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3 Start-Up Lessons From Television

  |  August 7, 2014   |  Comments

Although the tech industry of the silver screen is of course a bit more glamorous and dramatic than that of the real world, there are still lessons to be learned from the TV portrayal of start-ups.

Well, it's official: Start-ups have truly entered mainstream culture. Over the past few years, there's been a significant trend of television shows putting the tech scene in the spotlight: HBO's successful Silicon Valley, ABC's Shark Tank, Bravo's now defunct Start-Ups: Silicon Valley, and TechStars on Bloomberg TV (to name a few). While the real tech industry isn't quite as glamorous and melodramatic as it's portrayed on screen, there are legitimate life lessons hidden amongst the various antics and satire.

On Silicon Valley, for instance, there's much to learn about how to start a business (often what not to do) as we watch its main character, the shy entrepreneur Richard, struggle to launch his compression algorithm start-up Pied Piper - with plenty of missteps and laughs along the way.

These are three major start-up lessons we can learn from television.

1. Who to (Not) Hire.

On Silicon Valley, once Richard receives funding for Pied Piper, his roommates join the company - but without any official offers or contracts. As a result, there's no clear understanding of job descriptions, nor is there much respect for Richard as a leader.

Then, of course, there's the fact that if you hire your friends, you may end up having to fire them too. Richard luckily sidesteps this issue when his friend receives an amazing job offer from the large, Google-like company Hooli. To avoid unnecessary HR messes, he should have sought out top talent, rather than simply turning to his friends.

The lesson: Hire knowingly, fire fast, and prioritize talent over friendship. (Oh, and as Richard learned the hard way: Never appoint a board member while under the influence.)

2. It's All in the Name.

Make sure that no other company has your name. That may seem obvious, but it was overlooked by Richard when he named his start-up "Pied Piper." In the show's third episode, he and his cohorts discover that the name is also being used by an irrigation company in Gilroy, California. The gang begins to brainstorm alternative names, but instead of giving up, Richard decides to negotiate with the founder of the other company. Ultimately, he's able to keep the name after a display of passion for his brand - necessary for any successful entrepreneur.

The lesson: As Erlich explains to Richard: "A name defines a company." Make it one that you would fight for - and do your homework.

3. The Vision Quest.

Because a name defines a company, you'll need to first know exactly what your company stands for. Be prepared to actually explain your start-up to others in terms that they will understand. Avoid using other, more well-known companies in your explanation: "We're the Airbnb of _____" or "We're like Uber, but for ______."

Remember that your company is more than just your product - it's a brand. Create a vision for your start-up that will guide you moving forward. The truth is, if you don't know what your brand believes in, others will find it difficult to believe in you too. One of the greatest pitfalls on Silicon Valley is Richard's inability to properly communicate what he thinks. Understand your core values and really stick to them.

"Today's user wants access to all of their files from all of their devices instantly. That's why 'cloud-based' is the holy grail. Now, Dropbox is winning. But when it comes to audio and video files, they might as well be called 'Dripbox.' Using our platform, Pied Piper users would be able to compress all of their files to the point where they truly can access them instantly. We control the pipe, they just use it. That's the vision in Richard Hendricks' head." - Erlich Bachmann, Silicon Valley

When it comes down to it, building a successful brand is all about telling a good story. Another example, from an episode of Shark Tank, in which entrepreneur Travis Perry explained that he invented his product, Chordbuddy, to help novices like his 10-year-old daughter avoid frustration when learning how to play guitar. This story resonated with the Sharks and propelled Perry's company, bringing Chordbuddy to more than 100 music stores.

The lesson: Have a vision and communicate it effectively - so that everyone else may be able to see clearly, too. Too long can be too cluttered - and you're looking for clarity here.

Sure, the depictions of the tech industry on television contain plenty of fluff (they can't get the ratings without all that entertaining, manufactured drama, now can they?), but there's still plenty of fact to be found in the fiction.


Alan Cutter

In the jungle of recruiting, Alan Cutter is the lion. Alan is Founder and CEO of AC Lion International

Prior to AC Lion, Alan was senior manager at OTEC and played an integral part in the company's evolution into HotJobs.com. 

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