I know, I know – I’m late jumping on the Breaking Bad bandwagon. It’s so 2008 – for the first season, at least. This recent marathon through the whole five seasons of Breaking Bad was nothing short of an emotional and psychological roller coaster. While I’m thrilled that the show has been given the recognition and awards it deserves, there is more to gain from this drama series than just entertainment value.
Let’s get to the point – this is not going to be a rambling review on what I deem to be the most intense TV series out there; this is a post on how even the most seemingly irrelevant set of crime drama series can encompass important lessons for business owners and managers.
(Come on, something ‘useful’ has to come out of those long hours sitting in front of my screen following Walter’s descent into darkness and evil, right?)
And even though none of you are meth producers or distributors, these lessons are important and widely applicable to almost any industry or business model - spoiler alert!
1. Start small and scale fast
Walt and Jesse cooked their first batch of crystal meth in an old recreational vehicle, using lab equipment that you could find in any high school with a decent chemistry faculty. They were producing one pound per week, and raked in about $2,600 for that - not a lot considering the risk and effort.
Walt started thinking big. He approached a drug distributor with a wider network, more clients, and a higher number of runners on the ground, pushing revenue up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for 20 pounds of the product.
After some time, Walt entered a deal with Gus Fring, a cool-as-a-cucumber owner of a fried chicken fast food chain that was used as a cover for a large-scale drug dealing business.
Gus provided a proper, well-hidden underground laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment complete with region-wide distribution infrastructure and support, and Walt only had to come in to produce meth like it’s any regular day job.
He received a highly lucrative salary ($1 million for 3 months of work) in return, and he shouldered a significant lower amount of risk as compared to the earlier days of cooking meth in a rolling RV out in the desert.
That was a huge improvement. For Walt, he focused and specialized in what he was good at (cooking meth), and outsourced the rest (sales and distribution).
Walt continued this path of cutting deals with different drug distributors, expanding distribution from the SouthWest of America to the Czech Republic, earning an extraordinary amount of money ($80 million to be exact) - more than what his family could spend in ten lifetimes.
This sounds like a ludicrous success story, a rags to riches fairytale even, but the concept of starting small then scaling big is one that can be applied to almost every business.
2. Own your distribution channels
Let’s talk about Gus Fring now. Owner of a franchise restaurant chain, he rode on that distribution channel for his drug dealing business.
It worked brilliantly. He had staff who drove a fleet of trucks all over the country to distribute meth on the pretext of delivering top-secret fried chicken marinade. He had a security team that ensured the product reached customers in its vacuum-packed, pristine condition. He had Walt producing batches of meth regularly to satisfy the ongoing demand. He held his entire supply chain firmly under his thumb.
Centralized command over his (drug) business’ logistics and operations allowed him to increase capacity for growing orders and handle his inventory better. Customers were not disappointed with late deliveries and they never experienced stock outs.
Besides having an efficient and optimized backend, Gus also benefited from economies of scale, allowing him to minimize cost and maximise revenue. He was Amazon in the meth world.
3. Relationship and people management
Relationship management is important not just between you and your suppliers, it matters regardless of whether you’re high up or down below in the supply chain.
In the context of Breaking Bad, risks are sky-high and your business partner could make or break your business.
There is no need for you to chase things to the extreme like Walt, but certain expectations need to be made clear at the very beginning.
As the dynamic meth duo showed us, nothing is impossible when you lay out job scopes and responsibilities clearly from the start. Walt and Jesse divided up the work and held each other accountable.
When managed properly, your team will put in an immense amount of work and dedication it takes to grow your business.
4. Edge out competitors through product differentiation
In the drug industry, it’s unlikely that you would come across marketing schemes such as Black Friday Sales, post-holiday promotions, or buy 1 get 1 free bargains.
Throughout the series, the price for Walt’s solid, high-quality product never once dipped. Customers were desperate for it and his competitors recognized that, giving him the leverage to build an empire from nothing.
Walt used his chemistry knowledge to produce remarkably potent crystal meth with a distinctive light blue shade. Needless to say, his product blew the competition out of the water. As his ‘blue meth’ was differentiated as the best drug in the market, he could charge a significant premium for it.
When Jesse told Walt, truthfully, that a lesser quality drug would be more than good enough for addicts to come knocking, Walt stood firm on principle - he was not satisfied unless he was producing only the best product.
Moreover, his product was so good that it kept him alive - distributors who wanted him dead realized that they had more to gain is they kept him producing his one-of-a-kind product.
When Walt left the business behind, new meth lord Lydia insisted that substitute cook Todd figure out how to replicate the trademark blue color in his product, because that was what people on the street were asking for.
Breaking Bad tells us that when you offer a great product with an obvious advantage, the world will beat a path straight to your door. Never settle for less than the best. It all begins with offering something your customers can’t get enough of.
5. Get your hands dirty
Take it upon yourself to do things right for the first time, especially if the task is unpleasant. There’s plenty of dirty work to be done when building a business, and if you want it done well, you have to take the lead.
For Walt, he took it upon himself to get ahead in business - he was willing to lie, cheat, poison, steal, and kill to ‘advance his career’.
In that way, he kept himself essential and relevant in a high risk, high margin business. His indispensability shielded him from harm on multiple occasions. He also moved quickly to identify and eliminate potential replacements at his ‘workplace’ (Gale Boetticher, anyone?).
If you haven’t watched this TV series yet, I strongly urge you to. Not only is it a source of entertainment, it also offers a ton of life and business advice.
Bonus tip: of course, it doesn’t hurt if you possess the same level of tenacity as Walt. To me, every single hurdle and ‘challenge’ that Walter dealt with was worth it. Because he managed to achieve the one single thing that he set out to do since the very first episode – leave behind a huge amount of money for his family.
Walt was a shining example of a guy determined to tie up loose ends with that one objective in mind.
Once you set out a business goal that’s just as clear, there is very little that can get in the way of you reaching that finishing line. To be clear, we’re definitely not advocating setting off a bomb in a nursing home or poisoning eight-year-olds!
Disclaimer: I’m a fan of the TV series, but not a fan of the very real situation that the drug trade imposes on societies today. I am not an advocate of the drug industry, nor do I encourage you (or anybody else) to produce, sell, distribute, or use drugs.