Auditioning for a spot on a reality show requires several elements: nerves of steel, an acceptance that humiliation may be imminent, and the willingness to venture into the unknown in front of (potentially) millions of viewers.
But auditioning for a spot on the first season of a brand new reality show by Apple is a leap of faith that requires courage on a different level: With no other seasons to watch for context, contestants had absolutely no idea what kind of madness they were heading into.
"It was definitely a whirlwind," Lexie Ernst told Refinery29. "We had been working in our basements in in our parents' homes, then found out we were flying to LA."
Ernst and her partner Jake Wayne are two of the contestants featured in the first episode of Apple's Planet Of The Apps. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
The new reality show premiered on Apple Music last night. It puts app developers through three stages. First, there's the initial "escalator pitch" to judges Gwyneth Paltrow, Will.i.am, Jessica Alba, and Gary Vaynerchuk. Contestants who impress the celebs move on to six weeks of mentorship before a final pitch to venture capital fund Lightspeed.
The stakes are huge. Developers on the show can attract investors and raise millions of dollars in funding for their apps. That's not to mention the major Apple exposure through prime placement on the App Store. If you watched the first episode of the show, you know that Wayne and Ernst not only successfully present their app Companion and earn mentorship with Vaynerchuk; they are also the only contestants on the episode to get Lightspeed funding — $1 million of it.
Wayne and Ernst's backstory is sweet — the two friends are both 23, and they became close during high school before going on to attend the University of Michigan together. After their sophomore year, they took a coding bootcamp, where their idea for Companion came to fruition.
"On the University of Michigan campus you would receive crime alerts and emails about really scary things," Ernst told Refinery29. "We would be on a street corner and get an email ten minutes later saying there had been an assault there. We felt like as students we had no way to be proactive."
Companion, an "on-demand personal security solution," is that proactive step. The app allows anyone to connect with a buddy — either a family member, friend, or, through an upcoming premium subscription, a member of the Companion team — who will be able to track them and ensure they reach their destination safely. The app could have a major impact on college campuses as well as in urban areas.
Wayne and Ernst found out about Planet Of The Apps through one of their University of Michigan professors, who had been contacted about the show's search for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Once the two friends learned they would be making an initial pitch to the judges, they worked around the clock to perfect their 60-second presentation. What they weren't told was that they'd be delivering it on an actual escalator.
"We didn't know it was an escalator pitch until the day before," Wayne said to Refinery29. "Moving and talking sounds like it will be easy, but it threw a wrench in our plans." He and Ernst spent the rest of that day before filming walking and pitching in sync, around their hotel room.
Staying calm under pressure served them well at multiple points during the show's filming. Shortly after securing Vaynerchuk as a mentor, Wayne and Ernst were forced to change many of Companion's initial features when Google unveiled a similar tool.
“The hardest part was altering our pitch and pivoting so quickly," Ernst said. "We were under a major time constraint, and had to constantly refine our mission and end goal in order to get our vision ready for the Lightspeed pitch."
For Wayne, that pitch was the most nerve wracking part of the show: "Between the pitch and decision there was a deliberation time where we left the room,. In that span of time you think of all the worst things that can happen."
Lightspeed's deliberation process is not shown in the episode, but Wayne tells us that the decision was made in just 15 minutes. Pitch day turned out to be a win-win: The two secured funding on what was also, coincidentally, Ernst's birthday.
Since filming wrapped in February, Ernst and Wayne have packed up their belongings and moved the Companion operations to New York City, where they're in the process of building out a team. Now that their episode has finally aired, they'll get to experience first-hand the kind of impact global Apple exposure will have on their app and business.