Send in the Clowns: Fake Start-Up Ideas

Send in the Clowns: Fake Start-Up Ideas

Business April 01, 2013 / By Alexa Clay
Send in the Clowns: Fake Start-Up Ideas

A new alliance is being formed between the tech start-up scene and comedians and the results are pretty funny

What if there were a Zipcar for dogs? A business that delivered tacos with flying robots? Or during election season, a Chatroullete that allowed you to yell at your political enemies? Bostonian Liberals mouthing it off to bible-touting Kansas Tea Partiers. These things all exist. In fact, trolling the Internets in search of faux start-ups brings delightful discovery.

Have you heard about Jihad on You? This satirical website allows you to vent your frustration on anyone or anything. It’s a digital haven for pent up anger and frustration. One post, entitled ‘My Grandmother,’ reads:

My grandmother is so freaking annoying, never listens to what I’ve got to say, always believes that her views are right.

Or another post called, ‘Hummer Drivers,” declares:

So you got a big truck... BIG FRIGGIN WHUP!! What the hell are you overcompensating for!! Listen to me. LISTEN!! Hang up your phone, take your damn bumperstickers off (unless its a Kerry/Edwards, those are somehow satisfying) and LISTEN!! Just b/c you have a big truck does not mean that I will ever, EVER respect you. 

The sites creators basically allow users to declare their own “holy wars” on people or things that really bug them. In an age of hyper-positivity, they’ve addressed a clear market need.

These tongue-and-cheek satirical platforms like Jihad on You or TacoCopter (a website delivering tacos with mini-helicopters) are no longer the throwaway ideas of brainstorms or drunken banter; they are the refreshing heart of the start-up scene.  By mixing comedy and start-ups, jokes finally have the ability to become three-dimensional. For comedians this opens up their canvas. The same humor that infuses stand-up routines can now conquer digital platforms and Apps. Suddenly the tools of the entrepreneur can be placed in the hands of the comedian and vice-versa.

Comedian and How to Be Black author, Baratunde Thurston who co-founded a company called Cultivated Wit spoke with me about some of the increasing co-mingling found between entrepreneurs and comedians. Baratunde previously worked at The Onion, where they first started testing the waters in this space. At The Onion they created this satirical video game where you could just shoot people in the face. That was it. Just shooting people in the face. They went as far as to commission the creation of the game. 

As Baratunde offered, “You can take a very ridiculous notion and make it happen.” Recently, Baratunde and the Cultivated Wit crew hosted a “Comedy Hack Day,” where they invited programmers to co-create with comedians. The results were several entertaining faux start-ups, including: Shout Roullette (“shout at an idiot about a thing”), Fox the News (finds real news articles and sensationalizes them), and a Not Impressed Chrome Extension (as you browse the internets a pop-up of a woman with a disapproving look will emerge to signal she is not impressed with your searches). 

While it might seem like an odd coupling, comedians and programmers actually have more in common than we think. In both “you have people that are mildly obsessive and a little bit on the fringe of the mainstream,” Baratunde reflected. “They have a higher awkwardness than the general population. And at the highest level, they are both really creative, and are articulating some better way to be in the world.”

It turns out comedians are better than programmers at pitching and providing a charismatic draw, but then programmers excel in creating boundaries and ensuring jokes could actually be executed. So when one comedian wanted to create a worm-whole at Comedy Hack Day, for instance, a programmer pushed-back, “Sorry I don’t have API access to the space-time continuum.”

Thinking about it, much of the art of comedy offers lessons that many start-ups can learn from. The whole craze around lean startups where you’re meant to launch early and often through constant trial and error is something comedians have been doing for decades. Comedians are constantly testing out jokes with an audience and refining their material. Jerry Seinfeld is notorious for his beta periods. One joke may be two years in development and he often has two hours of material that he rotates into a one hour to test for laughs.

The other thing that comedians and entrepreneurs share is a strong point of view. When you think of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Chelsea Handler, and Louis CK all together, you find similarities. In each, is an intense personality with strong opinions – whether it’s about the design of a computer or female masturbation and the state of one’s Pikachu, these figures don’t hold back.

In both the world of comedy and start-ups you can also do a lot with a little. With improv, for example, you get a few ingredients from the audience and build an entire world. It doesn’t require a lot of investment. That lesson has implications for any start-up team. You don’t need massive resources, but commitment and teamwork.
Clearly, the entrepreneurial toolset is one that many comedians are employing to enhance their reach beyond traditional stand-up routines and sketch videos. We are in the early days of faux start-ups, but for the sake of our own amusement, I hope this trend is one that’s going to stay.

Faux start-ups, offer a refreshing satire of start-up culture, but also open up new possibilities of start-up terrain. While not all faux start-ups will become actual ventures - recently friends pitched me a Grinder-like App for fights (yes, through geo-location software you can find people in your proximity that want to fight) – there are no doubt some very silly ideas that will find space in the marketplace.        

In fact, my book The Misfit Economy (co-authored with Kyra Maya Phillips) started off as a joke. We thought it would be funny to do a panel at SXSW where we were telling entrepreneurs about how they could learn from terrorists and gangsters. But pretty soon, because we aren’t super gifted at comedy, people started taking us seriously. We even got a book deal with Simon & Schuster.

From the ashes of our satirical musings, like what Al-Qaeda could teach us about innovation, came something really powerful. We came to realize that actually, yes, we do have something to learn from the fringes and dark sides of our global economy. Sometimes comedy is like that. It can take you to a truth that you couldn’t touch or discover before because it was too “out of bounds” or outside your comfort zone. 

Alexa Clay is a writer and entrepreneur living in Berlin or “Silicon Allee.” She is the co-author of The Misfit Economy (forthcoming) and the provocateur behind @AmishFuturist. She likes to go to start-up conferences and parties and pitch fake ventures.

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