Pando

Startup U, Episode Seven: A glimmer of hope

By Sarah Lacy , written on September 29, 2015

From The "You know, for kids" Desk

I missed last week’s StartupU because I was in the hospital with pneumonia.

Sure, I had a TV in my room, but the doctor advised me against anything that would cause me to yell at the screen. So, I decided my review could wait a week.

Maybe it’s the medicine. Maybe it’s my new appreciation for life post-illness. Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t watch the episode with Paul. But whatever the case, this week, I actually found something I genuinely like about this show -- at long last, some seven episodes in.

Something real, something genuine. The first glimmer I’ve had that anyone has gotten any value out of the thousands of dollars they’ve spent to attend this “university.”

I’m talking about the relationship between Erin, Carly, and Ana. I like each of them as people. I think they all have a lot of character and ability and I think they’ll do well in life. I want them to. In fact, I like almost everything about these three.

...Except Ana’s business. It’s an “Uber for nails” and, as I’ve written before, the “Uber for X” formula has never delivered on that promise because there are few times an app can solve a problem that repeatedly in people’s lives in dramatically a better way than it was done before. It’s not personal-- I don’t think the beauty-to-your-door services have enough of a market. At the very high end women already have solutions for this. At the low-end, I think a lot of people like going to a salon every week, frequently with friends. Then there are women like me, that just won’t ever have their nails done once a week. Whittle, whilttle, whittle. The market isn’t as big as you think.

That said, it’s not a nonsensical idea, Ana has real business expertise already running a nail salon at home, and she’s actually taking the process and feedback very seriously. So that puts her well ahead of the pack.

Carly was an early favorite of ours with her “Pretty Litter” that would show you via sparkles and color changes when the litter needed to be changed. Is it a huge scalable company? Almost certainly not. Will it win the money with someone like Tim Draper looking for a big venture backable idea? No. It’d be better off on SharkTank than StartupU. But it’s probably the only company floated on this show that I could actually see myself ever using.

Poor Carly has been mostly window dressing in the background of scenes for the bulk of the season. Probably because she has a clear cut idea and is just working on it.

She popped up in survivor week because she hurt some part of her leg, and Tim was a total dick to her about it. He was passive aggressive during the week, and then told her at the end she could have done more. She rightfully called him on the carpet for the remark. How does he know she could have done more? He didn’t let her see a doctor so no one knows what was wrong with her or how much pain she might have been in.

I’ve always liked Carly, and I felt bad for her last week. It’s the worst feeling in the world when you don’t feel 100% and you are paranoid that everyone is rolling their eyes behind your back. I feel like if Tim can give wild benefit of the doubt that “Spermy” is how women want to find sperm donors for their children, he could give Carly-- who has never been a problem child before-- the benefit of the doubt that she was actually in pain.

Then there’s Erin, who I described last week as “inexplicably married” to Tony-- the mama’s boy who thinks “using his network” is calling his mom to bail his out and that he can just say he wants to 3D print houses and it’ll somehow happen.

I’ve always found Erin quietly impressive. Despite being a former Miss USA, she entered this house with no ego, feeling self-conscious that she didn’t have as much experience with entrepreneurship as the rest of the “class.” As we’ve discovered seven weeks in, few of these clowns really did, or if they did it didn’t benefit them much. Basically, Erin just didn’t go around saying she had a lot of experience. And yet, from the beginning, she’s had far better presentation and leadership skills than many of them.

And her idea-- like Ana’s-- isn’t super original, but it also isn’t bad. Romeo in a box: A service that will send tailored delightful gifts to girlfriends on behalf of their clueless boyfriends.

This week, one of the main plotlines centers around Erin’s self-doubt and rather than talk behind her back in the confessional or tear her down more or see it as way to boost themselves, Ana and Carly have an amazing mini-intervention of love. They tell her she is bad at asking for help, and they know she’s struggling and they want to help her. They tell her she’s amazing, and when she talks about her idea, she inspires them and all she needs to do is believe in herself.

Now, is that tough love, say, a board should give a founder? Nope. And if the Draper Staff had responded to her crisis of confidence this way it would have been unacceptable, pandering, and … well, more of the exact same “educating” they’ve been doing all season. But this is exactly the role peers and friends should play in a startup ecosystem.

And-- more to the point-- it’s exactly what young women almost never do. Last week, during survival week, while Keyonna and Sharon were busy tearing one another down and griping about why they needed to be in the woods, Ana and Erin were helping each other on the rigorous hike (the only rigorous thing they seemed to do that week) with a girl-power spirit.

I also like that these women have struggled with the precise things that most women entrepreneurs I know struggle with most: Confidence, a fear of showing your weaknesses, and being able to ask for help.

It’s particularly telling that Erin finds this support not from her husband who is also there with her, but from these girls. I don’t necessarily say that as a knock on Tony (for once), but it’d be easy for her to retreat into that relationship, rather than build these bonds.

Whether they leave with funding or not-- and I think Erin is the only one of the three with even a shot at winning-- it seems these three have actually gotten something out of this experience. They’ve learned some of the basics of startup life. They’ve probably made some important connections should they continue to pursue their businesses. And more important: They’ve gained other women they can be vulnerable in front of and lean on for support. I had to wait until my very late 30s to find that in the industry. Maybe the younger generation of women feels this whole thing is less zero sum and the more women succeeding, the better. I hope so.

Contrast that to the continuing absurd feud between Sharon who runs roughshod over team members and Keyonna who believes she can go through life just stopping speaking to people if they “disrespect” her. “I can’t sweep things under the rug,” she declares one of several times poor Sharon is attempting to make things right. How has Keyonna ever had a long term relationship? She’s seriously never gotten past a fight?

In this episode Tim-- ever so gently as always-- explains to her she can’t really be an entrepreneur if she’s going to act that way. I’m not sure she could work in any team based environment. Unfortunately, most of us just don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing who we can speak to in life.

And then there were the returning adventures of Shawn-- the entrepreneur who lied to Draper staff and actually did disrespect them, and was in no way called out for it. This week he got called into the pitch meeting and got annihilated. He sat there dumbstruck unable to really answer the perfectly justified questions being asked of him.

He seemed to learn little from the experience. Later he bitched to Malcom-- another front runner to win the whole thing-- the usual “Oh she doesn’t understand” and “I can’t believe I’m sitting here having that conversation.” as if it was an indignity to his great idea.

For once someone said the thing I was yelling at the screen, when Malcolm noted, yeah, even if you are right and she’s wrong, you are going to have to learn to have those conversations and not feel they are beneath you if you are going to be pitching investors.

Mentorship: At least it’s coming from the other students now at DraperU.

But back to my gal pal trio of Erin, Carly, and Ana. The gender thing is the one thing this show has done pretty well. The women-- mostly -- have been depicted as some of the stronger candidates, and each of the “tough love” industry leaders to conduct the pivot meetings have also been women.

And that’s heartening given this was at one time Tim Draper’s idea of a gender sensitive statement:

Whether it’s for the benefit of the cameras or no, Draper seems to have come a long way with his respect for women. If only other parts of the Valley would follow.