Rowan Simpson

Reality Distortion Field

I found this fantastic rant by Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, describing his documentary Sound City:

“This movie wasn’t made for cynical middle-aged music critics, it was made for my daughter, or for the teenager down the street who’s trying to figure out how to start a band. When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fucking good enough.’ Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol.”
Rock n Roll Jedi, Delta Sky Mag

I wonder if people in other vocations feel the same about how reality television distorts their experience?

Do chefs love MasterChef? Do property developers love The Block or Property Ladder? Do people who work with troubled kids love Super Nanny? Do architects love Grand Designs? Does anybody love The Beauty & The Geek?

I doubt it.

Because if you substitute musicians for start-up founders, what Dave Grohl described is exactly how I feel about Dragons Den and the like.

All of these shows are entertainment, which is fine. No harm, no foul. Very little reality, despite the name. Except that it seems that many people often fail to make that distinction.

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, people do believe that entering a talent show is the path to a career as a singer, and they keep lining up every time there is a call for auditions. These train wreck shows seemingly have no problem finding folks who think that inviting cameras in to film their wedding planning or their house build or their blind date with a stranger is a normal and constructive thing, without appreciating that the only possible winner from that equation is the person selling advertising around the eventual show when it screens. Even the viewer, as entertained as they might be at the time, is a loser by any reasonable measure of opportunity cost.

It is, to use Dave Grohl’s patter, fucking nuts!

And, it makes me sad and angry to see it happening more and more in my industry.

A contrived start-up experience has as much in common with a real start-up as being a contestant in Survivor has with living unassisted in the Amazon for three weeks.

But, there is a large and growing group of people who think that the only way to a successful start-up is via an accelerator program, where they get locked in a room for twelve weeks, inundated by mentors, pressured into customer discovery and product pivots and whatever else is the buzzword de jour, taught to pitch and then pushed on stage to pimp their pre-pubescent start-up to a room full of investors. And then… who knows what?

This is just Startup Theatre: a scripted experience that has very little in common with the things that successful startups in the wild fill their days with, in my experience. The only thing missing is the film crew, although surely that can’t be far away.

The latest “season” of Lightning Lab had their demo day in Wellington last week.

This is how I saw it promoted on Twitter:

UPDATED: removed the link to this tweet, which has now been deleted. :-/

Seriously? Did it rain? Were folk hustled?

The people who are advising founders to approach investors in this way are naive and wrong. Be aware that you’re creating a significant selection bias by doing this, because smart investors do not want to be hustled and won’t be tricked into investing in your dinguses.

Likewise, if you think this is the best way to access people who you would otherwise struggle to connect with, you’re massively underestimating how easy it is to reach smart investors in a small place like New Zealand (or a large place like San Francisco, for that matter) if you have something compelling to pitch them. But you do have to get the train in front of the tender. Otherwise you’re not really a founder.

(I keep talking about smart investors, but I realise I haven’t ever explained what I mean by this. It’s possibly a subject for a future post, but for now I’ll define it simply as those who typically contribute more value than they capture, both in terms of dollars and, more importantly, in terms of advice and support.)

So far the results from these sort of programs locally are pretty skinny. But, we only need to do this a few more times before one of these companies becomes Dropbox or Airbnb. That’s how the maths works, right?

In fact, we believe in accelerators so much that we now have a government grant programme designed to accelerate accelerators. That’s four derivatives, if my calculus is correct!

(The questions I would ask those that approve this sort of funding are: a) how will you measure the impact you have on the companies who benefit from this investment?; and b) what is the control group?)

Please, don’t hold your breath.

You may reasonably ask: if this is so wrong, why is it increasingly common and popular?

I think the explanation is simply that doing a start-up is hard. And more than likely a complete waste of time and effort. So we’re all attracted to this sort of reality television approach because we think it might be an easier route, or increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.

But, I think the short cut we hope to find in this approach is a mirage.

I tried to opt-out of this debate a while back, as I figured there was little chance that I would convince anybody who believed otherwise, and there was no shortage of better things to put my time and energy into. I still believe that. But, I’ve realised I never explained the alternative.

I think Dave Grohl has the answer: You have to enjoy the walk.

If you’re a would-be founder, don’t be impatient. Realise that the person promising you a short cut is probably trying to sell you something. Rather, find some friends to work with, and understand that for quite a while you’re going to suck. But suck in the knowledge that you’ll look back later and realise how much you enjoyed sucking, or more accurately how much you enjoyed sucking slightly less each day. Accept that it’s better to suck in relative obscurity. Don’t be tempted too soon by the glare of the spotlight. Tell your story to everybody who will listen, and if you have something that’s actually compelling word will spread. And know that after taking a few small steps forward each day you’ll look back and be staggered by how far you’ve come.

If you are a would-be investor, don’t be lazy and sit back expecting good ventures to come to you. New early-stage investors often fall into the trap of thinking their job is to pick which companies to invest in, but the smart investors realise that the best companies select their shareholders, rather than taking any money they can get. So, get out there and find the people working on interesting things and roll up your sleeves and help them out in whatever way you can. There is a huge dark net of start-ups, beyond the prominent few that make all the noise. Pick one or two, validate that they are willing to take guidance, and prove that you can contribute more than just cash. And then, when the time comes, there is a better chance they will choose to talk to you.

Of course, doing all of these things still provides no guarantee. Not every group of friends playing grunge in their garage in the 90s became Nirvana. Sorry I don’t have a better bridge to sell you. But, since you’ve read this far, I assume you’ve decided it’s all worth it, despite the odds.