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The Startup As Celebrity

Tech startups are getting the high-gloss treatment lately as Hollywood celebs flock to invest in them and entrepreneurs become celebrities themselves. This glamorization–though it’s causing people to cry “bubble”–isn’t necessarily all bad.

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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.

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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]

About the author

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.

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