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Startup lessons from Reality TV

September 12, 2016

Reality television shows are the dominant cultural mode of address, we currently have the Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor. For me, it is a lazy formula for ‘entertainment’, it’s simply an opportunity to pander to our less wholesome voyeuristic tendencies where the combative, hectoring setup aims to humiliate contestants for our morbid pleasure.

Even if you don’t watch reality television, it’s becoming increasingly hard to avoid. Far from celebrating success, they are re-enactments of bygone days’ public hangings, the roar of the masses reflecting an inexplicable desire for rejoicing in the failings and shortcomings of others, subject to a ritualistic, public airing where compassion simply doesn’t exist.

Many contestants seem to sincerely believe that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for gain, but leave with a cup overflowing with failure and emotional trauma, set against a backdrop of an audience whose gladiatorial appetite is constantly fed.

Who can bear to watch the tears flow from rabid emotional manipulation? Who wants to watch vulnerable people laying their lives bare so that others can profit? Then again, who wants to parade themselves for such ritualistic humiliation?

Having said that, baking is a real thing, real skills, but nobody ever died from a soggy soufflé. Even the most anxiety-ridden viewer can cope with the level of jeopardy on display here. But yet this and MasterChef run at fever pitch.

Professionals or celebrities on these shows are well able to bear the judges’ damning, harsh verdicts, and though the bakers are amateurs, they are crusty enough to handle the disappointment if it all goes profiteroles-up. Still, it sometimes has the feel of a wildly popular spectator sport.

Of the current three, Bake Off offers the most legitimacy, there is learning and value in the creation of tasty, visually appealing, innovative cooking. No amount of bunting can disguise the pressure-cooker atmosphere or the anticipation of nervous breakdowns for the cameras, yet occasionally the craftsmanship of some contestants’ efforts is balm to the watching soul.

There’s no telling who can bake themselves to victory. For me, to win you have to be resilient and brave, I don’t think the cooks who are best at the start win, it’s the ones who learn the quickest and improve. It’s all about learning from and absorbing the experience.

There’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable.  Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and their confidence, triggering anxiety. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of pomegranate juice on the plate.

From early to late, day in and day out, they’re ordered about by egotistical celebrity chefs while cooking complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch.

This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves.  By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this?  Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for bursts of extraordinary effort but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised.  We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. They step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul.

As ever though, the charm lay in the suspicion that the contestants, for all their alleged naivety, really were rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in, each with obsessive concentration throughout, because the challenge to themselves was more important than winning overall.

Even the most robust startup entrepreneurs can learn a few things from these reality shows, if you ignore the pomp and circumstance of the TV staging. Every founder seeking funding goes through fifteen minutes of creative dancing’ or baking to give potential investors a basis for selecting their startup to be the most qualified and ready to proceed to the next level

The business reality obviously has different particulars than staged TV reality, and ignoring the lights, innuendo and focus on failures, the process and competitive individual performance is eerily realistic, and every founder entrepreneur seeking funding can learn from observations from these shows:

Investors evaluate the person first, the idea second It’s all about making an immediate impact, making yourself memorable and having presence, standing out from the crowd. Entrepreneurs with the right confidence and personality are able to garner funding, despite a potentially weaker business plan.

Investors invest in people more often than ideas. Investors want to look the founder in the eye, and be convinced that he or she can lead the company to success – it’s more important than the idea.

Grab attention from the start Skip the background story and customer pitch, which every investor has heard all too often. Investors want to hear a quantified problem, a simple solution description, opportunity size, competition, traction, team qualifications – use the Lean Startup as your script.

Start the conversation sitting their side of the table. You only get a few minutes to make your case, in fact your case is usually won or lost in the first couple of minutes. In business, as on the reality shows, wins can turn to a loss if you bungle or skip relevant basics in the short time allotted. Everyone wants a longer time or second chance to win, but make it happen first time.

Practice, practice, practice Even if you are an experienced dancer, you practice your craft with renewed determination before a show. On the reality show, they spend all week preparing so they make it matter when it counts most. Practice on purpose, know your pitch but also keep it fresh, master the timing and think about how to handle some of the awkward questions you hope don’t get asked – because they will.

We have all seen the dancers and bakers who fluff their moment. Likewise, entrepreneurs who believe that passion will overcome investor questions and requests for information will fail. The most common failures on the show and in real life are people who don’t know their margins, the cost of customer acquisition, channels, or other key data. Know your stuff.

Listen and be open minded at all times Skip the bravado, show authenticity and humility. Let your adrenalin help you deliver an outstanding performance, but trying to wow investors with jokes or stories of unending success will not move you up a level.

Equally, entrepreneurs who interrupt investor questions, or show a temper, will quickly lose investor respect, and likely lose the deal. Be sure to pose your counterpoints as clarifications rather than disagreements. Agree to evaluate investor views on subjective issues, rather than just dismissing them.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware – keep it simple Sometimes the reality contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different or strike for an outrageous combination of ingredients in their recipe. Occasionally it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home early. Attention to detail and back to basics are good investor pitching principles.

As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each episode there is a challenge, with a clear goal, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete it. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Strategise before filling the pans – have a Plan A and Plan B The contestants have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and presentation. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result, a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. All businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events having adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and to respond with a back-up plan is vital.

Deliver what you have Stay cool when the heat is on, what happens when the investor pitch, just like the dish, doesn’t turn out as expected? Yes, you have a Plan B, but Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay calm and present what is completed with conviction, even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product. Contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a big risk to take in business. Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final two minutes of conviction together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it.

As Gregg Wallace on Masterchef says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Startup life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil and seasoning, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.

So next time you find yourself drawn to Reality TV against your better judgment, just remember that there’s a reason these shows suck us in. In addition to their pure entertainment value, they give us comfort, self-esteem, and sometimes even teach us something valuable. That said, in the end it’s up to us to have the self-control to turn off the TV when it starts eating away at our souls.

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