Business Lessons from… Walter White
It’s that time of the month again, folks!…. no, not that. I got the lucky on the coin flip of gender and don’t have to deal with THAT! No, I mean it’s time for the monthly “Business Lessons from…” articles that I have a blast writing.
Today is an article about a protagonist that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, and have been obsessed with even longer. Walter White from Breaking Bad is probably one of the best developed characters I’ve ever seen on television, and every time I watch the series I find a new theme or motif that I just didn’t see before.
I. Love. This. Show.
And while I’m starting to get in the habit of taking business lessons from terrible people (I’m looking at you, Frank Underwood and Pablo Escobar), I still think that just because their terrible characters doesn’t mean we don’t stand to learn something from them. As long as it’s not “kill whoever is in your way” and “sell drugs”.
So let’s dig into what Mr. White can teach us about running a successful business.
Lesson #1: Make an excellent product that no one can compete with.
This is obviously A LOT easier said than done, but one of the major keys to Walt’s commercial success was that he had a technique that allowed him to make some of the, if not THE, purest meth in the world. Not that I’m an expert in meth at all, but the difference in the high between those few percentage points between 90% and 97% I guess really do count. And it was because of Walt’s certifiable genius that he was able to make such a “great” product.
So when you’re thinking of launching a business, do everything you can to create a product that no one can compete with. Maybe there is a recipe for cookies that involved an ingredient that only you can find/provide. Maybe you know how to code in a language that’s very difficult to understand, but allows you to make certain applications that others simply can’t. Maybe you’re a graphic artist and your style just happens to line up with what people are looking for in logo’s/design.
Whatever it is, it will obviously pay off to have a skill that no one else can do. Not only will it help you with sales if you really do have a unique sales proposition, but you’ll find, much like Walt, that eventually people will start coming to you for your product, at which point, you’ve really got it made.
Lesson #2: Don’t compete, if you can avoid it
SOMEWHAT SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!!!
I won’t spoil the entire show if you haven’t seen it yet, but Walter White is pretty famous for the ways he eliminates his competition. One of the ways that he’s able to amass such a huge amount of money is that he cuts out his competition and fills the vacuum he creates. Overall, it’s a pretty simple premise, but one that’s very complicated to execute. When done correctly (legally) it can make you really rich, really fast.
Now, unfortunately, there are safeguards put in place to prevent complete monopolies, but they still do exist to some degree. For example, when it comes to word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software, there really is no one else to speak of in the market except for Microsoft. If you want to have a cell phone, then your choices in the U.S. are Verizon, AT&T, TMobile, or Sprint. And one could argue that the last two don’t count because of how shoddy their reception and service is (though that’s just here-say, honestly). What about the countless car dealerships where there is one single owner for the each of the different brand they sell (Mazda, Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, VW, Volvo, Subaru, etc.)? You can literally find examples of these all over America.
I even heard of a story where a guy in a small town in Washington owned the only two contracting businesses in the small town, and people didn’t realize it. People would think they were shopping around when they got a quote from each business, but at the end of the day, the money made it to the same guys pocket all the same!
So, make like Walter White, and when you can avoid competition, be through great products or strong business tactics, do it!
Lesson #3: Start with a partner who does what you can’t.
I’ve said this about the most famous fictional couple of Washington, and I’ll say it again about Breaking Bad; having a partner is a great way to up your chances of business success. And what’s more, find someone who does what you can’t, or specializes in something that would require a gargantuan amount of effort.
In the case of Breaking Bad, Mr. White found his partner-in-crime in a former student who liked to punctuate with the word, “Bitch“, Jesse Pinkman. And while Pinkman really wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the box, he certainly knew a thing or two about drugs, having done many of them himself.
Jesse was able to provide the street-smarts to selling drugs that Walt, as a 50 year-old, white, highly over-qualified chemistry teacher just wasn’t going to be able to acquire. So when it came to the chemistry, Walt was the man. When it came to pushing the drugs, Jesse had the experience to actually help quite a bit.
And look pretty much anywhere, and you’ll find that success often happens to those in pairs, not just those who are solo. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Pablo Escobar y su primo Gustavo, Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, Mickie and Minnie Mouse, Ben and Jerry… the list goes on and on.
But one thing is for certain: success does tend to follow those who are in pairs, not flying solo. So when you want to start your venture, be sure to find a strong partner who does what you can’t.
Lesson #4 – Start Small. Dream Big.
One of the best lines from the entire show was when Walt was describing how terrible he felt when he was bought out of the business he helped found, Grey Matter Industries, Inc. This was a billion dollar company that he helped create, but wasn’t a part of. And when Jesse attempted to convince Walt to take a buyout and get out of the meth business, Walt responded with a great monologue that ended in him claiming, “I’m in the empire business.”
I love that mindset, though I must say he was slightly misguided in his choice of industry. But he’s got a great point: if you’re going to spend time thinking about anything, why wouldn’t you spend that time thinking BIG?
But that doesn’t mean that Walt only ever wanted to turn his enterprise into a giant commercial success, and be the only supplier of methamphetamine in the American Southwest. No, he started with some basic supplies and an RV. And a shit RV at that.
And while the RV was HIGHLY unreliable, and made for it’s own share of issues, it definitely did the job and allowed Walt to “get his feet wet” so to speak. And once he built up enough money and credibility, he was able to move onto bigger and better things. Like being a $15 million/year employee.
Eat THAT, Goldman Sachs.
Lesson #5 – Always be one step ahead.
Breaking Bad probably get’s to take home the award for “Biggest mind fuck ever shown on television.” I won’t give away the biggest turn in the series, but needless to say I don’t think many people saw it coming and it was AMAZEBALLS!
But with the result that this is probably the biggest lesson to be learned from the entire show: it pays to be one (or two, or three) steps ahead of your competition. In Walt’s case, because he was constantly thinking about Gus’ next move, or the DEA’s next move, he was able to stay ahead. At least, for a while.
Business really can be like a chess game. The actions you take in your business really are informed more by what your competition is doing than anything else. Think about touchscreen technology, or bluetooth capabilities, or even the proliferation of the avocado in pretty much every dish of food west of the Mississippi.
Adjusting to your competition is necessary; being a couple steps ahead will allow you to thrive.
Business Lessons from Walter White – The Wrap Up
So this is the 3rd installment of “Business Lessons from…” and I realize that I’ve written primarily about real and ficitonal character who perform numerous illegal acts just to get what they want. I promise next time, I’ll write about something a little softer…maybe Blue’s Clues….
But until then, here’s what we can learn from my favorite little meth manufacturer:
- Make an excellent product that no one can compete with- No one can argue with a product that creates it’s own demand. Well played, Mr. White.
- Don’t compete – Microsoft doesn’t. Google doesn’t. Standard Oil
doesn’tdidn’t. It’s a lot easier to make money when you’re the only person supplying the good.
- Start with a partner who does what you can’t – Someone who can keep you accountable is super valuable. Someone who can do what you can’t? Priceless.
- Start small – It’s great to have huge dreams and want to reach for the stars. But if you want to hit the stars, you have to start by putting out your hand. Start small, build a rep, then go for the gold.
- Always be one step ahead – Business can be a real chess game, and it never hurts to know what your competition is up to.
Alright, you’re up. Do you think there was anything else valuable to be taken from Breaking Bad? Do you think there was anything Walter White could have done to be more successful? What do you think the next installment of this series should be about?
Note: Bonus points if you suggest a 90’s show from Nickelodeon.
Keep trying to crack the code,