Rise of the Planet of the Apps: startup lessons from episode 1

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“Going to the club with a bunch of hawks and vultures”

Apple’s debut video series, Planet of the Apps, is a showcase for entrepreneurs hoping to raise money for their startups, aided by a quartet of celebrity coaches. Each week, we’ll consider the things they do right — and the things they should have done much, much differently.

The debut episode of Planet of the Apps plays more or less as promised — a tech-focused Shark Tank spliced with elements of The Voice. Over the course of 49 minutes, we dive deep with the founders behind two companies and follow them from their first pitch to a meeting with an honest-to-goodness venture capital firm. Guiding them along the way are celebrity judges Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Will.i.am, and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk.

Along the way, we get brief glimpses of less promising companies, including the founders of a memorably confusing app that displays dating profiles for people going to events. Alba and Paltrow rightly identify the app as a magnet for creeps, and Will.i.am is having none of what the founders are selling. (“I have sisters. I don’t want my sister and my cousin Mimi, who is hot, who looks like Beyoncé, to have any more pressure than she already has going to the club with a bunch of hawks and vultures swarming around.”)

Every startup chosen to appear on the show gets a 60-second “escalator pitch” in which they describe their company to the celebrities as they descend. (This is by far the show’s most gimmicky element, but I enjoyed the visual metaphor of idealistic young founders descending to level of reality TV.) If at least one celebrity wants to hear more, the startup gets to make a more complete pitch. At that point, any of the coaches can either back out or offer to help, The Voice-style.

The coach then offers in-person mentoring to the founders in an effort to help them hone their pitch — although in the first episode, coaches Alba and Vaynerchuk spend most of their time looking like they regret ever offering their assistance. Alba persuades the founder she’s working with, who makes an augmented reality interior design app called Pair, to change his business model, which flops with investors. Vaynerchuk comes across as the most savvy of the judges, if perpetually on the brink of an aneurysm. But he knows where to poke holes in the lies founders tell themselves, and he offers the most practical advice of anyone in the pilot.

As the episode concludes, the founders meet with partners from Lightspeed Ventures, whose investments include Snap, GIPHY, and Nest. If the partners like what they see, they invest — at an unannounced valuation or percentage of ownership — and the founders cry out in ecstasy and embrace everyone on the stage as the credits roll.

For all its Hollywood credentials, Planet of the Apps comes across as surprisingly low-rent. It unfolds with minimal visual flair, and many basic questions about the show go unanswered. How many developers applied to be a part of the show? How many were chosen? Will we ever see the winners again? Will cousin Mimi make an appearance?

Here are some startup lessons from the episode one of Planet of the Apps.

DO: Have a plausible growth strategy. Companion, a personal-safety app from recent college graduates Lexie Ernst and Jake Wayne, leverages your friend network to keep your safe while you’re traveling home. What gets Lightspeed excited about the app is that Companion suggests you invite at least three friends to keep track of you on your way home — and one of those friends, on average, becomes an active Companion user. Good!

DON’T: Change your business model because Jessica Alba tells you to. Pair’s Andrew Kemendo arrives on Planet with an e-commerce app. Use your phone to virtually place furniture and other decorations in your home, and then buy them through the app. By the time Alba is done with him, he’s pitching VCs on building an indoor 3D map of the world, which he will then monetize … somehow. No one is convinced, and he leaves without a check.

DON’T: Pitch just one VC firm. One of the weirder elements of Planet is that founders only get to pitch a single firm, at least on the show. Different investors have different strengths, and it’s odd to have founders’ fates all hinge on whether their app is good for the Lightspeed portfolio. One reason Shark Tank works is that its judges have a diverse set of skills; on Planet the adults are either famous people or partners at one consumer-focused VC firm. Other founders — and the show — would be wise to mix it up.

DO: Take Gary Vaynerchuk with a grain of salt. Vaynerchuk spends most of the episode in a lather that Google has introduced Trusted Contacts, a feature similar to the Companion app that he has just agreed to advise. “This is a straight-up atomic bomb to their business,” he says. It is then revealed that Companion was already testing a premium version of its service that goes far beyond Google’s, and Lightspeed invests $1 million. Some atomic bomb!

We invite you to join us next week for further lessons from Planet of the Apps.

 

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