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What Your Business Can Learn From Breaking Bad

Jamie Kreppein< Jamie Kreppein May 8, 2020

During this period of social distancing, many people have been binge watching TV show “box sets” on streaming services. I’ve been doing the same. I started with HBO’s Band of Brothers which I absolutely loved and, after that, I moved on to a recommendation from a friend to try Breaking Bad. What I found most interesting about the popular show was the commercial applications buried in the hilariously dark story.

Breaking Bad, if you don’t know, is a story about the evolution of a man. But it’s also — from start to finish — a business story.  It starts with recognizing an imperative, a goal, a purpose. In this case, Walter White needs to raise money for medical treatment and to provide for his family after his death.

Walter White’s Not-So-Commercially-Excellent Plan

With a clearly identified goal in mind, Walter needed a plan to achieve his business objectives. The how. If you’ve seen the show, you know what Walter decided to do. We’ll set the legality of his crazy business plan aside for now and focus on his first step, production, or working out how to produce the product. He had several logistical challenges along the way, as every business does.

Then came the commercial side of his business: product differentiation. Walter and team have a product which is markedly different in appearance than the legacy product available. They form messaging and strategies to accommodate for that difference…they even begin to recognize their marketable “Unique Selling Proposition.”

Almost immediately, there are wrinkles with his competitors. The resolution is somewhat different than we’d see in legitimate businesses, but in context it is, I suppose, quite rational and within industry norms.

Throughout, Walter has considerations of managing employees, working out how to scale, how to maintain motivation, organizing compensation methodologies, and so on. These are real, and particularly challenging realities for any sales organization. Watching the situation develop, it resonated deeply for me and my own career in sales.

A particularly interesting commercial aspect Walter and other organizations face is determining how to sell through distribution channels. This is a common situation that manufacturing organizations find themselves exploring – it’s a part of scaling, access to markets, and existing intimacy with the end customers.  At various points, I felt myself wishing I could give them the benefit of my experience – because they were fumbling about and making some obvious but common errors.

Walter also dealt with a lengthy investigation into the supply chain and purchasing. For me, his big commercial “miss” was to think about the commercial opportunities in tying their market offers to their soup-to-nuts process. At this point in the narrative, it had been established that Walt’s product was highly valued in the marketplace. There may have been an upside available to capitalize on product shortages.

Throughout the evolution, the protagonists feel the usual ebbs and flows of work-life balance. We see family tensions – drama and joy, that have their roots in the situation in the business.

Breaking Bad, to me, became less about Walter White and more about commercial strategy.  And watching it has been eye-opening. We are living in the golden age of television, and Breaking Bad – along with Band of Brothers, True Detective, The Sopranos, and The Office – represents the very best of the art form. Try watching them through the lens of a business analogy.

What are you watching during this quarantine? Do you see business parallels in your favorite shows? I think I’ll re-watch Arrested Development next because there’s always money in the banana stand…

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