We talk to Dre Koval, founder of Maybe Capital and the women behind the fictional man, Rick Powers. She tells us how she so ingeniously pranked the patriarchy in a fun and creative way. Here is a little bit of our conversation:
SZ :: What is your background?
DK :: I’m a professional working in San Francisco, and I work in creative strategy and marketing for early stage start-ups. As the Cannes Lions first American Geek, I helped create the Innovation Lions, which is the technology and data side of the Cannes Lions festival. I was responsible for bringing Venture Capital firms and startups there in high numbers for the first time as well as carrying out large experiential advertising projects with big technology partners, like Twitter’s 3D mapped Billboard. I’m originally from New Jersey and before San Francisco I was in a band in Seattle called Edison Orange (named after Thomas Edison’s lab in East Orange, NJ where he invented the photograph – the first way that people recorded music. #nerd)
SZ :: You mentioned that this prank turned into an art project. Was it for school?
DK :: No, it wasn’t for a school project. It started as a joke amongst my friends and the more jokes and pranks we did, the more it felt like something I could turn into a material art product. Maybe Capital started as a joke between friends who I would get together with at happy hours and go over the tech news of the day – there’s always news of a ridiculous company that gets millions of dollars in funding to basically just make an app or a product that is completely unnecessary…raw water, an app that can only say the word “yo”.. I’m sure you’ve heard of Jucero? Jucero was a company that created an incredibly expensive blender and after it launched everyone was like, “wait, so the fruit comes in a bag that you have to smash yourself and Then use the blender??”
There is no lack of ridiculous startups, and my friends and I are all professionals working in tech here in the city, so it’s a delight to run into people that work in tech or investment and pitch them fake companies. After we “officially” created Maybe Capital, a fake venture capital firm, we started applying to conferences to speak, where we would talk nonsense, but in just the right silicon-valley-speak with just the right amount of buzz words to be believed. I had the idea that this fun prank would make a good party game, so I created Maybe Capital the boardgame.
SZ :: What inspired/motivated you to pull off this ‘prank on the patriarchy’?
DK :: Working in Silicon Valley as a woman is draining and demanding. It’s now well known that sexism is rampant here in the valley, and I have personally experienced some very inappropriate behavior from powerful men. I’ve been in investment meetings as part of the team of a startup where I was ignored and/or assumed to be the EA because I was the only woman or because I was wearing a dress, and then asked out after the meeting. I’ve been inappropriately hugged and talked to in a sexual manner from my male superiors, and I was even asked once by a boss to hire him an escort while he was in town. Silicon Valley promotes itself as the capital of Innovation and new kinds of thinking, but the persistence of traditional and antiquated social behaviors is remarkable. Because I’m not an angry person, I take out my frustrations through art and humor and last year I needed a way to focus all the things I’d experienced into a project. I believe that humor is a powerful way to talk about problems and invite everyone to the conversation. Satire in particular is great at that, and one of my favorite quotes by Alberto Giacometti is:“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.”
SZ :: Did you work on the project on your own?
DK :: My friends and “board members” of Maybe Capital helped by play-testing the boardgame and by helping me make a kickstarter video. My good friend Anya was my partner for the kickstarter campaign, and even agreed to do a little guerrilla marketing with me. We dressed up in unicorn costumes (Unicorn is the name for a company that gets a billion dollar evaluation) and would walk around to popular places in the city and give out million dollar bills, or we would go to a fancy club or coffee shop wearing the traditional VC outfit (patagonia vest with embroidered logo) and make it rain with million dollar bills. One time we even ran into Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and told him we wanted to invest in his next idea. We handed him a million dollar bill and he said, ‘oh, no thanks, I already have a million dollars.”
SZ :: You mentioned that you created a LinkedIn profile for Rick Powers. What was his background?
DK :: Rick Powers is completely made up. We made his name as ridiculous as possible to test and prank people. He’s got like 2000 linkedin connections now, and even though the description of himself and what he does is ridiculous, people want to know him because they assume he is a powerful white man.
Rick is a seed & early stage venture investor. Most recently he was at Unstructured Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s premier early stage venture funds. Prior to this, he has been an entrepreneur launching and building several successful companies. Among many, he was a founding team member at Liable and was responsible for launching and building the European start-up in the US (acquired by RazzleDazzle for $200M). Rick had a stint in NYC working in as a senior exec at Inc Corp, a fortune 100 company. He actively advises and mentors entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Finally he is ex-product guy (still recovering) and media commentator. Comments and opinion pieces have appeared in publications such as WSJ, Huffington Post, BBC, LA Times, Yahoo!, Ad Age, iMedia, eCommerce Times, Smart Money, FoxNews, MarketWatch, Technorati, MacWorld, Brand Republic, TechNewsWorld, ReadWriteWeb and VentureBeat.
One of the recommendations my friend made is particularly hilarious:
Rick is not a flim-flam man, Rick is a flim-flam giant. He may be one of the most disruptive, least hard-working people in the industry, and that’s saying a lot. I can’t say what I learned most from my time with Rick because we never physically met, and I am still bound by NDA, but I will always remember the impetuousness of his SMSes, the insouciance of his tumblr, and the raw, incredible fierceness of his Instagram DMs. If there a were a God besides Rick, I would say: God bless Rick Powers. Rather, Rick bless Rick Powers, and if you’re lucky, Rick bless You.
SZ :: Did people reach out to you on LinkedIn?
DK :: Yes, startups and networkers continue to link-in with Rick, and I receive regular invites to check out pitch decks and attend conferences.
The misalignment of power in silicon valley is astounding and depressing – Only about 8% of the top 100 venture firms have women partners and only about 16% of startups with women founders are able to get funding. I leave up Rick’s linkedin page because it is a small reminder that I am allowed to point out that these numbers are a really bad sign of an acceptance of terrible behavior.
SZ :: What type of meetings and conferences did you attend during the process of pulling off the prank?
DK :: The prank is sort of an ongoing thing, with Rick’s continued presence online, and more folks “joining the board” by buying a game and reading the satirical jokes about the problems in silicon valley. My favorite conference we spoke at was a small VR conference with tech leaders in which we spoke about End-Of-World Virtualized Financialized Infrastructure Investment Initiatives (or EOWVFIII for short).
SZ :: What were the outcomes?
DK :: I did manage to get a few actual tech leaders on board for the kickstarter, and we were published in Techcrunch and FastCompany. The kickstarter launch of the game was our main concentration, and we offered a price difference for women and men to account for the gender gap in pay. I also managed to get a few famous-ish friends on board to make the video. We were fully funded, and then the game was featured in Wired’s end of the year geek gifts to buy, so I was able to start a small business out of it and have been selling games from my website, www.maybe.capital
SZ :: Did anyone offer your firm any actual cash during the process of the prank?
DK :: No, I never accepted any cash, because I didn’t want to do anything actually illegal. 🙂 Rick is a part of a few consulting networks that regularly send him jobs, but we usually just reply that he has important business in Cabo or is scouting out the next unicorn over expensive sushi.
SZ :: When did you conceive of the board game? What lead up to its creation?
DK :: After we came up with the name Maybe Capital, I thought it would be fun to design a way for other people to play the same game my friends and I played informally over drinks – creating a pitch for a company out of 2 words in the form of “this” for “that”. I also wanted to accentuate the ridiculousness and the diversity issues of silicon valley, so the game also has Networking Cards from The Chief Innovation Officer at Maybe Capital that instruct the players to lose or gain money or investors. There are special cards based on some of the personalities here in the valley – Elon Musk has his own card that if you pick it up, you can announce a space lift-off at any time during the game and since it costs billions, all the other players have to give up 3 of their investors for you to waste on your next startup. Other special cards are “The Tech Douche” and “The Entitled White Man Privilege Card”. The rest of the cards give you a pretty good narrative of what it’s like to work here:
“Diversity Unicorn” You get to move anywhere on the board every turn because no one else knows what to do with you.
“You’ve been outted as a women. Every pitch you make is worth 2 million dollars less.”
“The dunk tank you install at your startup office is a big hit with your employees. Gain 2 millions”
“Your life coach sends you a passive aggressive email to tell you she’s giving up on you and it’s just signed “ugh”. You lose your last payment of 2 million dollars.”
I also wanted the actual game board to reflect a pretty accurate map of silicon vallley, so there are places you travel to like Twitter, Google, Menlo Park (where most VC firms are), Marin county (where you get to smoke pot with someone famous and get 5 million dollars), and there’s tons of small jokes on the board as well.
SZ :: Can you describe how the board game works in further detail?
DK :: Every player is an investor at Maybe Capital, and they are trying to get their portfolio of companies to Unicorn status. In order to gain status, they have to have enough investors and money to move up the levels of portfolio investment. The main mechanic is winning companies through the pitch rounds, where everyone picks up 2 company cards and must come up with an improvised pitch based on those 2 cards. (Hipster Scarves for Microsoft, Bitcoin Coconut Water, Uber for Artisanal Bread) This is the most fun part because everyone comes up with very silly ideas. The rest of the time you drive up and down the 101, landing on companies, investment meetings, and pitch rounds. At the end of the game, the winner gets to make it rain with all of their millions of dollars while the other players film her in slow motion. It is disruption at it’s finest. 🙂