How StartUp Upstages Reality TV

Recently I caught a rerun of the ABC reality show, Shark Tank. If you’re not familiar with the series, the premise is relatively simple: In seven-minute segments it pits startup business owners against investors in typical reality television do-or-die fashion. During this particular installment, I watched as two women pitched their new business to the shark investors. Their company, evREwares, sold big, adhesive neckties as gag gifts at retailers like Party City.

The episode began with the entrepreneurs’ pitch and continued with some soul crushing advice from the billionaires. “This is a howling dog from hell,” responded investor Kevin O’Leary in vintage reality show hyperbole. Seemingly none of the sharks were sold on the product and the women grew increasingly desperate, stopping just short of begging the investors for cash.

It all made for fun, albeit cheap, entertainment. There is no better drama than business owners trying to win over investors in a simulated elevator pitch. Pitting underdog entrepreneur against fat cat investor is the best kind of high stakes poker.

In a show like Shark Tank, this binary game of invest-don’t invest may seem manufactured since it presents no middle ground, but that’s exactly the point. Reality television forces inflection points. It doesn’t wait for organic movement. It condenses what could—and probably should—take years of development and boils it down to a tasty seven-minute snack.

Contrast Shark Tank with the podcast I look forward to most right now: StartUp. This is a show that follows a new business from inception and watches as it sinks or swims over a multi-episode season. It is, in essence, a reality show.

However, StartUp departs from what we’ve come to expect from reality shows. While both shows are fundamentally rooted in the theater of the pitch, StartUp seeks nuance and character development. It works hard to balance the entertainment of Shark Tank without losing touch with the unique humanity of podcasting.

Right from the beginning, StartUp revolutionized podcasting by embracing the model of reality television. The show came out of the gates strong in its first season, with public radio veteran Alex Blumberg leaving behind This American Life and Planet Money and raising capital for his own podcast network, Gimlet. He was a newly minted businessman seeking startup money with those unmistakable NPR pipes and storytelling chops, and the show quickly became a listener favorite.

StartUp capitalized on the built-in tension of an entrepreneur struggling to find investors. In this respect, Gimlet’s flagship podcast bears more than a passing resemblance to Shark Tank. Both shows capture the tension of a startup teetering on a precipice. The difference was that StartUp took its time, developing fleshed-out characters in Blumberg and his partner, Matt Lieber. We came to know his wife Nazanin and the first employees of Gimlet. In other words, listeners learned to care about these people.

However, one of the built-in problems in season one of StartUp was that the premise worked against itself. The success of the podcast was irrefutable proof of the success of Gimlet. The show was about a business seeking acceptance, and its customers—the audience—swooned. It was a podcast that replayed a botched pitch as if it were a company jingle. How could we fear for the future of Gimlet when StartUp’s meta narrative had been so well received?

Not to mention that what started out as the fledgling startup that could quickly became the wealthy little startup, with investors sinking $1.5 million into the network. After just a handful of episodes, Blumberg’s late night confessionals lost their punch as the show moved from getting off the ground to being a competent high wire act.

Funding and stability acted as the worst kind of pressure valve for the series. They put Gimlet on the map, but they deflated the tension of StartUp.

Heading into season two, StartUp was faced with the dilemma of finding a new business that could maintain tension throughout the course of an entire season. The producers didn’t panic and turn their show into Shark Tank. They retooled and decided that their original idea was dead right—they just needed a new business, one that had a longer burn with its story arc.

Season two paired Alex Blumberg with a new host, Lisa Chow, and introduced Dating Ring, co-founded by Lauren Kay, Emma Tessler, and Katie Bambino (StartUp’s most recent episode chronicles Bambino’s exit from the company). Dating Ring offered a service that hoped to revolutionize online dating by relying more heavily on human matchmaking rather than the industry-standard algorithms.

StartUp addressed its internal meta problems—how to find a company whose startup woes would carry through the entire season—by stepping away from navel-gazing toward a company whose survival was unlikely to be wholly affected by the success of the podcast.

The women of Dating Ring struggle with typical startup issues, including funding, office politics, and self-confidence. For instance, the show captured the women’s efforts to slice up ownership stakes among the founders and portrayed internal conflicts concerning their roles in the company.

Additionally, they have inadvertently found themselves in the center of an ongoing conflict surrounding the treatment of females in the tech industry. In episode three, “Another Side of the Story,” we learn that one investor promised $50,000 in seed money to Dating Ring. His offer came while cozying up next to CEO Lauren Kay and touching the side of her breast, making overtures about future get-togethers over beers.

While this moment would no doubt make for an outrageous scene on reality television, here we get the chance to see the downstream effect of this disastrous encounter. The women have to decide if they are willing to be compromised for money. It’s an example of how men exert their power over women with little to no consequence—exactly the dialogue that’s been spreading through public media and radio. StartUp was confronting a volatile issue without manufacturing it.

The show did what it’s always done: Turn on the mics and develop its characters. The interaction is not made into a sound bite, a viral video, or a reductive scandal. It’s the real world of business and StartUp doesn’t try to dress it up as anything else.

If season two has a fault, it’s that we want to be even closer to the founders and understand specifically how they interact. One of the complications of moving away from a Gimlet-focused show might be that personal access is more limited. Lauren Kay gets a lot of air time; Emma Tessler gets very little.

But complaining about character development on StartUp is almost laughable when compared to its much maligned cousin, reality television. On Shark Tank, we got two-dimensional caricatures of women in business without the satisfaction of investing in their humanity. Imagine if the two women from Shark Tank had appeared on StartUp. We’d know their backstory, foibles, and aspirations.

At the end of that episode of Shark Tank, investor Mark Cuban offered to buy evREwares for $200,000. The women reeled at losing their company, but they relented and sold. What we don’t see is that after the episode aired, the women rescinded the offer, confirming what we already know: Reality television bears little resemblance to real life. And the theater it creates? It’s nonbinding.

StartUp is battling against this reputation, testing the theory that a show premised on real businesspeople operating in the real world can be just as entertaining. So far the gamble is winning. It succeeds because what we see on StartUp is honest and enduring. Our only hope is that Dating Ring fares as well as the podcast telling its story.


Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.