Popular culture may have turned its gaze westward, toward the mirage of wunderkind coders, open floor plans studded with perks, and suddenly ubiquitous apps that make their makers insta-millionaires. But the competition to get Silicon Valley right has been flaccid. I was burned by Bravo, bored by Bloomberg, and avoided The Internship like a sticker pack. However Betas, Amazon's original series about social awkward 20-somethings building a social app called "brb," gets some details surprisingly right.
There's an accelerator founder based on Roger McNamee, who harkens back to San Francisco's druggier days. There are valuations that disappear in a flash, a brogrammer who got lucky with a one-hit wonder app, and even a gossip blog call ValleySmash.
Of course, it's a sitcom and one of Amazon's first, so of course you have your goofy slapstick/dude-I-can-tell-this-is-a-sound-stage moments. It's broad, it's formulaic, but if you stick with it a bit, you'll find it's self-aware about prevailing absurdities and disarmingly sympathetic to the intense competition for funding and attention. I talked to the creators Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard about how they did their homework.
What inspired you to write a show about startups?
Evan: I had worked with Michael London, the producer on Sideways, quite a few years back. He approached Josh and I with this idea loosely-based on reality. A startup had moved into his building here in L.A. They used to be the cool people because they made films, and they were surrounded by tax attorneys, an AT&T store, whatever. And then this startup moved in, it was called InTheMo.com. I don't think it really went anywhere, but it was like a nightlife website. Suddenly there are all these beautiful, hip twenty-somethings in the building. It was like a parody of a startup. They had the ping-pong, and the foosball, they had beer taps. Suddenly all of his interns were going down there and hanging out and coming back a little bit drunk at lunch. He was like, "What is this new culture that's so much cooler than we are, and why am I an old man?" So he thought, "Well that's a funny thing, we should do something about this."
You and Josh were interested in exploring that world as well?
Evan: I think it's so pervasive in everyone's life now. We were a little bit shocked that nobody had done it, really, because apps and all this stuff are part of our daily lives now because of the prevalence of smartphones. So we invented all these characters and this world and the app, all based on that initial conversation. I'd had friends who had left L.A. and moved to San Francisco to work at startups, so I was pretty interested in how that culture was becoming the new desirable thing to do if you were in your twenties, whereas when I graduated it was movies and journalism, stuff like that. Now that's all kind of condensed, even if you're doing that stuff you're doing it for a website.
So your friends who went to work at startups. Can you say which ones they were?
Evan: Yeah, one of my best friends from L.A. is a marketing director at iSkoot. And I don't know much about them, but they sold their platform to like AT&T or something, and it was one of the original ways to push smartphone stuff to non-smartphones. You could, like, use Facebook on old-school handsets. I had seen how he was living up in the Bay and was like, "Wow. You made a smart choice." There's so much ambition in that world, and the people doing it and pursuing it are so young, it just seemed like it was pretty right for a kind of underdog story, and those are just really fun stories to tell.
Josh: The social space is really interesting to us in particular because it was a great entry point for us to get into our characters' heads. We read a lot. The book about Google and how they got started; their kind of obsessive need to engineer things. This idea that there are people out there basically trying to engineer how we interact socially. And trying to maximize algorithms for interactions and things like that, you know? According to a lot of the people at the top of Google, you can engineer this stuff, and it's just a matter of finding the right numbers. We found that really, really compelling. That in the real-world space these engineers—some of them, or a lot of them—probably aren't the most socially active people in the world, they are the ones shaping what it means to be friends today.
I think BRB gets right to the point that the people who are trying to facilitate how we communicate have struggled so mightily with it themselves. In general, what source materials did you go to? Are you reading through TechCrunch? Are you going to the Creamery and trying to overhear conversations?
Evan: We're based in L.A., so unfortunately, in the initial going, it was all kind of research-based. And especially when we were first writing the pilot and before Amazon got involved, there was kind of a different version of the pilot that was more broad and more a satire of the culture and maybe less sort of inside of it. That's when we were reading the Google book and Steve Jobs bio. Once Amazon came onboard, we went and we pitched them, the characters, the world, a potential pilot, all that kind of stuff. They were a huge asset because they come from that world. And they were able to set us up with phone calls and interviews with people, a lot of venture capitalists, angel investors, CEOs of startups, so we were able to start really hearing it from the primary sources. What was interesting was, a lot of the stuff we had made up, thinking, "Well, I hope this is right," then was completely echoed, sometimes almost identically by people in the world. And that was kind of creepy but it made us feel like, "Okay, we're on to something." Even stuff that we probably made broad and ridiculous, like some of the elements of Murch's character, once you read about Larry Ellison, or we would talk to people who are like, "My boss did X, Y, and Z, you can't use that in the show." And I was like, "Uh, we kind of already wrote that."
I met you guys through DMing Ken Cheng [a writer for Betas] and—even using the word "DMing," it's so embarrassing unless you're immersed in this stuff. Anyways, I wanted to ask him if the writer for "ValleySmash" was based on someone in real life, he said no. The obvious parallel for Ed Begley Jr.'s character George Murchison, who runs an accelerator, would be Paul Graham and Y Combinator.
Evan: He was even more based on… Do you remember that guy's name, Josh, with the TED Talk? About the future of the web and… He's a big investor, but he's very—sort of slovenly looking and he plays in a Dead cover band. And he plays guitar. Roger...something.
Evan: I just watch a lot of TED Talks because I'm a dork. I had just seen that one and I was like, it struck me because in the time I spent in San Francisco I was always marveling at how there could be a billionaire next to you and you wouldn't know. Because they don't dress to look apart, for the most part. And this guy's giving a TED Talk who's obviously made a mint investing in tech, but he's wearing, like, sweatpants—
Josh: Flip-flops, yeah.
Evan: It's just a different world than the glamour of L.A. or the super-ridiculous Wall Street kind of money. I have friends who are in that world, too. And there's this interesting element to S.F. where it's, like, bohemian but there's still all that wealth. A guy who loves the Dead, but loves making money. Like, what is that?
You said originally it was a satire. Was it not told through the perspective of the founders themselves? Was it somebody on the outside looking in?
Evan: In the initial version we had a straight-man character who was coming into that world and was new. So it was a little more in that Arrested Development kind of style where you've got the Jason Bateman character and then the crazies swirling around him. And it was actually a really good suggestion, early on when we met with Amazon they said, "You don't need him. Make the founder the main character," basically.
That's one thing that impressed me, I feel like there's a real, visceral sense of fear about getting a good valuation or running out of money. Even within the trade press, there's so much froth and hyperbole and bated breath that you sort of do lose sight. There's a lot at stake here. You mentioned VCs and angels, did you talk to young startup founders, too?
Josh: Once we started down this road we went up there to San Francisco and went to accelerators and we met young entrepreneurs who had ideas that were anywhere from just a hair above the napkin sketch all the way to fully running, monetized things. It was really enlightening and heartening in that I felt like every other founder we talked to, we were talking to another Trey [the main character in Betas]. You've got your [founder] who believes with 100% of their being that they have the next billion-dollar idea and that this is what they were born to do, you know, and they're so in it. They're so ensconced in it and just wrapped in it, it's all they eat, breathe, sleep, do. And it's easy to take two steps back and laugh at that, because it's kind of ridiculous when you see it all the time around here in L.A., but we wanted to get close to it, we wanted to get inside of it, because there is something heroic about it. And there is something, you know, when everybody tells you no, you're nuts, and this guy charges ahead without anything to believe in other than his ability to make it so. No reason these guys should believe this, but they do. And you know what? They probably will be successful.
What audience did you have in mind? Did you want this show to be watched by people who are in it now and have their life reflected back at them? Or do you ever think if the whole thing implodes, I want people to look back at the show and see there was a chance it was going to collapse?
Evan: We want people to watch it and feel like their life is being reflected. There's satirical elements and we try to have a lot of fun on the show and we have ridiculous characters, and that gives you all kinds of room for comedy. But I just love being thrown in a world. Whether it's biker gangs or Baltimore drug corners. Or internet startups.
A lot of it is filmed in L.A., though?
Josh: Yeah, a lot of it is filmed in L.A. We have the accelerator, the bar, Mitchell's apartment, those are all sets that we'd actually shoot on here in L.A. And then we'd shoot occasionally outside in restaurants and things down here, but then we banged a couple of weeks that we could go up in San Francisco and shoot scenes from each episode, try to make it feel real.
Amazon shrewdly offered a free month of Prime, which is how I started watching the show. But it seems like people are discovering it in stages. Is that what you're seeing with the viewer numbers?
Evan: We aren't privy to any of the numbers, that's all internal at Amazon. But I do feel like there's a real exciting opportunity once all the episodes are up to have more viewers even discover it and binge watch it.
Josh: There are jokes and there are things that run through the entire show. Little runners that go all the way through that are best appreciated in a binge, because you'll actually see how it all strings together rather than have to wait week to week.
Right. Like every time Jon Daly's ex-wide gives out the bat signal for sex by playing Words with Friends.
Evan: Yeah, I broke up with a girl once and we kept playing Words with Friends for about three weeks, and it was my first realization of how terrible technology can be. Toxic post-breakup environment.
When you got started, no one else was exploring this in a fictional way. But now there's the Mike Judge show that's coming out. I have friends who are writing scripts about people in incubators and startups. Do you think that it will be just like another Wall Street, a cipher, a way to talk about the current moment in time?
Josh: It's such a prominent part of our culture, and it's such a blooming space that . . . I mean, you can never have too many cop shows. This is like the new office comedy, in some regard. It's funny: Silicon Valley, it's been on our radar for a long time. One of the first places we pitched this show was to HBO, and they liked what we came up with but they said they were doing something similar with Mike Judge. And we've been kind of waiting to find out what that was going to be. And where we shoot, in Culver City at Culver Studios, Mike and his production team moved in one floor below us. Of all the studio spaces in L.A., they were literally right below us. Their trailers, I could look out our window and see their trailers, their offices, we saw their actors walking around all the time, it was hilarious.
Now when you see news break, like a deposition video from the Snapchat lawsuit, do you just think of it as new material for potential B-plots?
Josh: Oh, yeah. It's all material.
Evan: We riffed on Snapchat a bit in episode 10. And I remember we were talking about how much money should be involved in these different buyouts and stuff. We would get in big fights about this. It was always like, your numbers are too high, nobody would offer that much. And then right after we finished shooting there was the big $3 billion cash offer to Snapchat. Which, frankly, is a very simplistic app. And it was like, wow, this is so much crazier than we could even imagine!
Josh: We did actually shoot that Snapchat scene in the house directly next door to the Snapchat house down here in Venice. We asked if we could use their house and they said no, so we were literally were shooting in the house next door with the Snapchat guys looking over the fence, watching us shoot basically a parody of them. It was pretty awesome.
The live Q&A part of this interview is now closed. Thanks so much for participating!