Pando

Startup U, Episode Six: Survival week!

By Sarah Lacy , written on September 18, 2015

From The "You know, for kids" Desk

“What the fuck is he doing?” — David Kram

We’re all wondering, David. We’re all wondering.

It’s week six of StartupU or as Tim Draper calls it: Survival week! It’s billed as a week where the students have to go into the great outdoors with a muscled up army trained survival expert named Roc.

Roc, we are told, will push them past their breaking point.

As Draper said, “It’s a metaphor for getting the students into a place where they are going into the unknown.” Which isn’t actually a metaphor… but let’s move on.

It would be easy to say-- as Paul yelled at the screen -- “Oh great, another week where they make no progress on their companies!” Or worry it was going to an extra culty place. Roc upped Tim Draper’s creepy “split up California” tie with a shirt that seemed to read “The Draper Minute Men” and bore the tea party’s “Don’t Tread on Me” snake. Okay… Then there was writing your fears on boards and breaking them, and the “coming up after the commercial” preview of Tim walking into and just standing in a campfire, outstretching his arms like the Messiah.

But I found myself-- strangely-- defending Draper. This is probably the most normal thing he’s had the “students” do to date. It’s pretty common for executive teams to go out on wilderness adventures to test their mental strength and learn about strategy and teamwork. Retreats and getting far from the day to day minutia and fights of the office are incredibly valuable for seeing a bigger picture. I’ve even been to conferences that arrange elaborate Survivor-style games. They’re not only incredibly fun but you build tight bonds with the people you compete with. People let all their guards down.

There’s a reason that a lot of executives love to hire former athletes or participate in softball and ultimate frisbee leagues. There’s a very definite translation from team sports to work when it comes to leadership, hard work, stamina, and cooperation.

Unfortunately push-you-to-your-breaking-point Survivor Week appeared to be about as dicey as when I took my kids camping at Fairyland a few weeks ago. I’m exaggerating… slightly.

It started out with a “challenge” for the kids to get from San Mateo to the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge… in about five hours. That’s a trip that takes an hour by car. But  “No cars!” Draper said, “No Taxis!” … but trains and busses are just fine. So apparently the challenge was to get around like someone who wasn’t rich. Someone who didn’t have thousands to drop on DraperU…

Sure enough, the students lost their shit pretty quickly when they were faced with… buying Caltrain tickets.

“Tony is in charge of getting tickets, but he can’t even figure out the machine!”

“I’m trying to feed the machine my ten dollar bill and it keeps spitting it out! I’m panicking now!”

“By the time we get our tickets the train is full!”

If this is a metaphor (and I’m using that word in the non-Draper way) for building a company, these guys aren’t getting past the articles of incorporation.

Then the students had to get “all the way” across San Francisco from the train station to the bridge. (Note for people who don’t live here: San Francisco is only seven miles by seven miles.)

But there are the hills! And…. Muni buses that will take you over them. Many people in San Francisco don’t have cars. It doesn’t usually push them to the edge of sanity.

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge proved too much for Keyonna (again). “There are ships going underneath us! And cars going across!” “YOU ARE DESCRIBING A BRIDGE,” Paul yelled.

So far this was like the shittest ever episode of the Amazing Race. But I’ll say this: For StartupU it was more entertaining than the last few weeks’ episodes.

It went on like this, getting “so tough that no one can take it”:

  • “How are you going to be able to last an entire week with no showers? You aren’t going to be able to do your hair!”
  • They have to build “a tent city” to live in or as most people who aren’t Draper call it: Camping.
  • They have to cook THEIR OWN DINNER on a provided stove using provided ingredients. Yelled one student in the full throttle chaos of making pasta: “I’M JUST GONNA PUT THE SAUCE ON IT!” And that was the functional team.

The next day they built a boat that they had to race across a river. Tim noted cackling to the camera that a real engineer would build a structure with the most possible surface area across the bottom but these dolts were all building rafts. RAFTS! I guess I’m not a real engineer, because it seems to me a raft does have the most possible surface area across the bottom.

My favorite part of this shit show of a competition which ended up with many of the students swimming came from Tim. He was wearing a “professor Draper” T-shirt that I would have found a little weird if I hadn’t seen that strange Draper Minute Men affair earlier in the episode. “For this challenge, I put a clock on it otherwise teams will sit there and talk and talk and talk and nothing ever gets built.”

Or as I yelled this time: A PERFECT DESCRIPTION OF YOUR “UNIVERSITY” CURRICULUM! Perhaps, they would do that because that’s exactly how DraperU has trained them to “follow their dreams.” Reminder: We are three weeks from the finale and several of the students still have “companies” that have no prototype or bearing in reality.

But kudos to Draper-- and I can’t believe I’m writing those words-- he was on to something with this incredibly mild “survival week.” Several of the students just crumbled and it exposed weaknesses in them that will absolutely be issues should they get funded. The Phoenix Team in particular each sulked about how they didn’t think this was a fair test of entrepreneurship and they just didn’t want to do it, and just didn’t like the people they had to work with. Yep, that’s pretty much building a startup on most days: Doing things you don’t feel like doing with other opinionated type-A people who can get on your nerves.

Sharon-- the hustler who is hawking a GIF-creating mirror in clubs-- came out particularly bad, which is unfortunate because she’d seemed to be a forerunner to win the whole thing. Erin-- the former beauty queen who is inexplicably married to Tony-- came out particularly well, embracing the experience with a “girl power” positive attitude. Erin may be a dark horse in this thing. Her idea-- a subscription commerce product to make men more romantic-- isn’t bad, she presents well and takes whatever challenge is thrown her way with far more grace than most of the gang.

Even Keyonna redeemed herself at the end of the trip by saying she’d learned she needed to get over her pride and ask for help more. She acknowledged that her weird smush-a-mask-of-makeup-on-your-face idea would be farther along if she had. (Maybe she would have asked a chemist for help who would have explained why it was utter nonsense.)

….. And then Keyonna lost her shit at the end for no reason, the students went back to San Mateo, and no one was any farther along in building an actual company. Scene.