hen real estate mogul, entrepreneur and fractious Republican candidate Donald Trump launched “The Apprentice”, the reality TV series grabbed public interest by simulating the high-stakes roller-coaster ride of doing business in the U.S.
That was in 2004, when it was still cool to be handed the keys to a corner office in a major corporation. Now, more than a decade later, that concept loses some of its sheen. The entrepreneurs we admire most today are the ones that turned their backs on the behemoths in order to build their own companies from the ground up. In keeping with the times, reality TV has a new darling: startups. From ABC’s wildly popular “Shark Tank” and its off-shoots to Bravo’s less successful “Silicon Valley,” geeks have never been cooler.
This week marked the premiere of “Startup U”, a slice-of-life documentary series that follows a group of entrepreneurial millennials as they test their mettle at Draper University in Silicon Valley. Cast members of this ABC Family show enjoy the perks and suffer the perils of honing their ideas under the watchful eyes of successful business leaders, led by billionaire founder and venture capitalist Tim Draper, known for making dramatic statements such as jumping into a pool fully clothed to make a point. At the end, they pitch their ideas “Shark Tank”-style to a panel of potential investors, hoping to fund their dream business.
Florida native John Frye is among the students featured in “Startup U”. The youngest in his cohort, John fell in love with technology entrepreneurship at the age of 13 when he was given his first Mac computer. We caught up with John to hear about his experience and what he’s learned about turning business ideas into real companies.
BeyondMVP: What kind of path led you to Draper University?
John Frye: There were definitely some ups and downs. During the winter I moved to San Jose to save money – and ended up running out of money. Funnily enough, I was actually trying to flip cars that I bought at a police auction… My bank account hit zero and I had to call my parents to help bail me out. I was about to quit. I booked a plane ticket to Florida. The day I booked that flight, that same evening I got the call saying I was on the show. Just in the nick of time.
BMVP: You’ve tried out a number of different business ideas in the past. How did you settle on the StudyBetter app as the one to pursue?
JF: The app actually started out as StudySpots. When I was a senior in high school, I had the thought, “Why isn’t there a way to find cool places to study – like under a tree, or somewhere nice.” I lived in a kind of medium-sized town, so there weren’t a lot of cool places to go and study outside the house. And that evolved gradually. I did a bunch of surveys and realized that people don’t necessarily want to find a place to study – they want help with their motivation and they want money.
So the combination of those turned into StudyBetter, which is a way to incentivize students by betting against themselves. As long as they study when, where, and how they say on the app, they’ll get paid. If not, they’ll get charged.
BMVP: Are there any high points or low points from the show that really stuck with you?
JF: There are some moments when I’m doubted and challenged by people I really look up to on the show. That was really hard. People will be able to see what it takes, really. People will doubt you in your dreams. People will think you’re not an entrepreneur. But you just kind of have to keep going no matter what, and eventually you’ll come out on the other side.
In terms of positive things, I’ve learned so much from [the other contestants]. Definitely to lean on other people. When you’re in a place like Silicon Valley, you’re really just fighting against all odds to make your startup a success. To lean on other people and take their advice, and vice-versa. Whenever someone needs assistance – or even if they’re not asking for it – you should give it. That’s what’s so magical about this place. There’s this constant circle of people trying to help one another, and that’s really what boosts startups that may or may not make it without that kind of collaborative ecosystem.
BMVP: Based on what you’ve seen and learned throughout this experience, what do you think are the most important traits of an entrepreneur?
JF: Of course, there are many different flavors of being an entrepreneur, but I would say it’s being resourceful. Lots of entrepreneurs say, “Oh, I’ve got this really great idea, let me go and raise a million dollars”. But in my opinion, you should see if you can launch without any money. You should see if you can find a place to live for free, or really cheap… One question that always works for me in terms of being resourceful is, “How can I do this for free?” I think if entrepreneurs ask themselves that question, they can get a lot further, without having to give up so much equity or waste time on fundraising.
Startup U airs on ABC Family on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo Credit: ©PHOTOGRAPHER/ABC FAMILY