Published December 19, 2012
By day, I’m co-founder of a start-up. By night, I’m addicted to reality TV talent shows. From dancing to singing to design, I’m hooked on them all.
Why do I get so caught up in their journey? It occurred to me that they are more relevant to me than I realized. I'm watching creative, talented people face staggering challenges and bracing criticism, as they strive to bring their vision to life and have their creative voice heard. Sound like any entrepreneurs you know?
In fact, my three favorite reality TV talent competitions each come with a different entrepreneurial lesson:
1. Project Runway: Make it work. No, really.
He may be talking to harried designers trying to make high fashion out of dollar store materials, but Tim Gunn's catchphrase should be the mantra of every start-up entrepreneur. "Make it work" doesn't mean cutting corners. On the contrary, when you're making it work, you're not producing something slipshod, half-assed, or unoriginal. Tim's really asking the designers to dig deep, to seek what is core to their vision, to uncover what will most beautifully articulate their unique solution to the challenge. He's asking them to do this with no budget, no time and no help. Start-up life is often just like this -- but if you let that stop you, your passion doesn't match your skills.
2. So You Think You Can Dance: It's not about the "best" dancer... it's about the "favorite."
As "SYTYCD" producer Nigel Lythgoe often reminds us: the show is looking for America's favorite dancer, not the best one... which means that sometimes the winner doesn't have the highest kick, or the best turns. What they inevitably have is a great story, a great personality, and great heart. This makes "SYTYCD" my very favorite of these talent shows. It has no backstage drama, no whining or bitching, no complaints about teamwork, no sneering and snarky judges. It's hard to see each week's dancers go home, because they're all talented; they all seem like great kids. On other shows, you're often voting against other contestants. On "SYTYCD," you're voting for someone.
How does this relate to you, the hard-driving entrepreneur? The path to the dead pool is littered with "better" technology. Your brand identity, your customer service, your ability to forge useful and productive partnerships are going to be as important as that technology. Yes, I'm sure there are some nasty people who have become quite successful; feel free to pull out the “Steve Jobs was a sociopath” argument here. But for most of us, good business requires good relationships. Being the best doesn't guarantee you'll win... especially if people just don't like you.
3. The Voice: Merit matters, but mentoring makes you a master.
The early episodes of "The Voice" are all about meritocracy, a favorite Silicon Valley buzzword. The judges sit with their backs to the singers and evaluate them based on voice alone. But that's just the beginning of the story. Next comes the mentoring. To win, contestants must become better than they were before.
Too often, entrepreneurs hold their cards close to the vest. Fear prevents them from asking for advice, acknowledging what they still have to learn, or opening themselves up to alternate ideas. The Bible says "There is nothing new under the sun," and that goes for your brilliant idea, too.
As I (somewhat inelegantly) said at a conference recently: “Your idea means jack until you've implemented it.” It’s highly likely that someone else out there has your idea, and the “winner” will be the one who executes best. So share enough of your idea to get the best advice about making it happen. You need co-founders, employees, investors, partners, and customers. You can have vision and conviction, and still be coached -- and have your product improved -- by any and all of them.