What it’s really like to be a contestant on Apple’s new show, ‘Planet of the Apps’

If I had made a wish ten years ago it would have been “I want to work on my startup full-time.” Not, “I want to be on a reality show pitching Poncho to Hollywood stars.” But I soon realized that dreams and reality are two very different things. Let me tell you about my experience as a founder and the reality of “Planet of the Apps”.

I’m from China. For most foreign entrepreneurs in the US, a visa is one of the biggest challenges to starting a company. I have gone through F1, H1B (It’s a ridiculous lottery system!) and O1 visa before I finally got my EB1 green card. All those visas required me to be employed by the visa sponsor (my full-time employer) at all times while I worked on my own startup on the side. And you’d also risk losing legal status if your startup goes out of business. So if my startup failed then not only did I lose the company, I also get kicked out of the country. I’m still here, so for that I feel pretty lucky.

Over the years, I’ve pitched ideas to many people but never anything quite like “Planet of the Apps”. After our sixty-second escalator pitch, we got three “yeses” from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and Gary Vaynerchuck. (Come on will.i.am, where is the love?!). Is sixty seconds to explain your business real? Of course not, but you still have to be able to do that. If you meet a distracted VC at a networking event hosted in a bar, you probably have even less than that.

At GOOP’s office with GP

After we explained the app further, Jessica (despite saying that Poncho was really cute) and Gary were out but Gwyneth saw the opportunity and agreed to be our mentor. Did I ever dream that an Oscar-winning actress and successful businesswoman would be our mentor? No. I’ll tell you a secret. Before the show, I did not know who Gwyneth Paltrow was. I’m Chinese. I’m an engineer. (Call me a loser, but the only mentor I did know was Gary V!)

When I was a nerd.

Engineers are not necessarily the best TV show actors. A good TV show needs drama but in reality most of the drama in startup journeys are impossible to capture within an hour-long episode. As a founder, you are supposed to stay calm at all times even if the Alps collapse in front of you. But in front of a camera, whatever emotional roller coaster you have inside needs to be reflected outside. It was counter-intuitive for me and really took some effort to get better at.

After Gwyneth was onboard, we went back to New York and worked on our app like crazy (we hadn’t really done anything to the old app for a year). We met with her a few times, both in person and on Google Hangout. She is very smart. You don’t get to make Goop, a multimillion-dollar business without knowing what you are doing. And when we went to pitch Lightspeed Ventures at the end of the show, Gwyneth really helped argue our case. You could see she was passionate about Poncho. And we couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

Ya’ll know that LOOK, don’t you?!

As for the VC pitch itself, it was much more intense than what you see on the show. Lightspeed partners asked us lots of detailed questions about the current metrics, financials, product roadmap and etc. At one point, we went back and forth for like ten minutes discussing the best way to define engagement metrics. (obviously, that part was not sexy for TV and got cut out.). I thought they might pass on us because of this. But luckily their greed exceeded their fear and in the end, we reached a deal. (Millions. Of. Dollars. In. Da. Bank. Now, baby!). To make the show work in a sixty-minute format, some parts of the process are definitely “manufactured.” For example, investment decisions are usually not made within 15 minutes. Instead, it often takes weeks (if not months) before VCs commit. Lots of VCs like to take a “wait and see” approach. Not exactly sexy TV. Finding the first investor to commit is the hardest part of fundraising. One time I pitched a VC and he fell asleep. Actually, that could have made an entertaining scene.

If you like this gif, go download our latest iOS app and find it the iMessage sticker pack

In reality, doing thorough due diligence on your potential investors before the actual pitch can save you lots of time and unnecessary rejections. Pitching an early stage consumer facing product to a late stage enterprise focused VC is like inviting a vegan to a BBQ party. Sorry, no dice. We were fortunate that Poncho fits right into the sweet spot of Lightspeed. They understood our thesis about innovating on the lock screen and messaging platforms.

Lastly, the show focuses on an app’s founder(s). But in reality, you need an extremely talented team to build anything great. To prepare for the show, we had team members design decks, build out the app, help us practice our pitch — everything. Ashley and I couldn’t have done it without the huge help from the team. Anyone who has visited Vienna probably has tried the famous dessert “Sacher Torte”. The cake was invented by some guy called Sacher in 18th century and he is dead now. But thanks to his team, “Sacher” brand has grown from a cake brand to a brand of Vienna’s desert culture. To build a lasting brand, it’s all about the team.

You HAVE to taste it when you’re in Vienna.

Overall, I had a blast on the show. When compared to “Shark Tank” or “Silicon Valley”, I think “Planet of the Apps” comes the closest to representing the true nature of building startups and fundraising. It’s a show made for the mainstream audience who don’t necessarily live and breathe the startup life like we do. It shredded my nerves and gave me a ton of sleepless nights. But that’s reality for any startup founder. In the end, we got investment and are now featured by Apple. If any founder says they didn’t want that — they are either crazy or lying.

PS: Special thanks to James Cooper and Austin Rodrigues for editing my post and laughing at that old photo of me. You guys are the worst.

Check out my partner in crime Ashley’s post.

Check out our episode here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/episode/my-greed-exceeds-my-fear/id1253335500