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.
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.
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.
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.