Monday, September 16, 2013

Lesson #154: Entrepreneurial Lessons from "Breaking Bad"

Posted By: George Deeb - 9/16/2013


& Comment

Breaking Bad on AMC is one of my favorite television shows of all time.  With the series ending this month, I figured I would honor the show with a case study of some key entrepreneurial lessons therein.  And, no, I won't be advocating you all start dealing drugs to make your fortunes!!  But, I think the show itself, and its main characters, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul), provide some interesting lessons for entrepreneurs worth sharing.
When the producers of Breaking Bad first pitched the show to the networks, they were met with a lot of strange looks.  "Are you kidding me, a show about a high school chemistry teacher turned drug dealer", must surely have been their reaction.  But, with 42 Emmy nominations (and 10 wins) since the show launched in 2008, it is safe to say the risk takers at AMC, have seen a healthy ROI on this venture investment.
But, why did it work, from a startup's perspective?  It worked because it was a fresh idea in the entertainment market, and filled a big void with consumers.  It wasn't another hospital, lawyer or police drama, which we have seen scores of times in the past.  It was interesting subject matter we had never seen before.  More importantly, I can't think of another example of a show that evolves the sympathetic, cancer-fighting main character hero, into a power-hungry, money-grubbing anti-hero over five seasons.  That was the equivalent of evolving Batman into the Joker!!  And, it felt more like a 62 hour movie, with the brilliant writing and acting, than it did a typical television series.  So, a heavily demanded, innovative product is going to win every time.
Back in Lesson #31, I wrote about the power of making a pivot and thinking out of the box for getting startups onto the right course.  Walter White is the perfect case study in the power of making a pivot.  He took his skills as a chemistry expert, and instead of applying them as a high school chemistry teacher, where he made a modest annual salary, he began to use them in the production of crystal meth, in building an $80MM net profit business in two years.
I know, a bad example because he broke the law and endangered many people in the process.  But, the point here for entrepreneurs is: are you best using your assets or skills?  If not, point them in a new direction, where higher ROIs can be realized.  That could be shifting focus from B2C to B2B applications, or shifting from corporate to government clients, or selling into the healthcare industry instead of the financial industry, or whatever that can best leverage your assets and open up the biggest market for your business.
But, what made Walter White's crystal meth particularly well-demanded was: (i) its highest premium grade quality which he acheived as a chemistry expert (and the better results it provided to his customers); and (ii) its unique blue coloring in the market, which made it stand out from all the clear product available on the street.  So, as a startup looking to break through the clutter of similar products out there, figure out what is going to be your unique competitive advantage (in this case highest quality which could demand highest prices).  And, figure out how to uniquely position your product in the market that will get your customers saying "I want the blue stuff".
Talk about strange bedfellows partnering up to start a business.  On one hand, you have Walter White, the straight-laced high school chemistry teacher and family man.  And, the other hand, you have Jesse Pinkman, his drug-addict former student and lone wolf.  And, from a different perspective, you have an all-controlling Walter White, who basically uses Jesse Pinkman as his errand-running assistant, and not as an equally-contributing or respected partner to the business.  Not only was their business literally toxic, so was their working relationship.  It is no wonder, the relations between Walter and Jesse become strained overtime, putting both the business and their personal relationships to the test numerous times over the years.
When picking a co-founder for your startup, make sure you are both bringing something of value to the business (e.g., marketing skills or technology skills), and are both respected on equal footing.  Otherwise, you are teeing yourself up for failure, or an ugly transition down the road.

So, for all you Breaking Bad fans out there, I hope you enjoyed this unique look at the show from an entrepreneurial perspective.   Thank you Breaking Bad for the inspiration here, you will surely be missed.
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