First, I want to state that this is not about bashing Hollywood. Nor do I think tech does not have a place in Hollywood. Let’s face it, the entertainment industry is one of America’s best exports and technology has done, and will continue to, enhance the entertainment experience*.
What I want to talk about is the rise in interest that Hollywood has in startups as a story. While tech and hacker culture has had its Hollywood moments (War Games and Pirates of Silicon Valley come to mind), for the most part Hollywood has left the tech startup community to itself. Especially when it comes to TV, Hollywood has been content to focus on lawyers, doctors, cops, advertisers, meth producers and serial killers.
Then in 2010 came The Social Network. This quirky little film about Mark Zuckerberg and the rise of Facebook became a surprise box office hit and came away with a boatload of awards, including three Oscar wins. This opened people’s eyes and, coupled with the media’s sudden interest in the tech startup world, brought a whole lot more attention by Hollywood, all thinking about how they can cash in on the rise of tech.
What better way to cash in then than with reality television? It is the perfect formula: high stress situations, dynamic personalities, young pretty things, and a built-in audience of potential viewers. Because reality TV is so cheap to develop and produce compared with other types of shows, they can iterate and pivot faster than any startup as much as they like in order to find a winning formula. It is easier than a VC taking $25K chip shots in early stage startup seed rounds.
While Bravo’s Start-Ups: Silicon Valley has garnered much of the attention, the first big splash was Bloomberg. I watched their TechStars NYC with much chagrin, though it was not entirely terrible. Start-Ups on the other hand is a complete train wreck of mythic proportions. However, even this is not enough to hinder the movement to give the tech industry the Hollywood treatment, and what a treatment it is.
In recent weeks, I have heard of various reality TV projects all centered on tech startups. It came up again briefly during my dumpling tour. One thing that stuck in my mind was the fact that in the midst of our conversation, it was clear that no matter how well behaved and careful you are, the producers will be able to conjure up all sorts of distortions and drama through deft editing. This reinforces something I listened to on NPR recently where of a former reality TV producer spilled the beans on the industry by stating that the entire enterprise is a flat out fallacy. Now you might be thinking this is stating the obvious, but what came out in the interview is that everything is scripted and coached. What we might think is somewhat spontaneous or real is in fact a complete sham. Other than the names, reality TV is about as real as a daytime soap opera.
It is hard not to see how all of this drama weaving is not a major distraction. Building a startup from the ground-up is not easy, and it is especially hard when your day is spent with cameras in your face, directors guiding your conversations, and the undue attention that it all brings. Focus is a critical component in business, and having a circus around you is not conducive to an environment of single-minded execution. What is important early on is building product, gathering feedback, dealing with customer issues, closing deals, launching marketing campaigns, identifying growth opportunities. But where do these priorities fall when the producers need to create the next set of dilemmas for the next episode? Sure, it might provide some much needed publicity for your startup, but what good is that publicity when it impacts your ability to do all the other things necessary to create a great product and build a loyal user base?
Here is the thing; this is going to end poorly for startups and entrepreneurs. You are being used and not in the “something positive comes out of the experience” sort of way. I feel sorry for the people on “Start-Ups” as most of them are probably decent enough folks who are serious about technology and about starting a business. I was disturbed about the portrayals of people that I knew well on TechStars that were completely warped to fit some plot line in order to manufacture drama and conflict. While some will walk away unscathed, many others will have a hell of a time being taken serious by others in the community going forward. Meanwhile Hollywood continues to cash in at the expense of entrepreneurs. Therefore if you have a startup and are approached with one of these opportunities, just say no, you really do not need that baggage.
* For the record, I still think 3-D is totally unnecessary and a distracting movie experience.