This week my HBG colleague Angie Herrington writes about extracurricular prospect research learning that we can’t get enough of, from the unlikeliest sources – movies and television. You expect to be incredulously skeptical about a tv program showing hedge fund managers blowing insane amounts of cash on yachts or other ‘toys,’ but to then learn later from those in the know that the depiction is actually pretty spot-on? Maybe it’s worth spending time watching these shows! In today’s article, Angie details some “homework” that we might not want to miss. ~Helen
Let’s be realistic. Our researcher brains don’t magically shut off at 5:00 on Friday. I’ll go to the grocery store and see the niche cookies of the small company I researched and watch my husband’s eyes glaze over telling him their backstory. At the museum while looking at a painting I’ll guess its value. After all, I researched another work by the artist for a recent donor’s profile.
Thanks to 2020, I’ve watched a lot of television. I want to zone out but realize my researcher brain is still on the clock. Gleaning information from movies and TV about the worlds we research isn’t new. The first one I remember watching as “homework” was 2003’s Born Rich, an Emmy nominated documentary about 10 heirs to some of the wealthiest families, including a Bloomberg, Weill, Newhouse and a Trump. Directed by an heir himself, Jamie Johnson, the documentary explores wealth and dysfunction.
We now know so much about our donors we can watch a movie like The Big Short and critique what Hollywood got right or wrong. There’s been other “homework” I’ve watched all for the sake of my career. Remember the documentary The Queen of Versailles? Candy Spelling’s wrapping paper rooms, beanie babies and porcelain doll collection on Selling Spelling Manor will forever haunt me. I was four seasons into Netflix’s Narcos and Narcos: Mexico when I realized someone I’ve researched was mentioned.
A surprising thing for me is how I learned more about venture capital and the Silicon Valley from a television show than anywhere else. As researchers we have to know a little bit about a lot of things. I had a basic understanding of venture capital but watching the ups and downs of a little startup called Pied Piper simplified it.
HBO’s Silicon Valley was a comedy that ran from 2014 to 2019, created by Office Space’s Mike Judge and nominated five times for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. It’s been praised by insiders for perfectly capturing the tech culture as well as not being dark enough on its realities.
Silicon Valley is a story about a group of software engineers who develop a startup for a data compression algorithm. Over six seasons, we watch the ups and (mostly) downs of Pied Piper, its CEO Richard, and the team including Gilfoyle, Dinesh, and the unexpectedly mysterious Jared. The show starts by focusing on establishing their startup through a business incubator after they’ve left another tech company called Hooli. Most of their conflicts are with Hooli’s CEO Gavin Belson who tries to duplicate the app, takeover the company, and sue them for copyright violations.
Pied Piper is always struggling to find funding and even fighting against an investor who replaces Richard as CEO. His replacement is convinced the future is in hardware and not cloud-based technology. One might say this sounds similar to Steve Ballmer’s tenure at Microsoft. New investors reinstate Richard, and the original idea of the app continues to evolve.
From season to season the show couldn’t keep up with reality – click farms, video chat apps, cryptocurrency, bypassing encryption, Chinese duplication of technology, government violations, a Zuckerberg-esque Senate hearing, and even Hooli’s board selling the company to CEO Gavin’s nemesis, Jeff Bezos.
In a 2014 interview with Vox, Elon Musk said about the show, “I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley.” Guess what? Pied Piper later strikes a deal with an investor, Russ Hanneman, to use their technology at his music festival – RussFest.
Along the way the show throws in what I thought were ludicrous storylines or situations. I thought Gavin’s anti-aging treatment from the “The Blood Boy” episode was a gag. It’s not. There was also the app that texted “Bro.” Turns out there was actually a $7 million app that did the same thing, called “Yo.”
Articles and the people themselves have commented how characters are parodied after real executives like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff, Peter Thiel, Marissa Mayer, Megan Quinn, Steve Ballmer, Mark Cuban and many more. Consultants for the show included former Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, who helped to parody his own rise and fall.
It’s reported the show consulted with over 250 tech insiders on one season alone. Bill Gates is a fan. On his blog he said he tells reluctant friends, “You really should watch it, because they don’t make any more fun of us than we deserve.”
If you want to learn more about Pied Piper, they have a comprehensive profile on Crunchbase. For me, Silicon Valley became a case study showing Richard as an idealist facing the realities of a complex and frequently ego-driven culture while he struggles with ethical and moral tests. It’s odd to say I learned more about venture capital and Silicon Valley from a half hour comedy. Turns out Silicon Valley the show is entertaining satire but not necessarily fiction.
My homework list is forever growing with suggestions like Equity (film), Billions (Showtime), Succession (HBO), Too Big to Fail (film), and The Laundromat (film), but I’m always happy to add to the list! What’s something work-related you’ve unexpectedly learned while watching a movie or television? Any suggestions while we stay home during the holidays?