The Startup As Celebrity

Ashton Kutcher is as well known as a VC as he is for being the new star of Two and a Half Men (and Mr. Demi Moore). Bloomberg TV is launching a splashy new show about tech startups called TechStars. And a spate of high-profile tech IPOs have talking heads everywhere chattering.

It's official: Startups are the latest pop-culture craze.

People are quick to cry bubble at the phenomenon of startup-turned-celebrity, but I think it's a good thing. Maybe it's the real-life manifestation of Revenge of the Nerds I've always wanted to witness. Or maybe it's a rebellion against the influx of vapid, unintelligent reality television we've all experienced in recent years. Why not make entertainment out of smart, young people looking to build the next big thing, rather than the breed of bottom-feeders we've all come to know so well?

Here's why startups make valuable celebrities: 

Showcasing entrepreneurs on TV inspires creativity. A good example of this in action is the Sundance Channel's reality show about Quirky, a startup focused on turning independent inventors' ideas into reality. Any seed of an idea can be put to a vote among Quirky's community and become a fully produced and marketed product. While the call to action is quite direct here (got an idea? submit it!), a more indirect approach can also inspire armchair entrepreneurs watching at home. Bloomberg TV's upcoming TechStars gives viewers a chance to see (at least in small doses) what it's like to be a startup founder. From the intense long nights to investors and mentors critiquing your baby--starting your own company isn't always as idyllic as it seems in your head. But the bootcamp/pitch/payoff format of the TechStars program will lend itself well to TV and hopefully drive more applicants to their accelerator programs throughout the country.

Making tech a celebrity endeavor increases its exposure to young people. Although Ashton Kutcher could perhaps disclose his investments better, infusions of capital from celebrities can be a positive thing. (Justin Bieber is even rumored to be getting in on the investment action.) For startups like Airbnb, celebrity investment can help drive consumer adoption and awareness like no ad campaign can. Or perhaps Justin Timberlake's golden touch can help resurrect MySpace. The jury's still out, but a strategic celebrity investment for the right company could be just the profile boost needed to raise it up to profitability.

A bit more subtle investment in the future of technology works just as well. Black Eyed Peas star Will.i.am has taken to sponsoring science education fairs and back-to-school specials to make subjects like math, science and technology more popular in schools. These kids aren't making paper mache volcanoes at these science fairs, either. They're involved in sophisticated robotics experiments that are drawing the attention of top-ranked schools and corporate grant-makers around the country. The hope is that more kids see the cool real-world applications of math and science and stick with these tracks in college.

Speaking from experience, tech companies in markets like Boston, New York, Silicon Valley, and Austin have more demand for development and engineering talent than well-qualified bodies to fill these roles. As members of my management team and I get to a lot of local startup events here is Boston, it's very inspiring and exciting to see an ever-increasing number of college students attending these events with the goals of learning all they can before starting on their own businesses.

Having a sense of humor can help us eradicate flaws. Being in a company that's more than willing to have a sense of humor about itself, I see no reason why we can't highlight some of our flaws as startups with a well-done satire every now and then. Videos like College Humor's No Brandcuffs go viral because they have some element of truth to them. Some startup founders with bigger egos than ideas are getting celebrity status for the wrong reasons. But the good thing about satires is their ability to make us hyper-aware of our flaws.

We've all said things that if played back to us on tape, we'd be mortified to see. We've all overused the word 'pivot' (perhaps we should pivot to a different term such as "FIF / first idea failed," as in "I FIF'ed up that business"). But if we aren't able to laugh at ourselves and have fun, then what's the reward for all of the hard work and high risk of being in a startup culture in the first place?

So loosen up a little, watch your startup friends on TV with a mentality that a director's cut isn't exactly "reality," and (*gasp*) have a little fun. Building a startup is hard work. The more people see it (whether it's on TV, on YouTube or through a celebrity) the better.

Prasad Thammineni is a serial entrepreneur and founder of five ventures. His latest venture, OfficeDrop, is a cloud filing system with scanner software and apps that help small businesses go paperless and manage their documents online. Follow him on Twitter @officedrop_ceo.

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[Image: Julie Glassberg]

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