StartupU Episode 8: Disruption and liberty!
“Now we get to the hard part. We are going to teach them the cold hard parts about the business world….We are done with team challenges and completely focused on the startup pitches.”
These were Tim Draper’s opening remarks during the latest episode of StartupU. With two weeks to go in the “semester” it seems he’s suddenly decided everyone should stop pretending they are at summer camp, and should start working on their-- yunno-- startups. They reason they’ve all allegedly paid thousands of dollars to be there. (Well, that and being on TV)
I could just end this review here because that was the most jaw dropping thing that happened in a pretty boring episode. But I’ve come this far in my commitment to review the whole season, so here we go.
The rest of the episode was focused on the startups preparing pitch decks and realizing just how much they didn’t know. About how many slides they should have. About what a business is. About what business models are. About whether most of their ideas were actually feasible.
While the episode was a little boring, I was delighted that it included some of my favorite characters. Notably the girl power trio of Ana, Erin, and Carly. It particularly focused on Carly and her “Pretty Litter” cat litter idea that will change colors to detect health issues in cats. I’ve said before: It’s not necessarily a scalable business and a very hard one to execute. But it’s the only product bandied about on this show I’d actually use. (For instance, I already have a house, so I don’t need to 3D print one with Tony’s fictional technology.)
I was chagrined to see that Carly hadn’t quite figured out if her cat litter idea would work. Argh! The one that sounded feasible! This episode sees her take on a “co-founder” who she just met who can work on the logistics so she can deal with all the BS she keeps having to do at DraperU. Or as she put it “Since I’m in class all the time, it’d be great to have another person.” Not only has DraperU not encouraged the students to work on their actual companies, according to Carly, the endless “lessons” have inhibited it.
Her roommate Ana -- and I-- both hope that doesn’t come back to haunt her. It seemed a little premature for such a major decision.
Then there was David-- who I’d predicted early on would be the villain of StartupsU. That was back when I thought the season would actually try to carry over story lines from episode to episode like a normal reality show. He was mostly dropped until now. And now that he’s back he immediately becomes sympathetic when a clueless guest speaker slams his his medical marijuana delivery service by saying it was tantamount to “making money dealing drugs” totally unaware that medical marijuana has a huge benefit for many sick people. You root for David even more when he hears his brother has been diagnosed with stage four blood cancer, giving his mission whole new personal resonance.
Tim has 1:1s with both Carly and David this week and shows just how little time he’s been spending with either. His 1:1s have developed a formula: He invites a student in and tells them they may not be cut out to be an entrepreneur, picking loosely observed personality traits, rather than very real issues many of them have with work ethic, telling the truth, or business ideas not actually being possible.
He tells David he’s got this “wise guy thing” that might turn people off. Not, say, how does your medical marijuana delivery company differ from the many ones already on the market today?
With his 1:1 with Carly, he misses the mark further. He dredges up the incident from “survival week” when she’d injured her leg and he callously told her she didn’t “try hard enough” despite it. Carly-- quite appropriately-- told him how unfair the criticism was. He not only blows that single incident into some deeply troubly personality flaw that Carly can’t take criticism-- which instead makes it look like it’s Tim who can’t take a student talking back-- but he implies she thinks she’s too good to do certain tasks. Let me remind you: Her startup entails cleaning up after cats. This is not a woman who shies from menial tasks. And at no other point this season has the viewer seen her “blow up.”
What Carly has gotten trapped in is what we see over and over again with startup competitions. A judge critiques your idea-- or presentation-- and you have two horrible choices. You can defend yourself and look defensive. Or you can smile and let the inaccurate jab stand. I’ve seen both hurt startups. This is why at Pandoland, we have a handpicked mentor from the industry to help each startup defend themselves against an unfair asymmetry of power.
And for David the lesson in what he did wrong was far simpler: When asked why he wanted to build a medical marijuana delivery company, he talked about people he knew who’d been afflicted with diseases and had to jump through too many hoops to get the medicine they needed. He should have simply answered: “Disruption and liberty.” He probably should have guessed that after eight weeks of reciting a creepy libertarian “pledge to DraperU” everyday.