4 years ago, during the startup funding boom in India, I remember coming back home from my unfulfilling corporate job, laying in bed and mindlessly browsing the internet while my dinner went cold. I chanced upon a video that was trending on YouTube; it was a scene from this new web series called TVF Pitchers – a story about 4 young friends who feel lost in their 9-5 jobs and set out to build their own startup. “Tu beer hai” (you are beer), the iconic line from the scene, was a call to action for wannabe-entrepreneurs to take the plunge and materialise their startup dreams. I instantly found myself hooked to the show, and have watched it thrice over the years. I did some research and realised the story was inspired from an American TV series called Silicon Valley. How poetic, I thought, that this mirrored exactly how Indian startups were drawing from business models of the west.
TVF Pitchers falls under a content category I call ‘Startup Porn’ – dramatic misrepresentations which build unrealistic expectations, but are fun to consume. There are so many things that the show gets wrong about the startup journey, that I felt I should list out some of the most glaring ones:
It’s all about the funding
The entire story revolves around the protagonist trying to get his startup funded, feeding the existing (but false) narrative that funding is what stops an aspirant from building (or even starting) a business. Even the opening scene starts with the protagonist enviously congratulating his senior’s startup on a multi-million dollar fundraise. No surprise then, that they named it Pitchers, and not hustlers, pioneers, problem solvers, or hackers. VC money, which comes at the cost of equity dilution, should ideally be a founder’s last resort to raise growth capital.
Starting up for the wrong reasons
When the protagonist tenders his resignation, his boss rightly points out that a lot of young people take the startup plunge either to escape the drudgery of their corporate jobs, or to get rich quickly, or because it’s cool and glamorous. Starting up is a tough journey and it becomes difficult to sustain optimism and long hours in the face of uncertainty, especially if one’s motivations aren’t in the right place. The right reason to start up is when one feels passionately driven to create value for the world by helping customers solve a problem (or scratch an itch) despite the uncertainty, the challenges, the pay cut, and the high probability of failure. Money is a low-probability by-product. Meaning is a better outcome to strive towards.
Emphasis on “the idea”
Details about the protagonist’s startup are conspicuously missing. All we know is that he has a great idea. Perhaps this was by design, to keep the details open-ended so that viewers can relate better by interpreting the story in the context of their own startup ideas. But it’s laughable to see these founders leave their jobs and run around trying to raise money on an idea. Who even does that anymore? No product, no customers, no traction, no revenue. But hey, it’s a great idea! No wonder they struggled to get the attention of smart investors, who know that great startups are built out of excellent execution, not world-changing ideas.
Where are the real challenges of building a startup?
I’m sure TVF knew how popular this show could get (would be hard to justify the production costs otherwise). Given that a lot of impressionable aspiring founders would watch it, I would have loved for them to highlight some real challenges that one would face in the startup journey, like: finding the right problem to solve, validating the solution with potential customers, building a lovable product/service, dealing with risky assumptions that fall flat in the face of reality, finding and convincing early adopters (and scaling beyond them), struggling with clients who don’t pay, working with regulatory constraints, managing stakeholders, unit economics, and alternative funding strategies. (Shameless plug: we cover all this at VentureBasecamp)
What Pitchers Got Right
I can go on and on about the flaws, but you get the drift. However, it’s fair to give credit where due, so I’m also listing out what the show got right:
Team composition and chemistry
The show highlights how the characters complement their abilities, playing out the hacker, hustler, and visionary roles that are crucial for a startup’s early success. It also portrayed how it’s equally important for a balanced team to be cohesive, and how things fall apart when the chemistry is disturbed. I would have loved it if the show had used this opportunity to convey the importance of having a founders agreement in place (just like a pre-nup).
The opportunity costs are real
Founders face tough choices on both personal and professional fronts when starting up. From going broke, to suffering relationships, to peer and parental pressure, to high stress – the show captures these trade-offs beautifully in its character development of the co-founders.
Good Money vs. Bad Money
Not all that glitters is gold. Founders need to be aware of the strings that come attached with an investor’s money. Bad investors exist, and they tend to micromanage founders, be disconnected from the startup’s offerings or sector, have unrealistic equity entitlements and steer the company to deliver their own short term gains. Good founders should be able to do their homework and have the courage to say no to a cheque if they see it compromising with the best interests of the startup.
Investors are driven by herd mentality and FOMO
In the final episode, after the long and inspiring pitch, the winning move is when the founders are able to convince the investor that other investors are interested in funding them. There is significant truth here: investors are smart generalists who rely more on pattern-matching and social proof to weed out unimpressive opportunities. A lot of them are clueless and keep following each others’ moves to ensure they’re not missing out on the next big opportunity. This leads to herd mentality and the emergence of short-lived waves of interest (you’ll see this in the news when you hear sector-buzzwords like foodtech, fintech, vernacular etc). The show portrays that by thinking like an investor, one can improve their odds of winning them over.
On the whole, the show was a great watch despite its flaws, because it encouraged an entire generation to open itself up to the idea and promise of entrepreneurship. It’s been a while since I binged on it, so I’m going to watch it again now, but this time with a pinch of salt.
What are your observations from the portrayal of startup life in Pitchers and other such shows? What books/movies would you recommend for someone to watch, to get a realistic view of what this journey entails? Let me know in the comments below!