Startup Woes

Columbia Business School Student Pens a Cautionary Fable of ‘Drugs, Sex and C++’

"The Anorexic Startup" wryly warns us against the perils of Startupland.
11 Columbia Business School Student Pens a Cautionary Fable of Drugs, Sex and C++

The wistful-looking Mr. Frankel. (Facebook)

We’ve all heard of the lean startup, but what about the “The Anorexic Startup?” Shockingly, it’s not a new incubator or accelerator program–it’s actually a short story written by Columbia Business Student Mike Frankel that serves as a humorous warning tale for anyone in New York looking to build their own startup.

We caught the story on Reddit yesterday and were skeptical about it–how interesting can a short story with a pervasive Aesop-type moral really be? But we were actually pleasantly surprised, and found ourselves chuckling aloud while reading it. The PDF is available for free under a Creative Commons license on Mr. Frankel’s website.

The plot goes like this: our lowly protagonist decides to build an iPhone app called “SoreGoggles” that allows your camera to detect and define STD-related sores and bumps on your skin (really). Super gross, yes, but the whole concept of the app–the fact that it’s outrageous but not so outrageous that a few enterprising app builders didn’t genuinely think “hmmm” upon reading–is kind of the point. Have you seen some of the apps in the iTunes store? Or in Google Play, for that matter.

The protagonist goes through the ups and downs of building a successful app, and the story even goes so far as to include screenshots of fake Gizmodo reviews, as well as a shot of the protagonist’s inbox packed with fake emails from Fred Wilson, David Cohen, et. al. The ending moral is kind of ham-fisted–“If
-I-
had-
focused-
on-
the-
product-
more
-than
-the-
business,-
than-
I-
would-
have-
installed-
the-
right-
safety-
features-
and-
none
-of-
this-
would-
have-
happened”–but the story nonetheless is a wry parody of the vaguely absurd machinations of New York’s modern day startup scene.

We hopped on the phone with Mr. Frankel–whose last day at Columbia is apparently today–to talk about why he decided to write “The Anorexic Startup.”

“I’ve seen situations where VCs are just jumping on a bandwagon and playing like it’s Monopoly money,” said Mr. Frankel. “And I’ve seen funds put together where it’s like, ‘Let’s try to get nine companies into this incubator and see what happens,’ and there’s no analysis behind it. There’s this element of people jumping on news stories and hype–‘Let’s see what people are talking about, let’s not even look at the product itself and let’s invest.'”

Mr. Frankel said he also wanted to show how quickly the tech industry moves, and how easy it is for someone with no experience to get sucked into the whirlwind. Of course, he also wanted to emphasize the funny side of the industry, and “The Anorexic Startup” is peppered with equal parts insight and humor.

With business school behind him, Mr. Frankel is focusing on a series of projects revolving around music, like Wreckroom.TV, a music web series.

“I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I can’t get away from it no matter how much I try to warn myself that it’s a dangerous game,” he added.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com