Oct 16, 2015 · 10 minutes

I’ve reached the end of the StartupU, Tim Draper’s ABC Family reality show, and I now wish I’d stopped at the beginning.

What I hoped at episode one would be an inclusive show showcasing diversity, gender, and a real expectation of what it takes to build a company turned... absurd? Grotesque? Laughable? I don’t even know the word.

But I do know that viewers -- all ten of us in the world who were still watching -- could only laugh at the outcome. It was that or vomit.

In case you still think it’s worth it to spend thousands of dollars to go to DraperU, lemme spoil for you how you “win.” Because there’s an easy hack. Here’s how you get a $250k investment from Tim Draper:

  • Lie during your pitch to investors.
  • Cheat during the competitions by asking your mom to bail you out.
  • Don’t believe in your idea enough to quit your other job. (And honestly why should you? It’s total bullshit.)
  • Most important: Be a rich white guy with family money who’s never really had to stand on his own two feet. For some crazy reason, that appeals to Tim. That’s just the kind of person who “has what it takes.”

Yeah, last night was the grand finale of Startup U. And Tony won.

Tony, you might recall, was the guy who claimed throughout the show that he could 3D print houses. The closest he came to actually doing so was piping concrete through a robot arm in the shape of a D that his wife said looked like dog shit. His wife was being kind, bless her.

During his pitch day presentation he flat lied about his product -- at least based on what the producers have shown us. He said: “With current technology we are able to print something in a warehouse in stable conditions.” He “printed” nothing. He piped concrete into the shape of a sloppy D. That isn’t close to producing an affordable two-bedroom house in a matter of days.

For that, Draper crowned Tony “best in class.”

Not Malcolm, the African American entrepreneur with a real business and paying customers who did more to mentor his classmates than the entire staff of DraperU did all season.

Not Ana, who did quit her other successful bootstrapped business, because she was so dedicated to NailedIt, her Uber for manicures.

Not Sharon who has been hustling to get her weird selfie mirror in clubs throughout LA and San Francisco, has a product in the market, and a team already.

Draper said he wanted to pick the company that best represented what Draper U is. And he did. It’s a place where a rich white guys with family money can drop a few thousand dollars, make up a bunch of shit, and slap each other on the back about changing the world.

A few days ago Tony’s wife, Erin, who I thought had a far better chance of winning, emailed me to ask if I’d moderate a fireside chat for Draper U. She apparently works there now. That she has seemingly given up on her -- far better-- company idea while Tony is lauded as a “visionary” made me deeply sad. I passed on the invitation, because November is an insane month for me with too much travel.

But after the finale, I’m not sure I could walk in Draper U without feeling sick. It’s just not something I want to be complicit in.

The crazy thing is, what Tony seems to be talking about-- it’s hard to know because there are never specifics-- is not 3D printing at all. It’s making pre-fab concrete houses rapidly in a new automated fashion. And other companies in the world are already doing that. I don’t even cover this space and I profiled one called BS Construtora years ago in my second book, and in TechCrunch. They could actually build a house faster than Tony’s amazing and total bullshit 3D printing claims at pitch day.

And it actually works. I stood inside a village they were building in the Amazon years ago. Last I spoke to them they were already doing north of $100 million in revenues doing the same claims of speed of production and automation that Tony claimed with a bizarre artist’s rendering in his pitch. I have no doubt in the years since, more companies have innovated in this space.

This is precisely why when Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis started TechCrunch50 they required companies do a live demo. Because until you see a working product, it’s impossible to know whether someone is innovative or just full of shit.

But Draper U has no such bar, which shouldn’t be a shock if you’ve watched the whole season.

This is a “school” that allowed Keyonna to get up on stage and talk about her makeup mirror that, for some unclear reason, will use “facial recognition software”. She came up with that idea just days before pitch day and had no demo, no development team, and no real clue about how she might go about making it. When Keyonna was asked what the $200,000 she was requesting would be used for she said, 25% would be for “key activities,” 25% would be for “key resources,” and 49% would be for office set up. This was an intake of breath after she was asked a question about how the facial recognition software would work, and she said that’s why they needed money to figure that out. And as for 49% on “office set up”.... Yikes.

It’s a sign of how non-sensical her idea was that it was dismissed even in a season where Tony’s total fictional technology won. What exactly did she pay money for? What did she learn?

Watching the finale, I started to have a sinking feeling that Draper was actually savvier than his self-consciously wacky persona on the show would suggest. I wondered: Is this all just a scam?

Pitch day was bizarre. Supposedly 50 of the world’s most famous VCs were there. We recognized two: Erik Moore and Kirby Harris of Base Ventures -- also Pando investors. They didn’t say a word on camera. In fact, on the footage that made it to air, exactly two people whose last names weren’t “Draper” asked questions -- and neither was a VC. It’s unclear if any traditional Sand Hill Road VCs were even in the room.

After pitch day was over, Draper sat down with each “student” to talk about his or her future. He cherry picks the ones he likes, making them extreme low-ball offers to invest small amounts of money that likely won’t even get them to a proof of concept.

He offered Carly $50,000 for 20% of Pretty Litter. She negotiated him back to 12%. What she should have done was told him to keep his money and immediately launched a Kickstarter to capitalize on the at least small amount of hype surrounding the show. I bet she could have raised tens of thousands for no equity, developed an actual product and then raised a real round.

Carly has been a favorite of mine all along, but she showed terrible judgement in rushing into a partnership with a co-founder that proved disastrous and still hasn’t proven the concept as of the end of the show. As a result, Draper’s offer was both greedy and generous.

Ditto David who took $50,000 for 10% of his medical marijuana delivery company (which no one has yet asked or answered how it differentiates from others on the market.)

And then there’s Tony-- the ultimate winner-- to whom Draper is giving $250,000. That won’t come close to proving the concept. It’s unclear what that amount of money actually does, because Tony isn’t raising more once a real VC sees that he is just piping concrete into alphabet shapes. But I guess Draper has some sort of flyer investment should, by some miracle, Tony not wind up being as hopeless as he seems.

At one point in the season, Draper offered to give $1 million to charity if the show got one million viewers. That’s substantially more than he invested in “the best class” Draper U has ever had. Something about that is strange.

For reference, our largest investor has just 8% of Pando, and we’ve raised north of $4 million-- more than half of that before we’d launched. And we’re a content company. What he offered just weren’t good deals by any Valley standards.

And yet, they were also incredibly generous deals given the stage of the companies after seven weeks of DraperU. None of these students had been given real feedback or encouraged to build a real product. The only students who had real products and teams came into Draper U with them already built. It’s interesting he didn’t offer them money.

So it wasn’t a surprise that in the end even after pitching to 50 of “the world’s greatest investors,” exactly one VC made them offers: Draper. Literally the others filled out a questionnaire and left the building before Draper even announced who was best in show.

Then when he made his offers, there seemed to be pressure to answer right then if they were taking the money or not.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Was all of this intentional? Is Draper more devious than dopey?

He’s well aware no VC will give any of these students a better deal, because he’s spent seven weeks wasting their time on stupid trustfall-like exercises. He’s in no way prepared them to pitch to any investor that isn’t him. So he can offer them whatever price he wants. And they pretty much have to take it and count themselves lucky. They’ve invested seven weeks and thousands of dollars being told they have something great. What else are they supposed to do?

And remember: He’s already banked “tuition” from each of these students, and more he doesn’t offer to fund. And, through the TV show, he’s duped a generation of future Tonys who think their bullshit ideas they can’t actually build can go to Silicon Valley and get funding.

While most of the Valley wants to keep people who don’t get how hard this shit is out, Draper has apparently built a franchise-- now publicized by ABC Family-- on taking checks from them. Ka-Ching.

Before I watched this episode I felt sick. I was worried either the students were about to get eviscerated or worse: That their delusion that you can make things up and get funded in the Valley would continue, and they’d be headed for an even bigger fall.

I don’t know what Draper’s game is, but I want no part of it anymore-- even as a spectator. On the off chance this show comes back for another season, I won’t be watching or reviewing it. I came to care about many of these students over the last ten weeks. In addition to watching them, many reached out to me. I wouldn’t meet with them or talk to them at length, because I wanted to review the show with proper distance to the subjects. But most told me they agreed with my critiques of “the university” despite their creepy pledge to never say a bad word about it.

We just watched them get cheated out of a promise to learn how to start a company in Silicon Valley. Meantime, the rest of us learned something very important: At Draper University, it doesn’t matter if you actually build something, it doesn’t matter if you tell the truth about what you’ve built -- hell, it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, or how hard you work. Ultimately, Draper is going to ignore all of that and just fund the rich white kid who looks and acts the most like him and is best able to parrot back his rhetoric about changing the world.

Tim Draper should be ashamed.