The startup world is the subject of the new reality TV series "TechStars," which follows the ups and downs of entrepreneurs selected for the eponymous incubator's selective program -- a three-month boot camp where startups have an opportunity to impress deep-pocketed investors.
Debuting Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. and airing weekly on Bloomberg Television, the six-episode series focuses on six startups sharing work space in a loft in New York's Union Square. They receive sometimes blunt advice from tech hotshots such as Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, venture capitalist Alan Patricof and Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley. The bulk of the footage was shot last winter, but the live finale airs Oct. 18.
The contenders are at various stages of maturity and include Nestio, which helps organize apartment searches; Onswipe, which lets publishers publish natively to tablets without creating an app and already has major investors like Spark Capital; and To Vie For, a fashion gaming site that 's not public yet.
Ad Age spoke with TechStars founder David Cohen and New York managing director David Tisch -- who appeared on the show both as judges and day-to-day mentors -- to get their take on why startup culture is a good fit for reality TV, how they pick their TechStars class from a pool of 600 applicants and the effect of a bear economy on venture capitalists' decision-making.
Advertising Age: Why did you decide to do a reality show?
David Cohen: We had been approached four or five times in the past by different networks to try to capture what TechStars was. We had a lot of interest in it, but we always declined because we felt that other groups would want to change TechStars. We chose Bloomberg because we felt they wanted to do more of a documentary style of reality -- showing what it's like to actually go through TechStars.
Ad Age : This is the first time a TechStars class was in New York. [There had previously been classes in Boston, Seattle and Boulder, Colo.] Why now?
David Tisch: We made the decision to move to New York City before the TV show came about. We thought the New York ecosystem for tech startups was right for what our program does. It's a logical thing that New York needed as it blossomed into a tech hub.
Ad Age : What do you think aspiring startup founders can learn from the show?
Mr. Cohen: I think it highlights the value of mentorship. Many entrepreneurs go it alone, and they aren't able to tap into larger networks. And it sort of demystifies what it's like to work for the top people in tech and what it can mean for the company to have mentors who are backing you, and to have good investors who are backing you.
Ad Age : What impact do you think current economic conditions are having on venture capitalists' willingness to back startups?
Mr. Cohen: I think what's going on in the macro economy doesn't directly and immediately affect the VC and the startup scene. The best investors are happy to invest through good times and bad and know that many great companies were started in down macro markets. To try to map it to what's going on in the stock market -- it's not directly correlated. Personally, as an investor, I try to ignore what's happening in the larger economy.
Ad Age : And how should the economy affect a startup's decision about whether to move forward?
Mr. Cohen: I don't think it's a key factor. For one thing, you can't control it. So you have to ignore it. It's always hard to do a startup, so that 's one thing that could make it a little harder, but it doesn't change the game.
Ad Age : It seems like so many online spaces are already saturated. How can startups get your attention on their TechStars applications?
Mr. Cohen: We always talk about looking at applications to the program with the following lens: it's really team team team, then market, then idea last. I think many entrepreneurs have the impression that the idea is all that matters. In our experience, it's the last thing that matters. The passion of the team, the talent of the team and the general market space is what we're looking for. We know that roughly half of the startups that go through TechStars will wind up doing something different.
Ad Age : And why do you think a startup incubator will make for compelling TV?
Mr. Tisch: I think you'll see awesome success from intense frustration -- and some real big changes in businesses.
Mr. Cohen: I think sometimes what's real is the most interesting thing. And these companies have really interesting people as well. It's very focused on their business and not their personal life. For people who are entrepreneurs, investors, professionals and just regular Joes, it's interesting to look at the rise of these real people and see how businesses are really built.