Hollywood 2: Attack of the iPhones Or (How the Movies Can Save Your Startup)

Note: Medium does not allow co-authorship but this post was written by Nish Nadaraja and Michael Ernst. They met on their first day working at Yelp in 2005 and continue to work together with various startups.

If you were to browse a magazine rack at this very moment (go ahead, we’ll wait), you’re just as likely to see Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk gracing a cover, as you are Channing Tatum or Taylor Swift.

This should not be surprising.

Tech has become the new Hollywood, to the point that movies and TV shows are literally being made about Silicon Valley. Even more so, the two worlds are converging and colliding: Bono and Steve Jobs. Beats by Dre. Ashton Kutcher as tech investor.

Can movies provide the answers to your own high tech dilemmas and drama? Can we help you justify your latest Netflix binge? Sit back, relax (on your Casper bed), and snapchat with a tech bro, as we guide you through the new Tinseltown.

Maybe Luke isn’t the real hero

Sometimes even the Force can’t help.

Is there a more iconic movie than Star Wars? It was an instant classic in 1977 and still holds so much meaning, mainly because of the narrative structure of its epic story. Indeed, much has been written about how George Lucas borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in constructing what is largely a space opera of mythic proportions: A rebellion is struggling against the might of a ruthless empire and Luke is a humble farm boy yearning for a more exciting life. There’s a call to adventure (a secret message hidden inside R2-D2), a powerful talisman (the trusty lightsaber), daring trials (escaping Mos Eisley, Jedi training), and finally the ultimate boon/magic elixir (Luke becoming the hero x-wing pilot who destroys the dreaded Death Star).

Who are the heroes of Silicon Valley? We can think of a few founders who think they’re saving the world, and while some of them have gone through trials (Y-Combinator demo day!), we wanted to focus on the real — and more necessary — hero: the user.

Imagine what a TV commercial would look like for hailing an Uber during rush hour, or making a last minute clutch reservation, thanks to OpenTable. It’s a stretch to think about (try channeling your inner Dave Grohl), but these everyday challenges are symbolic of taking the typical user from zero to hero with each and every click.

The why is the most important part of this journey. Take Nish: the co-author of this piece has an 8-year old son named Dash and is a rather busy fellow — yelping around San Francisco, taking meetings, extolling his marketing know-how to anyone who’ll listen — these are the trials. By the time he picks up Dash from school, he’s worn out and his enthusiasm for cooking dinner is at a low. What’s a weary bon vivant to do? Luckily, there’s Munchery (the talisman) – in a flash he’s ordered kids meatloaf for lil’ D and tacos al pastor for himself. Easy clean-up, more time to read and play, look who’s a hero now, son!

Making the user the hero has longer, more grandiose value, of course. Every time your product makes someone’s life better, you’re one step closer to immortalizing your brand. Well, at least increasing the chances that that person will sing the glories of your app from the hallowed halls of Valhalla, Twitter and Instagram. The term evangelist gets thrown around a lot, but it’s worth noting its religious roots. Can you take the mundane but frustrating challenges of everyday life and mythologize them? That’s the million-billion-dollar ticket, bub.

Magical realism helps startup founders seem less bananas

“Hi. We’re looking for a co-founder?”

“WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. I have only done this once before.”
This newspaper ad sets the stage for 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, where a Seattle magazine’s interest to cover the quirky eccentric who posted it brings about a plot that involves weird science, love, government agents, and a steadfast belief in an idea, against all odds of possibility. Can time travel exist? Is Kenneth (Mark Duplass) living a hope-filled delusion?

Spoiler alert: the audience is led to believe, right up until the end, that all Kenneth’s dreams will go up in smoke. There’s just too much naysaying and practical logic to make it a reality. It’s almost unbearable to watch — like a train wreck in slow motion — but then, just as those government agents are about to nab him, the time machine works, roll credits. Bam!

It’s a moment of sudden magical realism and it’s what every big-dreaming startup founder should be caked in. The best founders are visionaries, maybe even mad scientists. Their job is to take us into the future, to look past the myopia, to skip over some of the details. There will be plenty of people who question and even ridicule their idea, those who would just rather wait and see. In fact, if you’re creating something that everyone is immediately on-board with, you might be doing something wrong.

Blockbuster budgets aren’t always a good thing

Hey, look at all the… color.

If you’re Silicon Valley old school — we’re talking 2011 here — you might remember a company called Color. It was the super group of startups, with $40,000,000 in funding from Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital and Silicon Valley Bank. The domain name Color.com was itself bought by the founders in December 2010 for $350,000. It was at that time perhaps the most-hyped launch in the history of the Valley. But the app was plagued by, well, sucking: Its initial rating in the App Store was 2 out of 5, despite having around 1 million downloads. By September 2011, there were around 100,000 active users. In 2012, the board of directors voted to shut it down.

Everyone involved should have watched Ishtar! Remember this movie from 1987? Don’t worry, most people don’t. Despite starring Warren Beatty (who also produced it) and Dustin Hoffman, the film is considered one of Hollywood’s biggest flops, a $55,000,000 painful 107 minutes about two lounge singers who travel to a booking in Morocco and stumble into a Cold War standoff. It was plagued by rumors of inflating costs and egos and critics tore it apart. Roger Ebert called it a “lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy,” while Gene Siskel considered it “shockingly dull” and “dim-witted.”

But these two examples, by today’s standards, are just small change. It’s almost Dr. Evil-esque to talk about how much money Ishtar and Color raised before imploding. Nowadays, we talk about billion-dollar valuations for grocery delivery apps, and Ishtar would be a rounding error on a P&L report for The Lone Ranger and Sahara (seems like sand is a bad idea in general).

Do you want to be a young, scrappy Marlon Brando or a bloated Dr. Moreau? Does your office need catered meals and massages every day? When your company is known more for its valuation than for what your company actually does, this could be your Jerry McGuire moment.

Rivals stay awake, just to hear you breathing

As good an indicator of the end of the world as any.

Which do you remember: Steven Tyler’s unearthly sentimental ode to living and loving as Bruce Willis dies for the planet, or Elijah Wood half-running with his new wife to high ground? That’s right, Armageddon had more impact than, well, Deep Impact. Speaking of higher ground, both Dante’s Peak and Volcano were released around the same weekend, and while neither movie really ascended to great cinematic heights, everyone remembers the Pierce Brosnan one. Good lord, even Steve Prefontaine had two biopics competing for our collective finish lines (for what it’s worth, both Jared Leto and Billy Crudup still are running through our minds).

But this doppelganger effect is actually even more prevalent in Silicon Valley. For every Munchery there’s Din, Blue Apron, Sprig, Caviar, and Eat24. There are at least three competing car valet services (Luxe, Zirx and Caarbon), and they are just the ones in San Francisco! The venture sharks swarm at the glint of silicon gold, the funding ensues, and there will be blood.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? Rivals keep you (relatively) honest and foster creative competition on product ideas, pricing, and even hiring. You’d have to believe that Uber’s surge pricing would be (even more) out of hand if it weren’t for Lyft. The customer wins with competition as companies push and pull to win the fierce battle for not just new customers, but loyalty.

Even if you don’t have a direct and obvious competitor, get your marketing wonks to help position you as such. We did this at Yelp when we kicked the living daylights out of CitySearch and Zagat, but we had the downfall of the Yellow Pages as the big whale to harpoon. Everlane did a bang-up job on this from the start, make retail both noble and transparent against the likes of Gucci, Banana Republic and other big brands.

Batman needed The Joker. Bond needed Blofeld. Jesus Quintana needed Jeff Lebowski. Heck, Lebowski needed Lebowski. The reason Gillette keeps making new-fangled blades is to eat its competition, namely itself. Find someone to win against.

A/B Testing, in the library, with the candlestick

Do actors even have a clue about startups?

Advance screenings, select cities, and alternate endings are all ways of testing a cross-section of the market to gauge the public’s response to a film in order to measure its commercial viability. Startups act like they invented testing, but Hollywood has been doing it for years. Clue, the slapstick-y, pratfall-filled movie based on the Parker Brothers board game, bombed at the box office, and infuriated some viewers since there were actually three different endings, and you didn’t know which one you were going to until you got to that dividing point in the movie. But in its own gimmicky way, this was primitive A/B testing.

Studio execs might get in the way of originality and creativity but they’re also keenly aware at times of the bottom line. Wait, that’s all they are aware of. The point is that trying out ideas and variations, getting feedback, testing and retesting all add to the final product. No one is completely right or wrong, and ideally it’s the audience (read: customers, users, fans, members) that benefit.

Instead of the ending they went with in Se7en, the studio wanted to soften the shock by using the head of the family dog. Brad Pitt, badass that he is, said it had to be Gwyneth’s head, or no head. Clerks originally had Dante getting shot and killed by a robber, just because Kevin Smith couldn’t think of another end scene. Stallone’s original screenplay had Rocky accepting money to throw the fight against Apollo!

Ask questions and test, and don’t be afraid to make drastic changes. Eric Stoltz was replaced after weeks of shooting on the set of Back to the Future… by Michael J. Fox.

Disruption, part deux

We don’t have a good caption for this, but this is amazing.

Don’t underestimate the power of a brilliantly remarketed and repackaged unoriginal idea. Did anyone actually enjoy The Expendables? Enough to warrant not one but two sequels, with an “ensemble cast” of some of the biggest actions heroes in the world all slumming it? Hollywood jammed this turd of a trilogy down on us like a fresh uzi clip, and the sheer audacity of three mega films meant that someone wanted this. Right?

You probably saw this one coming but Silicon Valley is full of expendable ideas and companies, sometimes just repackaged for a new generation. Instacart has a valuation of $2,000,000,000, for what is basically grocery delivery. Maybe modern times have made this model more viable, but we’re still waiting on our Surge soda and Y2K supplies from Webvan.

Before there was Eventbrite and Paperless Post, we had Evite, which now seems almost as dated as an AOL email address. But there again, without America Online, would we have Gmail? Has every story already been told? If you’re going to copy something, do it with originality like Clueless, or daring like Daniel Craig.

Looking for something to improve upon? This list of Startup Post Mortems is a running update of near hits and mostly misses, almost like a kinder Fucked Company. And if you want to make a better Yelp, just email us at Iliketocriticizeyelp@wehavenobetterideas.com and we’ll give you our thoughts.

One more thing, there’s also a more personal way to think about sequels. Think of your own career: Is it at the beginning, middle or end? Is the new, new big thing in front of you? Are you the main character or just a sidekick? The same can be said of any startup. Is Yelp in need of a reboot? Will AirBnB recover from being asshats? You’ll have to watch the sequel to find out. Think about what you’d do differently — and better — if you just knew the story arc.

Roll credits

This was actually our second Medium piece we’ve written together, a sequel to Slow Growth Lessons in a Hack-Assed World in some ways. Did it seem a bit out there to compare startups and their culture to the movies and Hollywood? Our brains naturally look to connect the dots, to make sense of the world. If you’ve ever quoted a famous line or have a favorite scene from a movie, then we’re hoping that you can see just how similar the gold in them thar hills really is. If you can’t, well then, maybe YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH.