Pando

Startup U, Episode Three: You can't handle the truth

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 26, 2015

From The "You know, for kids" Desk

“I’m here to get my business off the ground”

Oh, David. You are just in the wrong place. You should be at Y-Combinator. Or 500Startups. Or the Stanford Quad. Or TechCrunch Disrupt. Or the Creamery. Or practically anywhere else in the San Francisco Bay Area. Anywhere but Draper University.

As weeks go by, I’m understanding why I seem to be the only one in Silicon Valley watching this show.  It’s another week and Draper “Everybody deserves a trophy” University has managed to treat its 20-something adult “students” even more like children.

The “Tim Draper has a method to his madness” challenge this week was building a chain reaction machine. (None of us watching were sure what they never referred to it as a Rube Goldberg machine. Is that trademarked? Surely not...) This was supposed to teach the “students” about teamwork. Cause-- yunno-- teams build companies.

Good point. But you know what else would teach them about teamwork? Building their companies.

Apparently actually building companies doesn’t make for fun TV. But perhaps a room full of toys and glitter and 20 somethings in color-coded Tshirts might?

It didn’t. Rather it ended just like pretty much every team building activity everyone has ever done: Type A personalities emerged, someone stormed out, and the projects all pretty much failed. No insights gleaned.

Here are actual quotes from this particular plotline:

“Tim loves the chain reaction machine because when it comes time to test them it never works” (Insert your Tim Draper joke here. Ours was: “Just like your breakup California plan.” Yep, he’s still wearing the tie, everyone.)

“Why are we doing this and why is it helping me with my business?” (It isn’t.)

“There’s confetti all over the place!”

Far more interesting-- and it took far too long to get to-- was the other plot line: Pivot week. The show explains it as some sort of regular tough love for the students.

Here’s what it actually is: Everyone who works at or attends Draper University is unable to look a student in the eye and tell him or her that their idea makes zero sense, the way any investor, true friend, mentor, or reporter would. So they need to bring someone in from the outside the be the bad guy. That’s pivot week. Three startups get picked without notice to defend their company to someone from the industry.

This gets at why I fear this show fails the deeper we get into the season. One student will get funding at the end, but it’s not really a pure competition because, assuming these are real Draper U students, they’ve all paid money to attend this thing and so can’t be kicked out just because their idea is terrible. That means Start Up U doesn’t have the same necessary brutality of other skill-based reality show competitions like SharkTank, Project Runway, Top Chef or American Idol where the wheat is separated from the chaff.

And no one gets kicked off, because they’d probably ask for their money back. So we have to watch the weaker players continue to be treated with supportive kid gloves while everyone realizes this wouldn’t last five seconds in the real world. Meantime, no one is learning how to build a real company in the real world.

The filter for being featured on the show seems to be who has thousands of dollars set against who might make good TV. That’s entertaining for one episode, but it just becomes tiresome and uncomfortable as some of these ideas stretch on. I’d rather watch some of the more promising startups develop.

Front and center this week was Keyonna. She just did not come off well, whether she was storming out of her team challenge or saying of Grant “I can’t even listen to the words he is telling me right now because I am looking at his chest.” That second quote came just moments after she’d complained that her teammates weren’t listening to her.

You may remember Keyonna from my week one review, where I mentioned that she had, hands down the most absurd idea: A “mask” that you can put on your face, smush it around, and have the same quality make-over that a professional would do in 45 minutes. We all know this makes no sense. Everyone on the show knows it. Everyone working for Draper U knows it. And yet for some cowardly, cruel reason week after week nobody would give her the blunt truth.

Instead she got fed mealy mouthed crap like this...

“I just feel like a competitor would have done it already!”

“Why don’t you do a poll and see if women would use it!”

“I feel like it just needs more work…”

Anyone who has ever put eyeliner on knows this idea is bizarrely out of touch with reality. And when questioned she never has an answer. She says things like “I’m confident it can be done” and “But if it did work, wouldn’t you use it?” And everyone backs down.

Never mind that’s like saying “If I could build this teleportation device, would you use it instead of an airplane?” There we go. Hard part is done. Where is my check?

Keyonna would have been eaten alive in any setting that was actually about starting companies. What are they paying you for, Draper U? You have wasted three weeks of this poor girl’s life and needlessly embarrassed her week after week on this show, while ignoring some of the more promising companies. Maybe you get to them later, but maybe none of us get that far.

Even “villain” David who screamed “YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ME KEYONNA!” last week can’t seem to sit her down and tell her this. (He did nothing particularly douchey or evil this week, but I already asked Brad to draw him, assuming he would, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. So there he is above in his Travis Kalanick worshiping glory.)

The only reason I kept watching through the confetti this week was to see this pivot meeting. I hoped that someone -- anyone-- would have the balls to tell Keyonna it’s a horrible idea that will never, ever, ever get funded, and if she still doesn’t take that feedback, stop doing all the silly little activities, lock yourself in a room and build some sort of prototype that proves any of it. Or, yunno, just pick another idea that doesn’t sound like it came to you in an Ambien fever dream.

That pretty much happened. Jane Buckingham of Trendera was brought in to be the bad cop to the entire Draper U team. She said everything everyone was thinking-- from I can’t believe this would work, to I can’t believe the quality would be good if it did, to no investor would fund this, to Ok, if you believe it, go build it and actually show us.

Frustratingly, one of the Draper U EIR’s completely undercut the benefits of that moment by saying to Keyonna afterwards, “Just know she wasn’t trying to attack your product.” Yes she was! She exactly was! And all of you should have before! Why are they paying you to help them start companies?

Here’s how the third episode of StartupsU ended. (At least in my living room.)

Keyonna (on screen): “If someone doesn’t believe in me, I’m going to do everything in my power to prove they are wrong”

Paul (on couch): EXCEPT ACTUALLY MAKE THE FUCKING THING!

Keyonna: “I am stronger than everyone thinks I am.”

Paul: NO ONE THINKS YOU’RE NOT STRONG, THEY JUST THINK YOU ARE NOT A FUCKING CHEMIST!

And scene.