The trials and tribulations of startup companies make great television. Shows like Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire, and Silicon Valley have all made great drama or comedy out of the stress, chaos, and improvisation that comes along with building a business from scratch. But television has never provided a better example of a startup company than Walter White’s meth empire.
Breaking Bad, the drama that ran on AMC from 2008 through 2013, chronicled the rise and fall of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, upon learning he had cancer and would be unable to pay for treatments, used his scientific skills to become the best crystal methamphetamine cook in the southwest. The series was one of the most watched TV shows ever, and won critical acclaim as one of the best shows of all time.
Alfred Poor, a speaker and freelance business writer, also believes Breaking Bad is rich in lessons for startup businesses. White, who built a drug empire under the nom-de-meth Heisenberg, provides many examples of what to do, and especially what not to do, when running a business. Poor will give his speech about the business lessons of Breaking Bad On Saturday, March 19, at 12:25 p.m. at the Trenton Computer Festival (TCF).
Poor speaks from his long experience covering technology startups as a journalist (as well as from being a Breaking Bad fan.) He grew up in Maryland, where his father was an aeronautical engineer. He was fascinated by computers as a child, and although he studied biology at Harvard, he found his way into the tech industry by roundabout means. His second job out of college was at a school where he used a brand-new tool called a “spreadsheet” to revolutionize the way the district did things. Poor has been a freelance technology writer for more than 30 years, having gotten a byline in PC Magazine as early as its second issue.
“When it comes to startups and entrepreneurs and what works and what doesn’t, I’ve seen a lot of the history of the technology industry,” he says. The lessons of Breaking Bad:
Choose your partners wisely. Poor’s advice applies generally, but takes on a double meaning for Breaking Bad fans. For example, one of his tips refers to Gus Fring, a buttoned-down fast food franchise owner whose dealings with Heisenberg ended badly.
“When you are working with other partners who are helping fund your company, you have to be careful about the alliances you make, because you don’t want your partners to be in a position to lose face,” Poor said.
Hires of convenience need not be permanent. Startups often face the dilemma of having to staff up quickly, but not having a lot of options for whom to hire. Many business owners turn to friends and relatives to fill important positions.
“A lot of people say never do that and always get the best person for the job. That’s lovely, but you can’t do that in the real world most of the time,” Poor says. When he was just starting out, Walter White hired local slackers Badger and Skinny Pete to distribute his product. They were good enough to get the job done, but as Heisenberg became a drug kingpin, he needed a more sophisticated distribution network, and built one. The street corner dirtbags got left behind.
“As your business grows, those targets of opportunity may not be right for the company as you grow,” Poor says.
Have a complete business plan: Walter White’s product, an exceptionally potent form of meth called Sky Blue, was second to none. But because of his haphazard approach to business planning, other aspects of it suffered. As he raked in cash, he soon found that he had no way to spend it without attracting the attention of law enforcement.
Although money laundering won’t be of concern for most startups, it illustrates the point that having a great product is not enough to have a great business. “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will not beat a path to your door, because the market has to know about it,” Poor says. “Coming up with a good idea is not enough for success.”
Poor says that it’s possible to go online and research business plans and use a template. Most important is to understand what you know and what you don’t know, and to make plans for covering things you’re not good at.
Don’t spend money you don’t have: Walter White’s first meth lab was a beat-up old mobile home that he drove out into the middle of the desert. More advanced facilities came later. “Initially, the Winnebago was enough,” Poor says. “It wasn’t impressive. There was no status symbol involved with it,” Poor said.
Poor says startups should follow Heisenberg’s example and be satisfied with a garage or some other cheap workspace rather than a fancy space with basketball courts and amenities. “Don’t saddle yourself with a lot of unnecessary expenses and investments that are not going to get you closer to your goal,” he said.
Branding is king: Blue Sky was a recognizable brand, but Heisenberg intimidated rivals by cultivating a remarkable appearance. His gaunt scowl, a porkpie hat, and shades were a recognizable trademark. Startups should likewise strive to stand out.
“You have got to maintain the brand and you have to promote it and help it grow.”