Startups

10 real-life lessons for healthcare entrepreneurs from meth overlord Walter White

If you’re a fan or even a casual observer of Breaking Bad, you know it’s more than a cancerous chemistry teacher turned professional meth cooker. The show is really about the ups and downs of American small business. Walter White is America’s most popular startup founder and CEO. As Season 5 draws to its dark […]

If you’re a fan or even a casual observer of Breaking Bad, you know it’s more than a cancerous chemistry teacher turned professional meth cooker. The show is really about the ups and downs of American small business. Walter White is America’s most popular startup founder and CEO. As Season 5 draws to its dark end, consider these 10 entrepreneurship strategies straight from Heisenberg to make your startup as successful as his (but hopefully legal and without killing your competitors – literally).

(Image from AMC)

1. Keep a low overhead.
Walter started out in a trailer with borrowed equipment from the high school chem lab he taught. In his underpants. If you’re the proud new parent of a startup, Breaking Bad Season 1 Walter White should be your financial hero.

2. Don’t just say you’re product is disruptive. Make a disruptive product.
“We are going to make a good product that does what it is supposed to, as advertised. No emulsifiers, no baking powder, no bleach, no chili powder.”

–Walter White

Walter starts out with a business based on making chemically sound, “clean” meth. This is bound to disrupt the market a little, but ultimately think of the consumer. Clean meth, while providing some extra income, isn’t going to be a real game changer. When an accident proves to be a superior innovator, he switches gears.

Then he creates blue meth, “Blue Sky,” a true innovation. It’s 99.1 percent pure (as Jesse notes–it’s “the bomb”) and it’s easy to see the difference from other products on the market (i.e. it’s blue).

(Image from Breaking Bad Wiki)

3. Construct a compelling founder’s story.
I’m not currently in the market for meth, but if I were, I would likely want to feel I was making a difference by supporting the teacher turned cancer-patient turned, ahem, business man. Walter White didn’t even want to make meth; he was just a natural who wanted his family to have means after he departed the world at an early age. (Cue the violins.)

Walter evens adopts a pseudonym — Heisenberg — to add to his mystique and reflect his business’s branding (Heisenberg came up with the Uncertainty Principle).

Most of us have less dramatic existences, but serendipity is at the heart of startups. Just the other day, a founder told me watching a cotton candy machine spin fluffy treats in his building launched the beginning of his wound healing company in Indiana. What if the building administrators had been more partial to popcorn?

Investors, customers, partners–all three want to be reeled in by a story. Make sure you have one to tell.

(Image from Review Hub Central)

4. The relationship between co-founders is more like a marriage than an actual marriage. Choose wisely.
Between hours spent at the lab, the time it takes Walter to interfere with Jesse’s love life and meetings with major players (Tuco, Gus, Mike) and their lawyer Saul, Breaking Bad’s founders spend more time together than they do with their own families. (Walt ruined his family; Jesse’s has nothing to do with him, so there’s that, but hopefully that’s not the case for most entrepreneurs.)

Picking a junkie (even a kindhearted starlet) to help found your meth business — that’s a wildcard. Thanks to great writing and Jesse’s propensity for understanding distribution, the consumer and generally having good interpersonal skills, Walter and Jesse made it a long time before a long and drawn-out break up. In real life, it’s important to think this decision through. Just because you’re old friends who made a brainchild doesn’t mean you should go into business together.

(Image from AMC)

5. Know your market (before you enter it).
And by that I mean the competition. What is your marketshare? What makes you different? And what business should you dodge?

Know this or ruin lives (in the meth industry anyway).

When Walter tried to break into a new market without knowing, he got one of his distributors (i.e. sales reps) killed by a child from a rival gang.

(Screengrab from AMC’s Breaking Bad)

6. Establish an institutional culture early and stick with it.
“I’m in the empire business.”

–Walter White

Whether you agree with Walter’s egotistical (I use that word in the philosophical sense), cutthroat business model, he’s definitely managed to move pretty consistently in that direction. His employees know it, his legal counsel knows it and his business associates know it (or soon find out the hard way).

I would select something a bit cheerier, but he’s the one with fictitious millions.

(Image from Cucumber Nebula)

7. Be seen.
Walter White sports a chapeau. Walter wants to be seen for what he is almost at the stake of his life. (Don’t be like that. It’s scary and no one likes it.)

Unlike Walter, being seen should not ever be about being “recognized” for personal glory, but instead is about being recognizable in the greater community as a mover and shaker.

Your startup, of course, could land on the first page of a Google search for your product (with a picture of your CEO in a hat–or not), not just show up at conference and conventions for the complimentary cheese and coffee but ask thoughtful questions at panels (or better yet, participate in a panel yourself) and/or have a meaningful social media presence. Get space in an incubator or accelerator or attend local Lanyrd meetings or networking nights for startups.

Being seen is an early marketing step, but it also sets you up to meet major players, seek out their advice (a la Gus, the Chicken Man) and gives you a modicum of authority as you grow.

(Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC)

8. Nary a bridge burn.
Even Mr. White would have to admit: selling medical devices is a little different than dealing meth. Killing the competition literally isn’t a realistic solution.

By creating problems with Gus, Gale, Tuco and nearly everyone else who’s ever had the pleasure of doing business with Heisenberg (even the old flame’s family who offered to pay for his cancer treatments), Walter has created a lot of hassle for himself and unwanted noise around his operation. And for a while, the only consequence was isolation and negativity.

But breaking ties with Gale, a smart, well-liked guy, might be the thread that unravels his whole operation.

(Image from Breaking Bad Wiki)

9. Leap, yes, but look before.
CEOs must be fearless, yes, but they should also check themselves before they wreck themselves. Small measurable growth is better than chaos.

The mis-steps and complications of trying to grow an empire in only a few seasons of network television causes Jesse and Walter to wax nostalgic on the trailer-cooking days of yore, unhappy in the present.

Plus, almost all of Walter’s problems come from pressure (whether real or imagined) to grow too big, too fast: expansion into dangerous markets, accepting sketchy investment opportunities, making poor hiring and firing decisions.

Don’t spread your business too thin.

(Image from AMC)

10. Don’t forget why you started.

The day-in day-out dawn-to-dusk of owning (or working for) a startup can wear on a person, and sometimes make him forget what the point is in the first place.

Though Walter said he started the business for his family, his quest for power through his business lost him even those he held most dear.

People follow positive energy. Loss of purpose is also bad for business because it spreads like wildfire. Jesse loses sight of why he’s involved with Walter, and Mike straight up quits.

Walter White has a mind for business and science, but not inspiration, transparency and leadership. This–not the drugs, suburban lifestyle or sidekick hijinks–is why ultimately, the Breaking Bad business model proves to be a cautionary tale.

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