, just not their coddled cast of world-be emperors.
I get that Draper wants to encourage people to “think big!” And I get that his biggest hits-- Tesla, SpaceX, Skype-- were crazy ideas by seemingly crazy people that other VCs didn’t want to back. But the difference is those entrepreneurs actually built something. They had actual skills they brought to bear. Elon Musk didn’t just come up with a wild idea and say “Yeah, I don’t really know where ‘space’ is but I know it’s really high up so I’m thinking I’ll build either a rocket or a really, really tall ladder and if I did, and it worked, would you buy it? Yeaaaaaahhhh…. so write me a check...”
Like the hopeful entrepreneur who wears a black turtleneck and jeans because Steve Jobs did, these entrepreneurs are mimicking the wrong part of an Elon Musk. It’s not the crazy idea that seems impossible. It’s actually proving it is possible.
That confusion between doing anything -- we’d even take whiteboarding at this point-- and just walking around saying words was highlighted in this week’s challenge.
The show theme this week was about “evangelism.” Indeed, it’s a crucial skill because an entrepreneur is constantly selling in one way or another. You have to be able to make everyone from potential customers to potential employees to potential investors believe your vision as much as you do.
But here again, the show seems to have missed the point of what’s actually made entrepreneurs successful. Successful evangelists of products win because they believe greatly in the mission of their company, because they’ve built something that has some deep intrinsic connection to them, something they believe will make the world better in some way. That’s why somewhat religious words like “belief” and “mission” and “evangelism” are used to describe people like the Google founders or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. What makes a founder so good at sales or leading a company is that deep connection to the thing.
The Draper U staff instead sought to teach evangelism by forcing the students to go into Union Square holding pictures of underwear in the hope that people would buy the garments. The men had to sell bras and the women had to sell men’s underwear. There were no samples, and the students didn’t even get to see the real product. The staff actually engineered this challenge so there could be absolutely zero connection or understanding of the product, but wanted the students to sell it anyway. As Paul yelled: “SELLING SOMETHING YOU’VE NEVER USED -- COULDN’T USE -- ISN’T EVANGELISM. IT’S BULLSHIT.” Which could also be a great skill to have as an entrepreneur -- but the fact that the staff doesn’t seem to understand what evangelism actually is should be concerning to anyone paying them money.
Not surprisingly for an inherently flawed challenge, no one learned the right lesson. Worst of all: Tony, again. Frustrated he couldn’t make any sales, he called his mom and asked her and her friends to buy some bras over the phone.
For some unfathomable reason the Draper U staff actually counted those sales as part of the challenge -- even though they weren’t even sold on Union Square, or to actual customer, or really at all.
When Tony was rapped on the knuckles with the lightest feather possible later on for using these tactics (“you are good at calling your resources, which is great, but…”), he defended himself by saying he was using his “network” and that’s what entrepreneurs do, right?
Sorry Tony, you didn’t call your “network,” you called your mom. Your mom isn’t your “network” any more than being the womb for nine months is like going through Y Combinator, or refusing to eat your brussel sprouts and demanding ice cream is a pivot.
“We’re going to really work hard to get you to not do that” the Draper U staff member said smiling. You realize-- you control the school right? And the rules? And the competition? You didn’t try really hard. Because if you tried really hard you would have said “You’re disqualified because you cheated, and it’s not fair to the students who did the challenge.”
No one has built a multi-billion dollar business by calling their mom-- or even just selling to their actual network. You have to build a product someone who doesn’t owe you a favor actual wants. I assure you Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know one billion people who owe him a solid. Again: Everyone watching the show can see this. Why can’t the staff just say “Those sales are disqualified, you didn’t sell to people in Union Square.” It’s both bad mentoring and bad TV. Please, at least do one well.
At the end of the show, Draper pulled Sharon-- the one who actually has a product and is actually hustling-- and Tony into his office for one-on-ones.
Draper gave Sharon horrible advice, as VCs frequently do. He basically advocated she abandon her entire go-to-market premise because it was a “distraction,” which she gently and politely explained the folly in and he readily agreed she was right. Well done, Sharon. I don’t totally buy the product, but you have one and you just actually evangelized your model to a VC in a way that didn’t make him feel evangelized to.
And then Tony came in.
Tim gently-- oh, so gently-- prodded Tony on the fact that he seems to have zero commitment to actually building anything, advising he should do some soul searching about whether he wants to try to build something this ambitious or just go home and work for his parents much more traditional family construction business. But it wouldn’t be DraperU if he didn’t say at the end: “This is the kind of thing I like to back. This could be really one of the great businesses of all time.”
Followed by this: “I’d learn all I can about 3D design.”
Mentoring at DraperU, ladies and gentlemen: YOU ARE TOTALLY CRUSHING IT!... but, could you maybe, learn a single fucking thing about your business? Please? If you aren’t busy? It’s just a suggestion. Don’t let me squash your dreams! Don’t let anyone squash your dreams!
Snark aside, the show is actually getting sadder to watch every week. Week one I was encouraged by the diversity on the show, hoping it could encourage more people than 20-something white male coders to try to start a company. In week two, David came forward as a villain-- but his flaw was arrogance and laziness, not ineptitude. David and Sharon are likely on the short list to win this thing. In week three, we watched the entire staff coddle Keyonna into continuing to believe she is building a company that will smush makeup on your face and have it look like a professional spent an hour doing your makeup.
But Tony’s utter lack of self-awareness and the show’s refusal to hold up a mirror, may make this episode the saddest yet. At the beginning of the episode he said the reason he wanted to build a company was because he was so inspired seeing what his immigrant parents had done with so much less. He wanted to take everything their success had given him and build something 10x greater. I believe he genuinely feels that. But because he’s young and -- according to his wife’s admission on the show-- spoiled, he took the easy way out and called his mom for help.
It was a teachable moment. A time the staff could have said, “Hey, you said you were here to be like your parents, not be bailed out by them…” even if his mom wouldn’t.