If You Read Hacker News, You Should Watch the Techstars TV Show

Sep 27, 2011   //   by Jeff Benzenberg   //   Essays, The Business of the Web  //  Comments Off

A year ago, when this website was still in the planning stages, I was compiling a list of potential essay ideas. One of them was set to be “Why Y Combinator and Techstars Would Make Great Reality TV Shows”. I don’t always admit it readily, but I am a fan of certain reality tv shows, particularly Top Chef. Unlike most reality programming, shows like Top Chef and Project Runway take individuals with actual talent and showcase that talent. The contests are merit-based, so it’s fun to pick your favorite players and root for them all season long.

Years ago, while learning about YCombinator, it became clear to me that all the elements that made a successful reality show were present in the YC process including:

  • the drama of interview day, the anguish of rejected teams and the utter joy of accepted teams
  • the history of startups from previous batches, big exits and quiet closings
  • the occasional interlude of YC alumni milestones (Imagine a startup from the current batch clicking on TechCrunch and seeing “AirBNB just raised $100 million on a $1 billion valuation”)
  • the weekly dinners
  • the dramatic pivots
  • the preparation for, and excitement of, demo day
  • the pressure and the potential

All of these factors would make a show worth watching (for me anyway), and on top of that, the exposure could be hugely beneficial to the startups themselves

In 2009 I started following the 5 minute videos posted weekly on Techstars.tv.  These guys were doing it right: nice editing, great music, a high quality production all around. It kept me coming back every week, and it made me even more sure this idea would be a great tv show.

Clearly, I’m a little late. The Techstars reality show launched two weeks ago and the third episode airs tonight at 9PM ET on Bloomberg.

So why should you watch it? Well, many of the reasons are in the bulleted list above, especially the pressure and the potential. But you should also check it out for the following reasons…

Everything Seems Eerily Familiar… In a Good way

Watching Top Chef, it took me a while to get used to some of the jargon, and when a celebrity chef is introduced I never recognize the name or the face. Techstars is the exact opposite.

One of the first founders they introduce is Jason Baptiste of Onswipe. Hmmm, that name sounds familiar. Wait a minute, is that jasonlbaptiste, the prolific HN commenter? Ah, indeed it is.

And what’s his company? Onswipe? It’s goal is to “make your publication look great on tablet web browsers”. Huh, that’s the exact idea my friend, whose graduate thesis is about designing long form publishing for tablets, was just talking about.

While I never recognized a celebrity restraunteur from Top Chef, it seems like every mentor on Techstars is also a prolific tech blogger. Hey, isn’t that Fred Wilson? And isn’t that Gary Vaynerchuk? Why yes, yes it is.

Heck, even David Cohen was wearing my sweater. I’ve never seen anyone with that sweater!

Companies in the Midst of Customer Development

“So we’re trying to figure out what I call¬†Product/Market Fit.”

- Melanie from To Vie For

As I was watching the show, I couldn’t help but constantly think back to Steve Blank’s book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. In it, Blank argues that startups and new projects within existing companies should start with Customer Development instead of Product Development. When I first read it, I felt a little giddy with excitement. Maybe it was the self-published feel of the book, what with its terrible cover art (no offense, Mr. Blank), but it was like I had some kind of secret manual. Maybe everyone in the tech startup world had heard of it, but not too many in my part of Ohio had.

The Techstars show is exciting because these companies in the middle of the Customer Development process, and we get to watch how they navigate it. Based on the fact that Techstars has to turn away thousands of applicants, I’m a bit surprised more of the companies are not further along in the Customer Discovery phase.

Listening to the startups talking about their businesses and the language they use, you can sense that each team is thinking consciously about where they are in the Customer Development process. When I heard Melanie of To Vie For utter the phrase “So we’re trying to figure out what I call Product/Market Fit”, I couldn’t help but think, yeah, you know who else likes to call it that? People like Steve Blank and Marc Andreessen who use it constantly in their writings. But give her credit because she was literally “getting out of the building” and talking to potential customers, another element of the Steve Blank mantra.

In fact, the influence of Steve Blank is so thorough, the man himself appears on screen as part of a demo for another startup, SocratED.

This Show Was Made For You

Ultimately, we as readers of HN represent the ideal target market for BloombergTV. They have made this show for people with our specific set of interests, and I’m finding it very interesting indeed.

I can’t wait to hear what advice Fred Wilson and the other mentors dole out.

I can’t wait to see what startup “wins” the next 10:10 meeting. (Once a week, Techstars holds a meeting at 10:10 pm where all the founders gather and where at least some Jack Daniels and Heineken get involved. The founders present, a winner is decided, and a special prize is awarded. On episode 2, that special prize was a visit to one of the technical advisors on Spielberg’s Minority Report.)

And I can’t wait to see what some of these really smart companies, like Wiji, a company who is trying to customize outdoor advertising based on the viewer, are able to produce. I suppose I could find out just by Googling them now, but I’d hate to ruin the suspense.

I hope you tune in too.

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