Mountain View Voice

News - November 16, 2012

Fired up over 'Start-Ups'

MV pair in Silicon Valley reality show

by Nick Veronin

A new reality show centered around the lives of several young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs has got locals buzzing. Two of the people profiled in the show "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley" say that they, and their business, are serious, but Silicon Valley denizens are expressing doubts.

The show, which kicked off Nov. 5 on the cable network Bravo, has Randi Zuckerberg as executive producer — she's Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's sister. The show features a main cast of six attractive young men and women working to get their fledgling, tech-oriented businesses up and running.

In addition to vignettes intended to introduce the cast members, the first episode follows brother-sister duo Ben and Hermione Way as they attempt to secure a half million dollars in start-up money for their company, Ignite Wellness, in a pitch meeting at Mountain View's 500 Startups.

Ignite makes a small piece of hardware that users stand on while it links to accompanying smart phone apps, which may run the user through a series of exercises, Wii Fit-like video games or just weigh them and help them keep track of their fitness goals.

"It's definitely our experience of trying to make it in Silicon Valley," Ben Way told the Voice. He and his sister said none of the show was scripted and that they were handed no favors from being on the show. In fact, Ben said, when it came to raising capital he estimated that half of the venture firms they approached said no simply because he and Hermione had cameras following them around.

Local reaction

"When I first heard of a reality show coming out on Silicon Valley, me and most of the people I know were a little apprehensive about it," said Priyanka Sharma, product marketing manager for Outright, a Mountain View-based financial management applications company, which began as a start-up and was recently acquired by GoDaddy.com.

Sharma said she has lived the start-up life, and said there is nothing glamorous or all-too entertaining about it. That's why she said she was disappointed with the premiere of Start-Ups. While Ben and Hermione set out to seek venture funding in the first episode, they did so only after a long-night of drinking at the glitzy mansion they share with other techies in San Francisco.

"I have to tell you, I couldn't even complete the episode," Sharma said.

Hermione said the mansion — which they call The Villa — isn't a perk of the show but an emerging trend. If she is going to pay the notoriously high San Francisco rent, she wants to get more out of it than a one-bedroom. She and Ben decided to rent a much larger house with four roommates. The arrangement means they have a yard and laundry facilities, while having the added benefit of bouncing ideas off of their tech-minded roommates.

Sharma, who is currently on the hunt for a place to live in the city, agreed that it is not uncommon for people to look for a house and bring together a load of roommates. Even so, The Villa and the costume party Ben and Hermione threw during the first episode seemed very "Beverly Hills," she said.

As someone who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for seven years, Sharma said the entire episode seemed "fantastical and unrealistic." At times it even seemed scripted, she said.

She said she worries that some may get the wrong idea about the tech industry, thinking it's a place where anyone can waltz in with a half-baked idea, score some venture funding and then get rich. "Somebody working in manufacturing in the Midwest might get the wrong idea," she said.

Inspiring others

Ben and Hermione see things differently.

"Unfortunately all the drama is actually real," Ben said. "Everything you see on the show — it's not scripted in any way. It couldn't be scripted if they tried."

They all work hard, he said, and there are very stressful aspects to their lives. But there are also social aspects — "going out and enjoying yourself," as Ben put it. "What Bravo wanted to show was both sides of that."

Hermione said she would be pleased if the show inspired someone from Middle America give it a serious go in Silicon Valley. She said she has received messages from some of the show's fans who may end up doing just that.

"I'm a woman in a male-dominated industry," Hermione said. She has been getting lots of emails since the show first aired from women saying they've been inspired by the work she has done, she said.

"There is a worldwide interest in what is going on out here right now," Hermione said.

If she or anyone on the show can help someone find the courage to reach for their goals here in the Bay Area, then that is a good thing, she said.

Sharma said it is good for those who have the requisite drive to try their hand at starting a business in Silicon Valley, but she worries the show makes everything look too easy and is less likely to produce serious tech entrepreneurs and more likely to bring out people who aren't sufficiently prepared for the tough reality of the start-up scene.

Ben actually tends to agree with Sharma on at least one score. "There's not that much glamor" in what he does, he admitted. But he doesn't worry that the show is going to cause a mad rush of unqualified people to pack up and head for Silicon Valley.

"A lot of people have been saying, 'Oh my God, we're going to have so many wannabe entrepreneurs coming to Silicon Valley.' But there is no such thing as a wannabe entrepreneur. If you don't have what it takes, you just won't make it," he said.

Backlash expected

Network officials aren't entirely surprised by the push-back that Start-Ups has encountered, according to a Bravo spokeswoman. The network has produced a lot reality shows about industries and subcultures, and whenever it does, there is almost always some backlash from the community the show is focusing on.

One of the most pointed criticism of Start-Ups is about the way the cast looks — the show's three men and three women all appear young, attractive, physically fit, and white.

Sharma said thought this was the most ridiculous aspect of the show. "Silicon Valley is an incredibly diverse place," she said, adding that many of the people working hard at a start-up have neither the time nor the inclination to stress too much about their appearances.

Ben and Hermione said they never expected everyone to love the show, and they fully expected that some within the industry would be critical of it. The backlash has added extra stress to their already stressful lives, the two said, but they aren't going to change who they are because of it.

"We're not trying to pretend to represent all of Silicon Valley," Ben said. "We're just trying to represent our experience."

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