"Look, I'm a huge fan..." Episode 1 of "Silicon Valley" Season 3, reviewed
Pando has a strange relationship with the HBO show “Silicon Valley.”
Before the show aired, I couldn’t possibly believe it would be good. And worse: I couldn’t possibly believe it’d be remotely accurate. I mean, movies based off of “true stories” like “The Social Network” were 95% bullshit in the name of making the mundane world of startups “entertaining.” So-called “reality TV” based on building companies was equally staged, phony or simply not representative.
At, least, I thought, this was calling itself fiction rather than trying to be real.
But as we’ve written time and time again: Somehow the utterly fictional representation of Silicon Valley is the only mainstream pop culture show that’s come eerily close to reality.
Right down to their awkward relationship with us.
Season one: We were denied screeners, even though Pando was name checked in the show three times. Season two: We pissed off TJ Miller (aka “Erlich”) by panning his “comedy” at Bonnaroo. And -- in true Pando fashion-- some six months later, the rest of the tech world totally agreed with our assessment after Miller’s disastrous and offensive turn at hosting the Crunchies.
Now to Season Three: Pando was invited to the San Francisco premiere, and then uninvited. It’s probably exactly how the fictional Pied Piper would interact with a fictional Pando. “You invited Pando to our launch party? Are you crazy? They hate everything! They are buzzkills! Find a way to uninvite them!”
(The show’s curious love-hate relationship with us might have something to do with the consultants in the writers room, who range from Dick Costolo -- a speaker at this year’s Pandoland -- to former Valleywag writer Dan Lyons, whose gross misogyny Paul has covered ad nauseum here on Pando.)
Remember, in season one, the one thing Erlich did well was manipulate a clueless tech press. Pied Piper would avoid us like the plague. Silicon Valley -- the show-- can’t seem to make up its mind. As for me, I’m mostly a huge fan, and I thought the season three opener was one of the best episodes we’ve seen yet.
In an interview with Bloomberg West last week, Dick Costolo hugely downplayed his role as a consultant on the show for this season. Unlike a lot of the credited consultants, Costolo actually flew down to LA every week, sitting in the writers room. He claims all he did was nod and say things like “Oh, you can push that even further…”
Sure, maybe having a guy who’d just been through the Silicon Valley wringer in the room every week really had no impact in making the show eerily more believable. Maybe, three years in, the producers and writers have just learned so much about the culture of the start-up world themselves.
But whatever the reason, this was easily the most subtly accurate reflection of startup life I’ve seen in any episode yet. And it tackled one of the most sensitive and yet common occurrences in the valley: Firing a founder as CEO.
It nailed every aspect down to the episode name: “Founder friendly,” the overused description every VC wants said about them. And yet, the reality is so many entrepreneurs go around feeling wronged by their investors.
The pantomime of being “founder friendly” is core the the awkward power tango between money (the VCs) and potential returns (the founders). At the beginning, money has all the power. But money is also keenly aware that if it’s too glib, too arrogant or too disrespectful to potential returns, it could become a cautionary tale like Mike Moritz v. Sean Parker. So money has to act like it’s really the one humbled to be in the presence of potential returns.
Then one of two things happens: Potential returns don’t look so great, and money takes control. Or potential returns skyrocket and money shuts its mouth and goes along for the rocket ship ride.
But that’s almost never a straight line. And that’s what’s so great about this show: Pied Piper has dramatic ups and downs like any startup. What was starting to stretch credulity in Season Two was Richard staying CEO. He just made too many potentially company ending mistakes and while he had flashes of CEO-maturity, they were too few and far between.
So at the end of last season what would happen in the real world happened: He was fired as CEO. And his undoing was the most realistic of all first-time founder mistakes: Shitty terms in a funding deal that he didn’t really understand.
But the aftermath of that in the beginning of Season Three was even more accurate. It was a master class that would-be entrepreneurs should internalize about how “Silicon Valley loyalty” really works. For all the phrases like “founder friendly” that permeate the Valley, none of this industry is about being nice or being loyal. This is all ultimately a job. A VC’s job is to make money. It’s convenient for them if that coincides with supporting you. But it won’t always. And when it doesn’t their job is not to “do the right thing” in an absolute sense, it’s to maximize the company’s potential.
And your early employees are also doing a job. Your lawyer, your advisors…. They are doing a job too. And that is a job for the company, not you. It’s a “RIGBY” world.
But unlike a place like Wall Street that revels in its dark side, Silicon Valley desperately wants to think it’s “founder friendly.” So it’s become adept at justifications for why actions that would seem wildly disloyal if this were simply a matter of friendship are actually loyal.
This episode captured all the justifications you hear people telling themselves in these situations word-for-word.
“You have created a company that is too valuable for you to run. You should feel good about that.”
“At least this way, I’m still in the game. .. I’m still on the board. I’ll be in all the meetings.”
“Even though Richard is a great guy…”
Loyalty from Richard’s engineering team comes back just as conveniently as it left: They realize they can’t scale the company without him and decide the face saving way to quit is to do it “out of loyalty” and hope he hires them wherever he goes next.
Even more chillingly accurate was the way Richard’s presumptive CEO replacement turned Erlich. These four overused and totally bullshit words: “I’m a big fan.”
Those four words are somewhere between starting a sentence with “Honestly” and the startup world’s “it’s not you it’s me.” They almost always mean the exact opposite. You throw in a “Look,” before it and someone is about to fire you, decline to re-up in the next round, or worse.
And yet, it works, because people so desperately want to believe they have fans. That it isn’t them, it was just the circumstances. That failure is “great!” It works in the show and in real startup life.
The most brilliant thing this episode captured were the little lies -- like “founder friendly”-- that this industry tells itself everyday and that each of us willingly swallow so that we can all pretend this is a nicer place than it frequently is.
At the end of the episode everyone has told and convinced themselves to believe all the lies they need to to stay in the same company together chasing the “d word.”
A bit about “the D word” was one snapshot of how -- I hope-- the show is evolving this season. After meeting with the new CEO, Erlich says to Richard, “We could be talking about the d-word here.” Richard replies “Dick?” And Erlich says “No, decacorn.”
When Silicon Valley veers off the rails it forgets all the human startup drama and just crams episodes full of dick jokes. At a time when even the most successful investors are scared of what excesses of unicorn fever have wrought, here’s hoping the focus this season stays on the future of decacorns not dick jokes.