Why Bravo’s Start-Ups: Silicon Valley Is Bad for Entrepreneurship

The Bravo TV show "Start-Ups" is more than just a poor representation of Silicon Valley — it's flat-out dangerous for America's aspiring entrepreneurs

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There is probably nothing I can say about the Bravo reality-TV show Start-Ups: Silicon Valley that hasn’t already been said by critics, tweeted by members of Silicon Valley’s technorati or laughed at by real start-up founders in the trenches. Even so, allow me to explain why this show is more than just a poor representation of the Valley or bad entertainment — it’s flat-out dangerous for America’s youth entrepreneurship movement.

Bravo’s show purports to cover “the intertwining lives” of a group of young up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the Valley as they joust for venture-capital funding, toil round-the-clock in a high-pressure “work hard, play hard” environment and try to become the next Mark Zuckerberg–size success story. Unfortunately, this is one reality show that strays far, far away from reality, misleading younger viewers in particular with inaccurate expectations about entrepreneurship — especially with the notion that “the life” is more important than the work required to achieve it.

More Spray Tan than Substance
Start-Ups offers a handful of genuinely valuable moments — an insider’s peek at when employee-turned-entrepreneur Kim Taylor decides to leave her job and start a business of her own, for instance; or when the unfocused upstart Ben Way mentions to an investor that he has over 40 companies, which comes off as amateurish bragging. But these moment are few and far between. Instead, the majority of a typical episode’s 44 minutes are devoted to filler (personal drama, fashion, spray tanning, partying) that plays to the lowest common denominator.

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It’s curious, because there’s already at least one show on air proving that there is, in fact, an audience for the valuable stuff — that, in other words, the reality of start-ups can make for good TV. ABC’s Shark Tank is widely praised by entrepreneurs and audiences alike because it’s both entertaining to watch (the VC panel regularly slings funny, sharp-tongued one-liners) and informative (it shows viewers what it’s really like to pitch and negotiate with top investors).

Is Shark Tank hammed up for the sake of TV viewers? Of course. But, unlike Start-Ups, the folks on Shark Tank aren’t throwing drinks on people in bars or undergoing full-body spray-tan sessions in preparation for toga parties.

Reality vs. “Reality”
There’s a claim to be made that this type of entertainment could inspire a slew of new young bloods eager to build the Next Big Thing. More likely, the show builds unrealistic expectations. In the same way that high school kids think they can hit it big by becoming professional entertainers or ball players, many now see entrepreneurship as the path to instant fame and riches. In an age in which young people fanatically follow 20- and 30-something “role models” whose only claim to fame is a sex tape, do we really need to fill their heads with the idea that they’re going to become tech billionaires on the strength of an idea they scribbled on a napkin with a buddy?

Through my organization, the Young Entrepreneur Council, I represent hundreds of America’s most successful young entrepreneurs. They come from nearly every industry, background, education level and race. And, yes, our members collectively generate billions of dollars in annual revenues, and many have found themselves in the public spotlight.

But are cash and notoriety the prime motivating factors in their lives? No way. Sure, these are nice by-products of success, but what truly motivates entrepreneurs is value creation. Value for customers. Value for investors. Value for the world too — which they create through disciplined, 24/7 get-it-done-no-matter-what hustle. For the most part, those lucky enough to have their blood, sweat and tears validated are eager to pay it forward to the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs.

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This is why Start-Ups: Silicon Valley — and the movie The Social Network, by the way — make entrepreneurs’ blood boil. Instead of helping would-be entrepreneurs understand the start-up life, they promote a false reality where entrepreneurship is about money and “the life” and not “the journey,” “the tireless hours” or “the actual work.”

We’re living in a time when youth unemployment is disastrously high. By all means, young people should be considering entrepreneurship as a career option. But pushing the idea that such a life choice is anything but damn hard work is not only dishonest, it’s reckless.

Sexed-Up Drama
So how does such a great premise with so much potential go so incredibly wrong? Simple. I have heard this conversation many times behind closed doors in Hollywood, and it goes something like this: “It’s boring to show young upstarts typing away on computers, so how can we spice this up for TV?”

The truth is that there is more than enough real-life drama in the start-up business to keep viewers interested. I personally have pitched for millions of dollars, built businesses (some that worked, others that didn’t), hired and fired employees, dealt with lawsuits, and watched in despair as peers lost their houses and split with their spouses. The hundreds of real-life issues entrepreneurs must face daily aren’t exactly lacking in emotion.

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And yet, the show Bravo chose to make — perhaps because of expediency, perhaps to appeal to the basest instincts of viewers — is filled with fluff and manufactured drama.

Entrepreneurship and business creation can help get our nation out of its dire economic straits, but would-be entrepreneurs must know what they’re getting themselves into: an exciting, viable career path that can be highly rewarding but that is rarely, if ever, easy. We mustn’t sugarcoat or glamorize entrepreneurship. It should attract or repel ambitious young people on the merits of what it really is: a lifestyle that is as liberating as it is daunting, as unorthodox as it is normal, and as exciting as it is boring. In other words, not “reality,” but a reality check.

Scott Gerber is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. In partnership with Citi, YEC fuels #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program. He is also a serial entrepreneur, regular TV commentator and author of the book Never Get a “Real” Job.

20 comments
neillweber
neillweber

The only solution for Bravo is the whole company should be bombed and burnt to the ground, all executives shot exocution style

Mr.Gussey
Mr.Gussey

Initially excited that this show might be different than most other "reality" tv shows out there by focusing on the actual startups, I was quickly disappointed.  What they chose to air instead was dildo and blondie drama so they could make sure to snag the unfortunately large number of viewers out there that find that fluff to be quality entertainment.  It's sad that people feel they should attack you, Scott, via comments, on this fair personal opinion article over a show that is 80% trash.  It would have been much more valuable to cut out a majority of the seemingly scripted drama and devoted that time to showing more of the actual startup process or product creation.  This show gained most people nothing but false confidence. 

Ludivine
Ludivine

I don't know if you'll even read this, but I feel that you've been really unfair in your review of the show. I wonder whether you've even watched it, because as a viewer I feel that I am getting a very strong sense of how stressful and difficult it would be to become an entrepreneur or start a business. There has only been a party or two and one scene in a  club as far as I can recall. While there was some pointless, yet brief, drama about a dating situation, most of the drama has been about the businesses in which these people are involved. Dwight shares an apartment with his business partner and doesn't even have a mattress. He codes 7 days a week, for what looks like 18 hours a day and only ever goes out for occasional meals with the girl he has a crush on. While he was one of the wilder ones at the party, he explained that he goes all out when he finally makes it outside of his apartment because of how rare those occasions are.

Meanwhile, David who is in a similar situation of having quit a high-paying job to start his own company is having an even more difficult time. He discusses the struggles to pay his mortgage, keeping his partner awake at night while coding, and taking freelance jobs on the side to try and support himself. He explains the trade-off of obtaining financing, which would make his living much more comfortable, but remove powers from his hands into those of his investors. That feels really real to me.

Seeing Ben and Hermione go from meeting to meeting with potential investors, while trying not to damage their personal relationship is also very true to any friends or family members starting a business together. The Silicon Valley hustle of having several businesses up in the air with not enough resources to focus on your newest one is also very honest. It's quite a foil to the cases of Dwight, David, and Kim who have completely given up prior engagements to focus on their newest project while Ben and Hermione have commitments to other ongoing businesses. Both situations exist in tech. Even Sarah, who would easily be designated as the ditsy one, seems to actually work very hard and be passionate about the industry and connecting people within it (particularly women). That's quite admirable. I suspect she's a lot smarter than she lets on and it seems that she does actually have some kind of influence within her field. She's more than a blogger. Even her strained relationship with Hermione can be traced to a professional partnership gone wrong, not boy trouble.

I've seen Bravo and other channels dumb down various industries and cultures to go for the "lowest common denominator." However, it doesn't feel like what's going on here. Sure, most of the people on the cast are conventionally attractive and predominantly white, but I certainly wouldn't say that drama and sex are being shown more than the hard work involved in entrepreneurship. The cast members have acknowledged numerous times what the failure rates look like, how narcissistic and slightly delusional one needs to be to attempt a start-up, and I see honesty in that. And frankly, that's a lot more heavily featured on the show than who's dating whom and whose fake tan looks most realistic.

JohnnyDiggz
JohnnyDiggz

How many ad clicks are you selling with this blog post, Scott?  The kids on Silicon Valley are certainly raking in much more in advertisement dollars with their spray tans and toga parties than your television "criticism".  In fact, if you're at the point in your career that you've actually become blogger of "reality television" (as you apparently have become), then who is really to blame? You're blaming Bravo?  In this case, the mirror is not your friend, my friend.   

antonymd
antonymd

Well aren't you on your high horse Scott? So you're telling me, you've never been to a Toga party? Never gotten a Tan (spray or otherwise)? You've never had a drink thrown in your face (I have, twice)? If you can tell me honestly you have not, then I feel sorry for you, because it sounds like you haven't really experienced life. I actually live in Silicon Valley (unlike yourself) and what is portrayed on the show is actually very tame considering the parties and extravagant startup launch events I've been to. 

I would argue that it is Shark Tank that is fake 'reality' and setting false expectations to entrepreneurs. Did you know that only 30% of the 'investments' made on Shark Tank actually pass the 'due diligence' after the show? I too have been in many pitches and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and I have to say, not one of those pitches has gone like Shark Tank, no on the spot decisions, all have been like what is portrayed on Start-ups; slow painful no's or maybe's keeping you waiting by the phone, hoping just maybe while your dream slips through your fingers.

You also state "I personally have pitched for millions of dollars, built businesses (some that worked, others that didn’t), hired and fired employees, dealt with lawsuits, and watched in despair as peers lost their houses and split with their spouses. The hundreds of real-life issues entrepreneurs must face daily aren’t exactly lacking in emotion."

Please tell me, how has have cast of Silicon Valley not had the same experiences or taken the very same risks?

I might be biased because I call some of the cast of Start-ups genuine close friends (several of them were at my wedding) but these guys work harder than most of the 'entrepreneurs in the valley I know. This show was a smart way for Ben and Hermione to get national exposure for Ignite, their wellness app that has the potential to change the lives of millions, that's entreprenurial there, levergaing everything they can to get expsoure and make their dreams a reality. I also know that Hermione has received very personal emails from many young women all over America telling her how she has inspired them to take risks and follow their dreams, how is this a bad thing?

So before you go about criticizing these or other people in the future for false entrepreneurship, I ask that you take a step back and actually talk to them before you go leveraging their journey to write your next slam piece for your own personal gain.

rverma21
rverma21

Great perspective on the real story of entrepreneurs' lives

IanSzalinski
IanSzalinski

I think Techstars on Bloomberg and Techstars The Founders does a very good job of showing the reality and is inspiring/motivating.  Do you agree?

LouisLautman
LouisLautman

Scott, great article, we need more entrepreneurial educational programming and less social drama.  Thats why I am so passionate about creating empowering media for entrepreneurs, because it seems like the only thing that main stream media thrives on is mindless drama and now entrepreneurship has gotten sucked into that category. 

wiseleo
wiseleo

@Ludivine 

We don't have time for "drama" when launching a company. It never even enters anyone's mind. There is simply no opportunity for this. That's the problem with this show. The first 3 episodes had maybe 5 minutes of useful content. Episode 4 gets interesting around the 14 minute mark. They are showing a 3D render and a Balsamiq prototype.

I watched 6 episodes and the drama between Sarah and Hermioni, mixed in with Jay and Ben, feels like something the casting director went to the ends of Earth to cast. There has to be an award for casting directors who can do that, because that was done masterfully. What it didn't do is add a single point to the show's legitimacy.

If we did not have that nonsense, the show would not have been laughed at so much.

I think Sarah did this show as a social media experiment. I've been on a reality TV show (prime time and rated #1 on a major network) for an episode for a similar reason. I screwed up on the show but also talked about two of my companies on the air for almost 30 seconds to close to 10 million people. Let's just say it's now the ultimate ice breaker at any party. There is more money for Sarah in the startup community rather than the traditional media. This show felt like a step in the wrong direction for her.

Hermioni is interesting in her own way. As a blogger with TheNextWeb she got tremendous access, which Ben did not appear to appreciate on screen. The emotional crash at Appcellerator party was not something I would have broadcast to the world.

Kim quitting her job felt real. She's a business development expert and probably has the highest chance of success long-term.

Dwight and Dave seem real enough. The appcelerator deal should push Dave quite a bit. Whenever I code at a hackathon my mindset is entirely different from when I am coding at home. It just takes me longer to get into the non-stop coding mode at home. When it does, however, I might find myself writing for for 72 hours straight.

A startups show should be like Monster Garage. People are building innovative products and there is almost no drama.

There have been shows done right. I will provide a few examples.

Compare judges' comments on "American Idol" vs. "The SingOff". The SingOff comments are deeply technical and helpful.

Compare the content of "America's Next Top Model" vs. "A Model Life". A model life is considerably more true to how the industry really operates.

This is what got me slightly interested in the show in the first place: http://techcrunch.com/2012/09/27/ignite-wellness-hermione-ben-way-silicon-valley-bravo/

The product is genuinely innovative. A rough 3D printed prototype would have made the initial meetings far more interesting. They had to pay Lunar quite a bit more money than I would have expected and I am curious how their investors reacted to that.

ScottGerber
ScottGerber

@JohnnyDiggz appreciate the comments. I'm sure you already know that I don't profit from TIME's ad clicks. As I'm not "blogging about reality TV". I'm writing about an issue in our industry that needs to be changed. If this concept fails, Hollywood will not give a better "Startups"-style show another shot. They will always compare the success of this show to every other idea, which is a problem for the industry as a whole. I could care less about reality television as a whole--I do care about the perception of entrepreneurship and small business to people who need to understand these options now more than ever.

ScottGerber
ScottGerber

@antonymd @antonymd thanks for posting your comments. First of all, I really don't have anything against any of the cast members and know a few as well. I really don't even blame them (and didn't in the piece) as I know how reality production works. They are put into situations that are absurd and given ideas on how to respond. I have certainly been to startup events and parties, but let's be honest here, the frequency that this show has such events is, frankly, a total lie--or would be the reason for the business going down. I haven't seen anything about the actual companies in any meaningful way. This show blew a huge opportunity for Startupland--not because of the cast, but because of the format and people behind the scenes. They don't get what the startup life is--and if they claim to--then they basically put out a product that shows they do not care.

antonymd
antonymd

@ScottGerber and what exactly is it 'in our industry that needs to be changed'? I think I missed that point in this slam piece that is one of the reasons this show could fail.

FelipePires
FelipePires

@ScottGerber No you don't care. You're just another hater. The show is good bro'. I recently downloaded from TPB after hearing so many people talk shit about it. And your opinion is not even unique. Its just another lame ass hater opinion. Do the hot girls in the show scare you ? go be a soccer dad somewhere else fool.

antonymd
antonymd

@ScottGerber are we watching the same show? I've counted 2 parties, a couple of bar/nightclub scenes and multiple networking events, and that's over a few weeks. Sounds like the typical life of a 20-something to me, sans networking events of course because who goes to those boring things? So you're saying that an entrepreneur should not have a social life? No Scott I think the issue here is that this show Is actually very much the reality for a Silicon Valley 20-something entrepreneur.