16th May, 2021

Week 20/52

Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

🐏 Muster

In this golden age of reality television, how has TVNZ not already revived A Dog’s Show?

Compared to the 80s, there are now so many additional ways that this format could be milked (shorn?) too...

Imagine a teams series, e.g. professional farmers, professional sports people, city slickers, tradies, celebrities. Then a trans-tasman or world series.

And, so many new revenue opportunities available, compared to when the original series aired. Sponsorships, team franchises, merch (branded lamb roasts maybe?), celebrity dogs, GPS tracking with live stats/analysis, SMS voting, sports betting 😳.

Who do we have to lobby...?

🎸 Suck

I have a theory:

The singularity actually already happened, but none of us noticed. The machines have been slowly working away on the destruction of humanity in the background. Their chief weapon is manipulation of television scheduling. They will just gradually increase the volume and influence of reality television until it consumes us.

The reason this is working so effectively is that we're all desperate for our 15 minutes of fame. We're like frogs in slowly boiling water.

Reality Distortion Field

Consider 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 Mag1

How do other professionals feel about their reality television equivalents? Do chefs love MasterChef? Do interior designers love The Block? Do architects love Grand Designs? Maybe the distinction has been blurred in all of these areas too?

If you substitute musicians for start-up founders, what Dave Grohl described is exactly how I feel about business plan competitions that fool people into thinking the hard bit of starting a business is having an original idea. And about award shows that pit founders against each other with arbitrary judges deciding the "winner". And especially about anything described as a "Dragons Den".

All of these things are entertainment, which is fine. No harm, no foul. Very little reality, despite the name.

Except that it seems that many people fail to make that distinction. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, people do seem to 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's so depressing to see it become the dominant narrative in the start-up ecosystem: artificially compressed timeframes; customer discovery and product pivots (or whatever else is the buzzword de jour); demo days; fail festivals; angels or dragons; making it rain.

As I tried to explain last week, this sort of stuff is mostly just Startup Theatre: a contrived and scripted experience that has very little in common with the things that successful start-ups 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.

Enjoy the walk

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

I think the explanation is simply that starting a company is hard. And more than likely to end badly. As a result 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, you don’t qualify your start-up by winning a business plan competition, or convincing a sucker to invest, or being accepted into an accelerator or incubator program. You qualify by building something customers want and win by selling it repeatedly to them at a price that is greater than your costs.

So, I think the short cut we hope to find in all of this theatre is a mirage.

What's the alternative?

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

If you want to be a founder, don’t be impatient. Realise that the person promising you a short cut is probably trying to sell you something2. Rather, find some friends to work with, and accept 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. Understand that the goal isn’t to be famous at any cost, and 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 then word will spread. Contrary to what you’re told by folks who love start-up theatre, successfully growing a company is much less about discovering the magic spark and much more about the repeatable grind. But 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 want to be an 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 carefully, rather than taking any money they can get. So, ditch the investor groups and get out there and find the people actually working on interesting things and then roll up your sleeves and help them out in whatever way you can. There are, thankfully, still enough that haven't been sucked into the noise in the ecosystem. Look for those who are quietly impressive, beyond the prominent few that get all the headlines. Pick one (or if you're crazy, 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 every chance they will choose to talk to you first.

And, importantly, realise there are many shades of grey between founder and investor. The best and arguably only way to learn about a start-up is to be part of a start-up. Ignore The Apprentice and do an actual apprenticeship. The good news is that’s very easy to do because there are more and more high-growth start-ups now that are all desperate for team members.

Of course, doing all of these things still provides no guarantee. Not every group of friends playing grunge in their garage in Seattle in the 90s became Nirvana.

Sorry I don’t have a better bridge to sell you.

Referenced in this excellent conversation with Minnie Driver.

📜 Rhyme

Here is a simple trick I use whenever I feel myself feeling frustrated about the technology ecosystem coverage in the media:

Replace “technology” with “poetry” and “entrepreneur” with “poet”.

It works surprisingly well (some examples from the last few weeks):

This idea first came to me in 2013 when I was making regular trips to the US with Vend. Lorde was top of the Billboard charts with her single “Royals”. Together with Joel Little she has recorded a very sticky song. But the lyrics! I thought those were remarkable.

I wondered: How do we leverage the success of this world class poet to create opportunities for the next generation of aspiring Kiwi poets? If Lorde can do it, why couldn’t we have a steady stream of poets finding international success? Poetry could become our next big export market!

The constraint seemed obvious: Who is funding poets? Nobody! I couldn’t find a single local venture capital fund focused on poetry.

Maybe it’s fine for prodigies like Lorde, with their international recording contracts. But what about the next layer down? Do we really want all of our aspiring poets to have to go off shore for their funding?

I started telling everybody I could: We need to be the place where poets want to live!

I imagined all sorts of initiatives: Poetry hubs where poets could work together, learn to rhyme and be mentored by older more experienced poets (maybe Keri Hulme or Sam Hunt, if they were available?) Boot camps, where young poets would be taught to focus on the type of writing that will attract the eye of poetry investors - taking them from zero to performing on a national stage in just a few weeks (this would make great television, if anybody knows a producer). A visa program where we entice recognisable poets and publishers to emigrate to New Zealand - to give it some cut through we’d sensibly name this after a famous All Black, perhaps the Colin Meads Fellowship? Maybe even a Ministry of Stanza & Verse to make sure that government funding is flowing to the poetry consultants who need it most and to see the broader context and the challenges we face in terms of the world to apply poetry more than we have been in a wider range of areas.

Reader, I have bad news. It’s been eight years. I’m starting to doubt if it’s going to work.

Since then a number of other locally penned songs have made it into the international charts. Sure, not all of them have been funded through this scheme. Not any of them, actually, if we’re honest, but we’re all part of the same ecosystem of poets. NZ Inc, if you like. And it takes a village to raise a child, right?

Maybe I just need to be patient. After all, it take years for a poetry ecosystem to develop. 🤔

PS If poetry doesn’t do it for you ... how about pineapples?


There is so much I love about this quote, which I stumbled across a while back on a now deleted blog post about running shoes of all things. But the best bit of all might be that the source that was given is "Delta Sky Mag" (i.e. an American airline seat-back magazine). I've never managed to track down the actual edition it comes from but I'd love some pointers if anybody can help with this?


Of course, you might want to buy what they are selling! Both Nirvana and One Direction have been successful in the music industry. There is nothing inherently wrong when founders choose an accelerator program, provided they are clear about the benefits they will get, rather than just assuming it’s what they have to do to be famous. If you’re one who is tempted, there are lots of examples now of successful companies who have taken this route, so talk to them an understand the approach. As we talked about last week there is a hierarchy of accelerator programs, and that the quality drops off exponentially as you work your way down the list. So, start at the top of the pile (e.g. Y Combinator in Silicon Valley or TechStars in Boulder) rather than with the one that happens to be closest to where you live.