With a new season of Silicon Valley underway, here is a look at the top television shows and movies about startups and entrepreneurs, including successes, failures, and just plain silliness.
Startups are built on lofty but ambitions, and for that reason they have captured the imagination of filmmakers for decades. The plot is difficult to resist: visionary ideas are taken from precarious beginnings in a garage to a crummy shared office space and sometimes, in the rarest cases, to a multinational headquarters.
The following 13 TV shows, films, and documentaries all contain big stories: PC revolutions, moonshots, disrupted industries, genius founders, successful exits, and painful failures. With a new season of HBO’s Silicon Valley underway, we thought it’d be useful to catalog more TV shows and films about startups.
Each entry — listed in reverse chronological order — was chosen because it contains valuable lessons, common pitfalls, and at least a bit of inspiration for anyone working in the startup space. If we missed some that are worth watching, please let us know in the comments.
Steve Jobs (2015)
“I sat in a garage with Wozniak and invented the future, because artists lead, and hacks ask for a show of hands.” – Steve Jobs
Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs may end up as the most memorable (although definitely not the most authoritative) portrayal of a larger than life character who fathered the Mac, iPod, and iPhone, turned Apple into the most valuable company in the world, came to define the role of the present-day tech CEO, and pioneered now-tired Silicon Valley tropes such as the product release keynote.
Not to mention, there’s also the irresistible storyline of Steve Jobs’ return to Apple after being pushed out years before, and saving it from bankruptcy. Starring Michael Fassbender as the title character, the movie both questions and endorses the myth of Steve Jobs and the tech industry’s version of revolutionary capitalism.
Halt and Catch Fire (2014- )
“You know this would happen, though. It’s all part of the plan. Tell me you have a plan, Joe.” – Gordon Clark
The 1980s does not look glamorous in Halt and Catch Fire, a cinematic period drama set in the early, rough-and-tumble days of the personal computer. The fictional AMC series uses the biggest technology revolution in history as a backdrop for the small, personal stories of hustler/salesman Joe MacMillan, engineer Gordon Clark, and developer Cameron Howe.
Central to the series is the drive that leads these brilliant people to take Cardiff Electric, a middling Texas tech company, up against the seemingly unstoppable Big Blue. In later seasons, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) starts her own gaming and chat-room company, Mutiny, our of a rented home in Dallas. It’s an early version of dial-up services such as Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL.
Silicon Valley (2014- )
“Between us, our beta crapped out. Our VCs did a full clawback and our series A is DOA. We’re going down. We have enough runway for two, maybe three weeks max. So … do you guys think you can hire me?” – Unnamed startup founder
Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley hits a little too close to home. The critically-acclaimed and popular satirical HBO series follows Pied Piper, a startup based on an revolutionary data-compression algorithm, from its infancy in a split-level suburban “incubator” to a TechCrunch Disrupt brawl to a debutante at the VC ball. With story lines and characters ripped right from the tech blogs, Silicon Valley captures the absurdity of the current startup moment like no other show on television, all the way down to the hilariously vulgar NSFW conversation that led to the technological breakthrough behind Pied Piper.
Crocodile in the Yangtze (2012)
“We started a technology revolution, a thought revolution.” – Jack Ma
“I think it’s very important to enter the international market. If one day we turn on the computer and everything on it is foreign, then it will be too late and we will regret it,” said Alibaba founder Jack Ma in 1995. Crocodile in the Yangtze is not just the story of Alibaba, but the story of China’s economic revolution, and its impact on the world. The engrossing “docu-memoir,” narrated by Alibaba former marketing VP Porter Erisman, follows Jack Ma, Alibaba’s enigmatic CEO as he takes the company from his apartment to a US IPO of over $25 billion. Along the way, Ma navigates bureaucrats, burst tech bubbles, and competition from eBay, dreaming big at every step.
The Startup Kids (2012)
“You’re always kind of just on the edge of your comfort zone, and everything you’re doing is basically something you’re just barely qualified for or not qualified for.”
The Startup Kids is a documentary centered on interviews with young tech founders, including the founders of Vimeo, Dropbox, Soundcloud, Debito, and xsmoke. Founders relate the stories of inspiration and drive that allowed them to build creative and impactful businesses at an unusually young age. Often, the young founders are following a personal obsession as far as it will take them. Some of the information about funding and technological obstacles will seem simplistic to many viewers. But on the other hand the documentary is appropriate for family viewing, as it doesn’t get very far in the weeds.
The Social Network (2010)
“If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” – Mark Zuckerberg
The Social Network could not follow a more perfect arc if it were totally fictional. Perhaps some of it is, as Aaron Sorkin took a number of creative liberties with the story of Facebook’s founding. The result is an engaging and memorable film that shows the complex and driven Mark Zuckerberg take Facebook from a sexist algorithm written on a window to the vanguard of the social graph. Particularly memorable is a scene in which Mark finally cuts his teary-eyed friend and co-founder loose saying, “You’re gonna blame me because you were the business head of the company and you made a bad business deal with your own company?”
Something Ventured (2011)
“‘Dad, what do you do actually?’” – Pitch Johnson
This documentary uses interviews and historical documents to trace modern venture capital from its roots in San Francisco coffee shops in the 1950s through the PC revolution of the 1980s. Something Ventured was largely funded by many of the VCs that appear in the film, and its highly positive message reflects that. VCs are shown flatteringly as intrepid navigators or risk, adventure, innovation, and reward.
Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)
“For the car companies there were only two options; comply with the law or fight it. In the end, they would do both.” – Narrator
In 1996, General Motors released the EV1 to select customers in California and Arizona. Other automakers followed. Despite initial interest, electric cars never reached wide distribution. Who Killed the Electric Car? is a slick, Martin Sheen-narrated documentary that examines each suspect, in turn: consumer demand, technological limitations, oil and car companies, as well as the second Bush administration. The movie portrays an industry unable to innovate and disrupt from within.
Startup dot com (2001)
“As they try to consolidate leadership with one CEO I become more and more of a problem.” – Tom Herman
“The issue with Tom will work itself out. What’s happening in the company is we have flat revenues, we have bloated infrastructure, we have a sales cycle that’s much longer than anticipated, we have implementation processes that are more complex, we don’t have a clear path to cash yet.” – Kaleil Isaza Tuzman
Startup.com shows govWorks.com from its founding to its demise. With intimate access to the company’s two founders, Kaleil and Tom, the filmmakers provide an excellent post-mortem on the challenges and pitfalls of a startup at every stage. Watching Kaleil deal with the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts difficulties that face many CEOs as their company grows is an educational and cautionary story. It’s a nice balance to the hagiography of some of the other shows and films on this list. This is the same spirit that animates our 156 Startup Post-Mortems list.
“This is about big companies and big bets.” – Joseph Park
Released in 2001, e-Dreams is a documentary following Kozmo.com, an online store offering rapid delivery of online purchases. In one painful scene, the filmmakers show founder Joseph Park discussing the pursuit of $100M+ fund-raising rounds while his bike messengers are unable to get their paychecks on time. Kozmo raised over $250M before collapsing. e-Dreams’ relevance has only increased in recent years as another generation of on-demand startups have burned through capital and struggled to attain viable unit economics, even as funding and deals to the category slump.
Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
“Those guys think they’re revolutionaries. They’re not revolutionaries. We are.” – Steve Jobs
Pirates of Silicon Valley is a semi-historical depiction of the famous rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates over three Shakespearean acts. The first covers Jobs’ and Wozniak’s formative years in early-1970s UC Berkeley and Gates’ and Ballmer’s early years at Harvard. The second act of the film covers the revolutionary development of the PC and the fall of Jobs at Apple in the mid-1980s. Finally, the film shows Jobs’ return and a new alliance with Gates and Microsoft that was announced in the late 90s. To a contemporary viewer, the film’s absence of a 4th act is notable, one where the iPod and iPhone help Apple supplant Microsoft’s tech supremacy.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
“In five years we’re going to put the big three out of business.” – Preston Tucker
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Tucker: The Man and His Dream follows the upbeat title character, Preston Tucker, as he attempts to create a better, safer automobile in the late 1940s. Like many entries on the list, the film is about a man with a vision he won’t give up on. Ultimately, however, Tucker’s experience ends up looking a lot like Who Killed the Electric Car? as Tucker runs up against the incumbent Detroit auto manufacturers and political authorities who conspire to kill his revolutionary vehicle.
The Right Stuff (1983)
“Sounds dangerous. Count me in.” – Alan Shepard
Moonshots are called moonshots for a reason. NASA’s drive to get a man in space and on the moon is arguably the most ambitious tech startup ever. Strapping men to an explosion-fueled rocket and pointing it toward the sky sounded like as bad of an idea in the 1950s as it does today. The Right Stuff portrays much of what a startup is about: extreme risk, the sacrifice of the individual for the larger mission, and the ultimately inexplicable drive to push the envelope. The legacy of The Right Stuff continues today, with companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic taking their own moonshots.
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