Pando

Why Tim Draper’s startup reality show is the first one I’ve actually liked (No really)

He may be a weirdo, but he’s our weirdo.

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 13, 2015

From The "You know, for kids" Desk

As I watched the first episode of ABC Family’s “Startup U,” I wondered: Is Tim Draper to Silicon Valley what Donald Trump is to Manhattan?

Think about it:

- Strange political aspirations? Check.

- Even more bizarre political plans that make you wonder if he’s really serious? Check.

- Business success that no one can quite understand given his weirdness? Check.

- Wears a suit everyday? Check. (And that’s rare in Silicon Valley.)

- Bizarre PT Barnum quality that perpetually causes face-palms by industry peers? Check.

- Bizarre seemingly uncontrollable hair follicles? Check. (Draper essentially has the equivalent of The Donald’s comb-over on his eyebrows)

- Delusions of superhero-like powers? Check. (See image above.)

- Embarrassingly captivating reality show that doesn’t really have to do with what business is actually like? Check.

Of course, in true Silicon Valley fashion Draper is less pugnacious and more wacky than Trump. But that’s why the analogy works. People outside New York think the typical New York/ New Jersey real estate mogul would act the way Trump acts. People outside the Valley think a VC would wear a suit, jump in a pool with that suit on, and then ask his “students” to disrupt Volleyball as their first “test.”

Draper doesn’t say “You’re fired!” at the end of an episode so much as he and his team work with the entrepreneurs for seven weeks until he says “You’re funded!” at the end. Positive affirmation, man!

Tim Draper is a rare bird who is a third generation VC, as opposed to the majority who earn their way in through entrepreneurship or at least an operating role at a big tech company. And he’s taken liberties with that dynastic birthright, always pushing the envelope on what a VC should be -- for good or ill.

His firm-- Draper Fisher Jurvetson-- was an early sprayer-and-prayer-- mocked until so many angel and seed funds copied the strategy later on. They franchised that brand, opening into other markets around the world, at a time when VCs were a boutique Menlo Park-only kinda thing. They sought to build a brand for themselves, not just being the man behind the curtain and giving entrepreneurs the spotlight. Tim Draper doesn’t know how to be behind the curtain. Unless there’s a camera behind the curtain.

“Tisk, tisk, tisk,” went the Valley establishment watching his ascendancy in the late 1990s…. before years later pretty much all follow in Draper’s weird footsteps in one way or another.

Never one to stand still, he’s only gotten more out there as VCs have caught up. His bizarre plan to break up California. (He wears a tie depicting the plan throughout the episode.) His strange Super Hero themed “university.” And now his reality show.

And yet, he’s sort of a beloved character here among most people I know. Unlike some other poser VCs, he’s had legit success investing in companies like Hotmail, Skype, SpaceX, Tesla and others that VCs didn’t want to touch at various points in time.

Tim Draper: He may be a weirdo, but he’s a legit VC too. He’s a billionaire, and that’s not easy-- even here. He’s our weirdo.

Still, I expected to absolutely loathe his reality show. I know, I know, I take this stuff way too seriously, but I have railed against almost everything mass media has produced about Silicon Valley.

The Social Network? I think it’s bad karma to utterly fictionalize someone’s life but still use their real name in the movie.

Startups Silicon Valley? Not only wildly inaccurate posing as reality but misrepresents the Valley as a wacky Real World frat house, which can only attract more bros and douchebags.

LOLWork? Not nearly as bad-- charming in an Office-sort-of-way even-- but come on, we really think in-office startup olympics and dressing up as mascots are part of the day’s work there?

HBO’s Silicon Valley? Mixed feelings, mostly liked it. But that’s because it doesn’t pretend to be reality and doesn’t purport to be about real people.

Oddly enough, that’s the same reason I liked Startup U. Because it’s created an artificial construct of a seven week “university” boot camp, filled with naive inexperienced hopefuls who have a basic idea and a dream. No one expects that this is what it’s like to start a company in Silicon Valley. Even Draper isn’t depicted as a “normal” billionaire, but rather a crazy eccentric even by Valley standards. The show is about Draper and the program, and not anything else. It’s just set in the Valley. It doesn’t purport to be about the Valley.

That’s enabled the show -- in some ways-- to present a better picture of things. The students aren’t genius coders. They aren’t aiming to solve the world’s greatest scientific mysteries like so many of the Thiel Fellows. They aren’t even socially awkward. And -- unlike nearly all shows and movies depicting the Valley-- there’s astounding gender and racial diversity in the group.

For kids watching who aren’t geniuses and aren’t sure they have an amazing idea but are drawn to the concept of entrepreneurship, it’s as aspiring as American Idol is for singers. And I think that’s a good thing-- particularly for women and minorities.

The downside of that is that some of the ideas are just bad. In watching the show, Paul Carr was seriously hate-watching the pitches. But in my view, they are no worse than ideas that float into startup competitions regularly. Ok, maybe the one where the girl thinks you can put on a “makeup mask” to have celebrity level make over that you smush on your face in five minutes. That one makes no sense, I admit. But Paul and I both liked “Pretty Litter”-- the colorful, scented cat litter. It shouldn’t be a venture funded startup, but it could easily be on Shark Tank.

And really, what better way to teach about entrepreneurship than taking everyday ideas that normal kids have and showing a process by which professionals help the kids separate the wheat from the chaff. Unlike American Idol, the kids aren’t mocked. They are put in a rigorous environment, but a respectful one.

As the show goes on and these ideas are developed, the kids will learn without being berated and so will the viewers. Unlike Startups Silicon Valley-- which also showed atrocious startup ideas-- these kids aren’t pretending to be pitch-ready right now. They are there to learn to be in seven weeks.

It’s a little amateur perhaps for “students” in their early 20s. One could argue these hopefuls would learn more just working for a startup than jumping in pools and disrupting Volleyball. But if it were a high school or junior high level program, I’d absolutely send my kids for the summer. Done right, it should absolutely be a class taught in public schools, something Draper thought of almost twenty years ago when he founded Bizworld, a non-profit that develops in-school entrepreneurship curricula.

The kids are living in dorms, not mansions they could never afford like in Startups Silicon Valley. When they do absurd things like being challenged to disrupt Volleyball by creating new rules, it’s in the construct of a learning exercise to make a point, not part of a day’s work as in LOLCats. And while they respect him, they seem just as weirded out by Tim Draper at times as we do.

Most importantly, the program doesn’t glorify startup life. The first assignment-- after jumping into a pool with clothes on and “disrupting” Volleyball-- is to do a one minute pitch in front of classmates and staff. Shit gets real quick at Draper U. It’s the equivalent to Chris Powell making you stand on a scale in front of your friends and family with your shirt off at the beginning of each episode of Extreme Weight Loss.

It’s not only a tolerable guilty pleasure, but it may just be one little part of making the Valley a more diverse place by changing the rigid idea of what a founder is.