Reality Show Project Seeks to Capture MassChallenge Competitors in Their Entrepreneurial Element

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Pick an activity, an industry, or a social phenomenon and there’s probably a reality show about it, from fashion design to wilderness survival to the nightlife of 20-somethings in shore towns.

But Warren Anderson, a local entrepreneur and Harvard Extension School master’s student, can name one area that he says hasn’t been depicted by the television genre in as much depth.

“There’s really nothing that covers the story of entrepreneurs, from what they go through from idea to IPO,” he says. His idea is to document the MassChallenge startup competition, which is run by the nonprofit of the same name and has attracted funding from the state of Massachusetts and a host of big names in technology and innovation.

In some ways MassChallenge, which is in the middle of its inaugural competition, has many of the ingredients of entertaining reality TV, a lá business competition show The Apprentice. There are more than 100 teams of entrepreneurs competing over the ideas they’re most passionate about, with the hopes of scoring cash to help make their dreams a reality (which bears some resemblance to Project Greenlight, the show produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck where aspiring film-makers tried to get their work to the big screen). It’s all happening in close quarters (side-by-side cubicles) in the 14th floor of a new building in Boston’s seaport neighborhood—what Mayor Thomas Menino has dubbed the city’s “innovation district.” Many of the walls within have been converted to floor-to-ceiling dry-erase boards for mapping out ideas, thanks to the painting technology from another area startup, IdeaPaint.

There’s been talk that some of the MassChallenge contestants have slept at their desks while searching for housing in the Boston area, which is just the type of anecdote Anderson is hoping to capture with a show. “The mission is to make it as entertaining and informative as possible,” Anderson says of the project, which is tentatively titled The Startup. He’s formed a production company called Trep Studios (taken from the middle letters in the word entrepreneur) to power the media endeavor.

RealityStudioThe TV show effort is still in its early stages, but Anderson is hoping to have the production wrapped up next spring, with some follow-up coverage of the competition’s top performers. His plan is to assemble the footage into an hour-long documentary or pilot episode for what could end up being a bigger production in future years of the competition, he says.

Anderson’s hope is to use the footage to help raise funding for future competitions, and to help coach entrepreneurs on their media presence. “There’s a lot of opportunity to capture what’s going on here and use that as a leverage point to promote the city of Boston and the entrepreneurs in the competition,” says Anderson.

As far as footage goes, Anderson—whose cleantech-focused software startup Nimbo didn’t quite make it into the MassChallenge workspace—is trying to capture companies in action as they develop products and vie for top slots in the competition. His aim is for startups to invite camera crews into meetings that they think portray the entrepreneurial process.

“Building trust is a big thing,” he says. “We hope to be as nimble as possible.” He has also set up areas where entrepreneurs can give longer, monologue-style interviews with the cameras, which to me resemble the confessional booths from MTV’s Real World reality show series, just with greater lighting challenges. (The 14th floor of the Fan Pier building is wrapped with floor-to-ceiling windows).

Anderson says he’s looking to avoid the big-studio vibe for the show, and instead market the finished product virally (think YouTube). “Spreading virally keeps us in the startup mode,” he says. Speaking of startup mode, Anderson is bootstrapping the show’s production, and bringing on local students to help with the project. “That’s the beauty of this,” he says. “We’re scratching and trying to make it work like anyone else.”

Once he rolls out the content from this year’s MassChallenge competition, he’s planning to get even more on the ground with capturing the process from start to finish next year. He’s hoping to add cameras and capture more of the startup storyline. He’s even looking into the possibility of 24-hour taping, potentially powered by high-resolution security cameras.

“The storyline really is a day-to-day thing,” Anderson says. “We just happen to be there when it happens.”

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