Why Pixar’s Anton Ego matters for startups, incubators, VCs…

I started working with startups for a university incubator in 2008. Since then I’ve been asked to hold seminars on topics like entrepreneurship, tech innovation and commercialization, incubators’ role and so on.

Upon the other hand I’m a father of four, and quite passionate about watching movies, that’s make me a lover of Pixar’s masterpieces.

These two conditions converged when I carefully listened to the monologue that Anton Ego gives at the end of “Ratatouille”.

Ok, let’s have a quick step back for those who are not familiar with this movie. It is built around famous Chef Gusteau’s motto, “anyone can cook”, and the events occurring to a mouse, Remy, with the unexpected and “uncommon” gift: being a great cooker. During the movie, the apex comes when the restaurant formerly owned by Auguste Gusteau, and now formally led by his son, Linguini, receives the visit of the most respected, strict and austere critic: Anton Ego. Believe me, if you’re reading and you didn’t watch the movie yet, please, spend a couple of hours on it: it’s worth watching even if you have no kids.

At the end of his meal, Ego is so impressed by what he ate -a tribute at having food as an experience- that he wanted to compliment the chef. Here comes the surprise: Remy, the mouse, is the chef. Ego, walks away silently and comes back home to write down his review. 
 This couple of minutes are impressing to me. I first watched the movie in Italian, which is my mother tongue, but when I discovered the original version with the voice of Peter O’Toole, it opened a complete new landscape.

In the following you can find the video and the speech script.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations: the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

Ego’s attitude is, in general, very negative and characterized by the absence of any expectation towards the people he meets and their work (i.e. what they cook for him, in order to let him write the reviews). He is Anton Ego, the name is not given by chance, in nomen est omen as it is said in Latin. His attitude is so negative that the room he’s working in is coffin-shaped.

Nonetheless when he starts writing Remy’s work review he says few things that I always try to underline during my seminars and that I try to keep in mind when I review business ideas, pitches, business plans and so on. Actually there are many things that may deserve to be mentioned, but I’m going to concentrate on a couple of them.

First remark: “the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so”.

If you ever attended an elevator pitch session, a demo day, a business plan competition final round or any kind of startups’ presentation, you obviously know that criticism is “a gross understatement”, to use Ego’s words. Our business is to say a lot of “No” and make tons of questions. I reviewed so many business ideas and I made it alone or together with colleagues or investors, or managers. It’s so f***ing easy to dismantle almost any business idea, especially when it’s presented as innovative or tech based. You can do it in ten minutes even without knowing almost anything about the technical content of the proposal. Or better: the larger is the technical part, the easier the dismantling. Especially when you deal with early stage company or even pre-company presentation. You can be sure that there is a lack in the work and the presentation is unbalanced. Too much technicalities and no market data; too early stage; you have a patent (filed not granted, obviously), but you don’t have a freedom to operate analysis and no prototype or even a proof of concept; no experts’ validation; no star scientists advisors; no money raised; a non-complete team; costs and competitors are underestimated and benefits are overestimated. I could keep going for quite a long time with all the objections that can kill the most optimistic would-be-entrepreneur on earth. Again: it’s ok to let them pass through shocking review sessions and to make them understand that they have almost (almost) nothing in their hands and how long the path to the beginning of their venture is (that, by the way, wouldn’t be called “venture” if it were easy…). Not to mention about being successful.

Here comes the point: it’s easy and funny (sometimes) to criticize, but I have the maximum respect for those who seriously (let’s repeat: seriously) try. I think this is something that no “critics” should forget about. If they are trying seriously, they deserve anyone’s respect. Though criticism may be harsh, it should aim at making the proposer be much more aware of the path he is putting himself onto. I’ve heard many entrepreneurs being grateful for honest, frank, harsh but respectful criticism. Sometimes they give up, sometimes they grow stronger, sometimes they don’t even understand because of their pride (or their… “Ego”) and sometimes the critics are wrong. Nonetheless, in the long term if you criticize the business idea, without forgetting the person’s attempt, or better, trying to let the core of this attempt emerging, you’re seeding for something good in the future.

Second remark: “the new needs friends”.

We are continuously projected towards a future of innovation. Everything is supposed to be exponential now. We await for “the singularity” to come, with a mixture of curiosity and fear. A sort of millenarism surrounds the convergence of neuroscience, nanotechnology, big data, robotics, IoT… Nonetheless, in our daily work in startups’ incubators and accelerators, we don’t use to seat in front of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos or [fill in with the name of your favorite entrepreneur]. In most of the case we are -especially in the university incubators space- in front of scientists with technologies they are in love with, which may be (or may not be) promising for future applications.

So, why can our work be useful for them? Or for the institutions we and they (the scientists) work? And, at the end of the day, for the whole society? The answer is twofold: first, we’re in front of persons who are trying to generate an impact on society (and on their pocket, hopefully) with their work. Their work is supported by public money, so, the knowledge created comes back to the people throughout an innovation driven increase in their quality of life. Moreover, that’s the second point, we could be in front of a spark which need a lot of work and fuel to become a strong fire. But in the vast majority of cases, we’re in front of people that need a lot of support in order to walk all the steps required to create a new company (just new, not necessarily a funded or a successful company). Obviously, we also deal with silly ideas and sometimes we need to convince people about that.

Anyway, in all the other cases, we’re always in front of a crossroads: we can decide to leave them alone (in a very polite way, of course) or we can take our own part of the risk, that is a choice about how we decide to use our time and to make our contacts and opportunities available for them. In my experience, this decision requires a precise mindset or attitude towards the people in front of you and their ideas. It requires empathizing with them. They require your “friendship”, that’s Anton Ego’s aphorism. Each of those sparks require many friends. You may be an “interested friend”, because you hope in some kind of return in the future, and that’s right. Nonetheless, in the very early stage of a would-be-company life, there is a moment when you can recognize your attitude towards it. You can decide to empathize, to be “friendly”, or not. Sometimes this empathy or friendship is like cheering for a sport team. It doesn’t mean you stop criticizing, actually people is much more willing to receive comments or remarks when they understand you are walking with them, you’re taking some risks, you are cheering for them. They can consider you as a friend of their work and idea and then let you break down their idea to re-build it in a different way, but without this kind of empathy, is almost impossible to help anyone.

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