It’s said that the computer industry and the drug industry are the only ones that refer to their customers as “users.” And given this close connection, it makes sense to think that there might be a relationship between the business aspects of the two industries. Best practices, as it were.
Consequently, businesses could learn a lot from Breaking Bad about how to make fat stacks. If you think about it, Jesse and Walt’s saga — as we all wait for it to come to an end on Sunday, one way or another — is not a whole lot different that of from the standard startup (minus the shootings, decapitations, and bombs, of course). They developed a product, they had problems with their first distributor, tried to distribute it themselves, did badly, started dealing with a VC who hooked them up with a better distributor, but who tried to steal their ideas, and so on. Silicon Valley, transported to Albuquerque.
“A stock exchange reference might seem out of place on a show about an Albuquerque meth king, but Breaking Bad…has always focused on the financial rewards of breaking the law,” Bloomberg’s Ben Wasserstein writes. “Over the course of the series, Walt (played by Bryan Cranston), an overqualified, milquetoast chemistry teacher who began cooking meth to pay for lung cancer treatments, has built his drug operation into an international powerhouse. And through Walt’s increasingly unhinged management style, Breaking Bad creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan has offered a riveting critique of professional leadership.”
Even Warren Buffet is a fan.
That said, what can businesses learn from Breaking Bad?
- Creating a good product is art, and customers recognize a quality product: “In the case of Walt, apparently there was a need for 99% pure, crystal blue meth. Who knew?” writes Steve Strauss in USA Today. Without such a product, “Walt would have just been some middle-aged chemistry teacher cooking drugs in his skivvies in the middle of the desert,” writes Kelly Gurnett in Business Insider. And that ethic was passed on to his protégé Jesse, as well. When Jesse throws out a batch of meth because it’s cloudy and not up to his standards, saying “We’ll do it again ‘til we get it right,” or tells the cartel’s chemists they need to scrub down the lab first, he could just as well have been Apple’s Steve Jobs. Kingpin Gus, too, takes pride in craftsmanship; he takes meticulous care even with his fast-food restaurant and laundry. Not to mention Gale’s coffee. And while brother-in-law DEA agent Hank skates the edge of the law, he is also systematic about police procedure, such as getting an evidence bag for Tortuga’s head while his colleagues are still yucking it up, and carefully checking every Winnebago in the area.
- Pick your partners carefully, and be sure to keep them informed about what you’re doing: “While it’s unlikely that the man at the boardroom table is a deranged cold-blooded killer, it’s easy to get caught up with someone who doesn’t share the same ethics or goals as you do,” writes Ross Simmonds. And don’t forget working your own network. You never know when someone that, say, you went to high school with might have useful skills or talents.
- Build your company and personal brand: Walt didn’t do it on purpose, but by creating “blue meth,” which was not just extraordinarily pure but colored blue, he made it easy for customers to find his product. (Competitors even tried to imitate it by making their product blue.) He also developed his own reputation for being indispensable, by reminding people of and demonstrating his chemistry expertise in the meth vertical (to the extent that he was even advising strangers in Home Depot). Even though Gale was also a chemistry expert, he couldn’t match Walt’s experience in this particular industry. “White’s reputation, through his Heisenberg alter-ego, is that of a master chemist and ruthless drug lord,” writes Brian Solomon in Forbes. “Throughout Albuquerque, other dealers (and eventually the police) learn about this mysterious Heisenberg. They either want to work with him or get out of his way — and both serve to help White get ahead.”
- Know what motivates your employees: Certainly, Walt is motivated by money, his family, and his desire for respect. At the same time, when Gus gave him the lab, it was a great incentive for Walt, because he took pride in his craftsmanship as a chemist and he could see that the lab would allow him to do that. Jesse, on the other hand, was motivated by needing to have a purpose in life, which Gus worked on giving to him. Say what you will about Gus, but would that we all had a manager so interested in nurturing our personal development.
- Find your Saul: Every business, particularly startups, needs a Saul, a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy (or, as Outliers would put it, a Connector). ”Communities need glue,” writes James O’Connor, in the Babson College business school blog. “There are a lot of heads-down, hard working startupers who are too focused on shipping and are strapped for time when it comes to hitting the ‘be-seen’ events. In effect, they are the wall flowers at the middle school dance. Sometimes it takes a connector to refer the entrepreneur’s product or service to someone expressing a need.”
- Make sure your distribution channel and supply chain are set up properly: Walt and Jesse’s early problems had to do with not having a distribution channel (because they’d killed him), while the cartel couldn’t kill Gus because he was their distribution channel. And note how many of the characters’ challenges over the years had to do with either obtaining supplies or distributing the final product. Actually making the product was a relatively minor component, once the process was perfected.
- Remember work-life balance: Consistently blowing off family commitments (like, being there for the birth of your child) and, in particular, lying to your family isn’t going to end well. (Incidentally, did you know that although Walt is a drug-dealing murderer, it’s Skyler who gets the hate mail? And why doesn’t anyone ever complain that, Lydia aside, there’s not enough women in important positions in the drug trade?)
Finally, keep in mind that this show has given us all a new sense of perspective. The idea of a “bad boss,” “problem employee,” or “tough day at work” now has a much higher bar.
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