The conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that most startups fail. So do new TV shows.
“Bazillion Dollar Club” is what you get when you combine the two. Syfy channel’s new reality show, which tracks six San Francisco tech startups over 16 weeks, premieres this Tuesday at 10 pm. It is an accessible and accurate portrait of the flirtation with doom that startups experience on a daily basis, and it is also a stupidly fun hour of television.
The six-episode series follows three companies through the accelerators 500 Startups and HighwayOne over a 16-week period that culminates in a product demo day for potential investors. 500 Startups’s Dave McClure and HighwayOne’s Brady Forrest are the angel investors at the center of the show, dispensing advice and tough love to the founders in their programs.
McClure wears branded t-shirts and thick-frame glasses; his Twitter avatar is the eponymous hat from the Dr. Seuss books and he shouts a lot. Forrest looks a lot taller, and he affects a more battle-worn vibe. McClure also looks kind of like David Cross. At one point, he throws exercise balls at entrepreneurs as he yells a flurry of “fucks” and “disrupts” to throw them off their games during pitch presentations, all the while wearing a pair of Birkenstock-like sandals. Moments like these lend the show a more “Silicon Valley” feel than “Shark Tank.”
On Tuesday night, viewers will meet the team behind the startup Vango, which makes an e-commerce platform for people to buy fine art. The story of Vango is this: At the time the company entered the 500Startups program, they had a handsome-looking app for people to buy art, but barely anyone used it. The app has a nifty tool that can let people visualize what art would look like on their walls, and, as Forrest puts it in the episode, the arts “is a space that hasn’t been hacked yet.”
In many ways, Vango is as perfect a specimen for the premise of this show as you could hope for. It solves a problem that didn’t really exist (“Paying $1,500 for something to hang on my wall is too damn hard!” said very few people ever) and it’s entering an untapped but still difficult market for 2015. Maybe Vango’s exit will be an acquisition by Amazon or Pinterest for a price that’s chump change to those companies. Simple probability suggests it will run out of money first. For the purposes of “Bazillion Dollar Club,” that’s not what’s up for discussion.
“Bazillion Dollar Club” zeroes in on the micro-level stuff the founders of a startup freak out about on a more regular basis — for example, CEO Ethan Appleby’s seeming inability to string more than three intelligible sentences together when pitching his company, just days before Vango is set to pitch to investors. Or when the service goes down briefly because it can’t handle the influx of users from an out-of-nowhere promotion on Apple’s App Store. Or when Appleby has to talk with an employee, the indefatigable and thoroughly entertaining Monique “Mo” Ritter, a young woman whose request for a raise is denied early on in the episode.
In an interview with HighwayOne accelerator boss Brady Forrest, he explained why he was cool with making a reality TV show out of his job, and he gave me his opinion on Mo’s request for a raise, easily the most fascinating few minutes of the first episode.
“I didn’t want to be involved in anything that was some sort of contrived competition,” Forrest said. “I wanted to have kind of a documentary about how these people make and ship products, how they build teams and how they make financial decisions.”
Toward the beginning of the show, Ritter and Appleby step outside for a private chat, and Ritter asks for a raise. She’s having trouble managing expenses, which makes sense because San Francisco is horribly expensive. Appleby, who is running on fumes financially, awkwardly asks her to hold out for the 16 weeks until they get to the Demo Day, where he hopes to secure $1.5 million in funding (which, spoiler alert, he did). Ritter reluctantly agrees, affirming her commitment to Appleby’s vision for people to buy expensive art from their phones and tablets.
Mo Ritter, judging strictly from the 43-minute episode I saw, is everything you could want in a startup employee.
She is energetic, she offers positive reinforcement to her coworkers and she softens the masculine edge that the hunky Appleby brings to every situation. She and another female colleague are the ones who actually hang up the art for a Vango promo event, and she tells the audience early on that she took a pay cut in order to work at Vango, where she feels she is really building something.
Forrest thought that Appleby “handled it well.”
“He was able to keep her. He gave her a timeline and he was able to meet that,” Forrest said. “Giving her a raise could’ve meant another month of burn [spent money], but in the end it worked out for both of them. If you’re an employee in one of those endless death marches, the employee has to look out whether it’s financially wise to stay on and be underpaid.”
It’s the tough decisions like these that “Bazillion Dollar Club,” which is named for the techie riches accrued by people like Appleby, McClure and Forrest (and, far less often, Mo), focuses on better than most other TV shows and movies about the tech industry. The Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn vehicle “The Internship” was too stupid, “The Social Network” was melodramatic Oscar-bait and “Silicon Valley’s” commitment to the punchline means that the show mostly deals with caricature.
“Bazillion Dollar Club,” in spite of the manufactured nature of the format, glimpses the reality in some uncanny ways. It also resolves its most profound conflicts (like the Ritter situation) far too neatly, and it leaves the viewer with the impression that hard work is the key to success in the Valley, instead of luck and easy access to capital. Still, it’s pretty fun TV.
In a separate interview with Dave McClure, the 500 Startups founder mentioned that he originally wanted to call the show “Fail Factory.” He also made it clear that he didn’t want “Bazillion Dollar Club” to be lumped in with other, more cartoonish portrayals of Silicon Valley.
“As funny as I find HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley,’ they take it to the point of caricature, too far,” he said. “Occasionally, startups do change the world. They’re out to make money, and they’re out to make [a] difference, and that’s important. Hopefully in future seasons we can dive into that.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.