A combination of boredom and Netflix introduced the TV Show Breaking Bad into my life. The show is dark, gritty, and funny in an I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened sort of way. Season 5 was the very last season, and the show wrapped up a few days after it received the last of its 10 primetime Emmys—a well-deserved win for Outstanding Drama Series. If you haven’t seen it, the show is about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who decides to start cooking crystal meth to leave money for his family before he dies. Then, well, let’s just say it escalates quickly from there. As of the time of this post, all 5 seasons are on Netflix (minus the last 8 episodes), so head on over there and binge watch it first. I’ll see you in a week.
While I don’t endorse the manufacturing and selling of crystal meth (after watching the show, I don’t know why anyone would try), I did find a few lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from the show. It may seem kind of odd to use a show filled with drugs and murder as the catalyst for entrepreneurship, but hey, there are lessons all around us.
*Warning: Major spoilers ahead*
Lesson #1: Money isn’t everything
It is clear as the show goes on that the sacrifices Walt makes to earn his money are not worth it. In what seems like a typical entrepreneurship scenario, he dives into work and losses his entire family in the process. There is no work-life balance, and he’s doing it all in the hopes that it’ll all work out in the end.
At a defining moment in season 5, Skyler asks Walt, “How big does this pile need to get?” referring to an enormous pile of cash that she’s been storing in a warehouse because she can’t launder it fast enough. That scene was a stark reminder that no amount of cash can replace spending time with the ones you love.
Lesson #2: Work with the right partners
Whatever you’re trying to create or sell, you can’t do everything alone. Walt teams up with a number of people during the course of the show. Some are good, some are bad, but all of them are necessary to some part of the business. Let’s take a look at some of his partnerships:
Jesse Pinkman: Walt’s first partner and former student. He knows the streets and can get them initial access to distribution channels for their product (meth). Jesse essentially becomes Walt’s sidekick for the majority of the show.
Tuco Salamanca: A volatile dealer that can buy their stuff wholesale and at a regular interval. However, Tuco’s drug-fueled killing sprees mean that they risk being beaten to death at any time.
Saul Goodman: Here’s an early exchange between Saul and Walt.
Walter H. White: What are you offering me?
Saul Goodman: What did Tom Hagen do for Vito Corleone?
Walter H. White: I’m no Vito Corleone.
Saul Goodman: No Shit! Right now you’re Fredo!
Saul is one of those shady late-night infomercial lawyers that keeps the whole operation under the radar and looking legit in the eyes of the IRS. Like Jesse says, sometimes you don’t need a criminal lawyer, “you need a criminal lawyer.” Saul also connects them to new partners. I’m not saying that you should have someone shady on your team. I’m just saying that we all need a guy who knows a guy…who knows another guy.
Gus Fring: A smart and calculating dealer with extensive distribution channels that takes blue meth production and revenue to another level. The downside is that Walt’s loses the ability to profit, and essentially becomes Fring’s employee (ahem, with a tiny salary ranging from $750 thousand to $1 million a month). Eventually Walt has to kill Gus before Gus can kill him.
Skyler White: Walt’s wife becomes a reluctant partner in later seasons when she starts laundering his drug money through the car wash. Skyler’s motivation is fear, and that’s never a good motivation for a partner.
Lidia: Lidia opens up an overseas distribution channel that brings Walt an even bigger amount of money. Lidia is professional and meticulous, but always acting in self-interest.
Mike: Mike knows his way around the world of crime, and offers logistical protection, distribution, and security to Walt and Jesse’s operation.
Todd: Todd has neither the experience nor the loyalty to last for the long-term, but serves as an intermediate cooking partner when Jesse leaves. Todd and his uncle Jack start their own meth operation when Walt is on the run, and enslave Jesse so he can cook them a higher-purity meth.
Jack and his gang: Walt teams up with Jack and his gang of neo-nazis to do a massive hit job in jail. His partnership with Jack backfires later when they turn on Walt, kill Hank and Gomie, and steal most of his money.
Without most of these partnerships, Walt’s meth operation would have been a failure. Notice that Walt’s partnerships get worse as the consequences of his actions start catching up to him.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that the right partners have skills that you don’t have, and working with them can help you greatly expand your business. Just don’t try it with meth.
Lesson #3: Build a recognizable brand
Walt’s blue meth had two things going for it: it was pure, and it was blue. Throughout the course of the show, it went by the names “Blue Sky,” “Big Blue,” “Blue Magic,” and “Fring’s Blue.” At one point Walt even confronts another dealer who is dyeing his meth with blue colorants “to make it look like my product.” This scene hints at the fact that he’s built a recognizable brand. Along with the product, Walt has also built an infamous alter-ego by the name of Heisenberg.
A recognizable brand can help you stay in the minds of your customers, but the quality of your product must ultimately speak for itself.
Lesson #4: Know when to get out
Walt and Jesse have several chances to leave the drug trade during the course of the 5 seasons. At one crucial point in season 5, they get offered $5 million each to walk away, which Walt refuses and as a result complicates their ordeal. It’s true that he ended up walking away with $80 million instead of 5, but the risk ultimately wasn’t worth it. Hank gets killed in the process, and he gets most of his money stolen. He ends up with around $10 million, but the cost is basically losing his life in more levels than one.
Weigh the risks of staying and leaving a business. Sometimes a sure thing in the short term is the best possible deal.
Lesson #5: Get a patented formula (science, bitch!)
No one was able to replicate Walt’s blue meth formula. His background in chemistry gave him a huge advantage over the competition, and the fact that only Heisenberg (“the maestro”) could make it became part of his brand. Yes, I know Jesse also made really pure meth, but his 96% yield was still short of Walt’s 99%, even if Walt reassured Jesse that “it is every bit as good as mine.”
If you have something that no one else can do, make sure to keep it that way by getting a patent for your product or formula. If you’re successful, there will always be knockoffs. Originality has a value in the marketplace, but only if you play it right.
What did you learn from Breaking Bad that could be applied to the business world? Did you like how it ended? Let me know below.