Three recent television series that dropped on Hulu, Apple TV and SHOWTIME weave a disturbing, dark story of America’s shiny start-ups. WeCrashed, The Dropout and Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber are about ambitious and audacious founders who want to seduce at the cusp of a great transformative innovation.
What these three series show us very clearly is this: There is a lot of con in the unicorn game.
Each one of the founders featured in the series had managed to attract phenomenal hype, success and billions of dollars, and was feted by a fawning media at first. The heady buzz created by the venture capitalists catapulted the start-ups into unicorns. And nobody asked the right questions at the right time.
The great gold rush of the 21st-century United States is to be a founder of a unicorn. The messianic drive to disrupt and transform the world is more seductive than ever before. And easier in the gig economy too. It just takes an idea and lots of hustle. But that also makes it more frightening. Watching WeCrashed, SuperPumped and The Dropout in the past six months is like watching a pack of cards stacked up perilously and waiting for it to come crashing down.
As a viewer, it is clear that the mountain of hype propped up by dizzying over-valuations is untenable — something that publications such as Forbes, Fortune and TechCrunch have been warning us about for some years now. But now, with these three series, it will all be etched in popular memory.
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Dizzy rise, sudden crash
The Dropout is the story of Elizabeth Holmes who founded a diagnostic startup called Theranos, with a tantalising idea that you just need a drop of blood to run hundreds of medical tests. With that, she wanted to disrupt the existing diagnostic industry’s monopoly. But she could never really create a successful prototype. What she did instead was talk-talk-talk her way into the covers of business magazines, big banks, put together an impressive board, and even share stage with Bill Clinton.
Each episode contributes to the mountain of lies. It’s like watching a horror movie — you know that it’s going to crash. But she never loses her hustle or runs out of people who are willing to be fooled and overlook the red flags.
The other one in Apple TV’s WeCrashed is based on WeWork, which creates co-working spaces. The company is also operational in India, and its turnover in 2021 was Rs 800 crore. It features maverick founders Adam and Rebecca Neumann and their dizzying rise and sudden crash. The Neumanns’ ambition is a train wreck from the word go, but their capacity to keep upping the stakes and selling the start-up is bottomless.
The third TV series, Super Pumped, is the story of Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick who runs a toxic, misogynistic workplace that violates customers’ privacy and justifies it as a necessary step in bringing a revolution of frictionless travel. He is impervious to the very idea of accountability and scrutiny.
A dialogue between investors and Kalanick actually says that revolutions don’t necessarily produce great leaders. In fact, revolutions often produce fascists. But it’s all justified because these are worthy revolutions.
“Rather than start-ups competing to attract capital, venture capitalists competed to fund start-ups. In practice, this meant funding start-up’s losses, ignoring sound governance practices, and giving them increasingly absurd valuations,” wrote Forbes in 2019.
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Big money triumphs
One common outcome in each of the three series is that even when the founders’ lies come undone and they are exposed, they still manage to walk away with big money. That is the power of con and hustle.
Greed is good, said Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987). The 21st-century version of that mantra is: Disruption is good.
Sure, the mythology of Silicon Valley start-ups is compelling, but we know that it is also actually a graveyard of pilot projects. Most start-ups fail. And the unicorns’ valuations aren’t pegged to real profits. Many are, in fact, bleeding money. The founders in these series are flying by the seat of their pants and just winging it on a day to day basis. At the end of the day, unbridled ego, ambition, hustle, and con are all just taped together a bit clumsily with chewing gum.
Rama Lakshmi is ThePrint’s Opinion and Features Editor. Views are personal.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)