9 Entrepreneurial Lessons You Can Learn From Breaking Bad

By Steve Strauss

Walter White, we hardly knew ye.

Heisenberg, we hope we would never meet thee.

Like everyone else it seems, I was fairly mesmerized by Emmy winner Breaking Bad. The transformation of mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White into the sociopath meth-dealing drug lord Heisenberg was transfixing.

From a purely entrepreneurial point of view (well, what take would you expect me to have?), Walt was not unlike many of us who start our own ventures (aside of course, from the fact that he decided to become a murderous meth kingpin). Tired of having a dead-end job where his youthful promise was not being fulfilled, Walt decided that to ensure the future of his family he had to go into business for himself.

He did a few things right along the way, and many, many things wrong, to wit:

Right: He found a need and filled it.
The essence of any successful entrepreneurial venture is that the business exploits a need in the market. In the case of Walt, apparently there was a need for 99% pure, crystal blue meth. Who knew?

Right: He scaled his business.
Walt was aware from the very start that he couldn’t do it alone; he needed help if he was to make his new business a go. So he enlisted Jesse to help do the things he, Walt, could not do: namely, distribute the product. Unfortunately for dear, sweet Jesse, Walt was his boss/partner.

Wrong: He dealt meth.

Wrong: He killed people.

Wrong: He became a pathological liar.

Wrong: He couldn’t leave well enough alone.
As Mike once said to him: “Learn to take yes for an answer Walter.” Consider this – when Walt and Jesse first went to work for their predecessor Gus and his chicken chain, they had everything they needed to succeed in their chosen profession:

  • A super lab
  • A distribution system
  • Money, money, and more money

But Walt grew restless, and, eventually, ruthless.

He really was not meant to work for someone else.

Right: He did it, theoretically, for his family.
The lie Walter White continued to tell himself was that he was doing all of this to secure the future of his family. Of course, what he did was the exact opposite. He ensured the insecurity of his family. But let’s admit at least that his initial impulse was pure.

Wrong: He let his ego get out of control.
A good entrepreneur is egotistical, yes, but a bad entrepreneur lets his ego get in the way of his business.

Walt’s first venture, Gray Matter, which he helped start in graduate school, went on to become wildly successful without him. That wound never healed. When he finally found something he was great at, something that made him the beaucoup bucks too, it mattered little that it was illegal, immoral, dangerous and dumb.

So yes, Heisenberg was Walt’s ego run amuck (but at least he had a cool hat).

Wrong: He got greedy.
Again, from a purely business point of view, Walt never knew when to stop. Three million in three months wasn’t enough – Walt wanted an empire. In the end, he made $80 million but lost everything that was important to him. For such a smart guy, Walter White was really, really stupid, and a really bad businessman.

But boy did he star in a great show.

Steve Strauss is a senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible.

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