One man’s enthralling story provides a framework for all aspiring startup founders — but you would never guess who.
With zero venture capital funding in hand, this man quit his day job to pursue his multimillion-dollar idea. He recruited an employee to help him bootstrap the startup from a germ of an idea to a well-oiled machine in just a matter of months. He knew the ingredients for success, and his product was immediately a huge hit. The demand grew, and he responded by continuing to scale. In the end, his startup amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and disrupted an industry.
You won’t find him on a Forbes list or watch a video of him delivering a commencement speech. He is not real. He is Walter White — a fictional character in AMC’s television series “Breaking Bad.”
Walt’s product? Methamphetamines. His startup? A drug-cooking operation. The consequences? A long trail of dead people who “crossed” him.
Now that “Breaking Bad” has come to an end, we can move beyond speculating about the plot and begin analyzing Walt’s business decisions and staggering cleverness. Drugs and dead people are very, very bad, and I am in absolutely no way whatsoever promoting either. But the way that Walt goes about these criminal activities is, objectively, brilliant.
Legal issues aside, Walt would be a fantastic startup founder.
When Walt first decides to cook meth, he trades his life of stability for one of complete unpredictability. By not fearing death — a result of his terminal cancer — Walt saw one thing and one thing only: a chance to afford hospital care in a market conveniently susceptible to disruption.
Ben Kaufman, founder and CEO of Quirky — a product development company that aims to make invention accessible — similarly took a fearless step outside of his comfort zone in order to launch his first company. He convinced his parents to take out a second mortgage on their Long Island home so that he could finance his first venture, an iPod accessory company, Mophie. Sure, Ben was not literally facing death, but his parents’ home rode on the success of his company. He tied his parents’ financial lives to the success of Mophie, just as Walt did with his health. High risk yields high reward — and they both were rewarded immensely.
When he is cooking, Walt has a burning desire to consistently make a better product than his competition. He refuses to increase his output and his initial revenue in order to avoid sacrificing the quality of his product. Similarly, nearly every startup founder possesses this same mentality: They do not sacrifice the product’s quality in exchange for immediate monetary rewards.
Tony Fadell, the man who led the team that created the iPod and iPhone, left Apple and founded Nest Labs. While the company launched over three years ago, they only have one product in market — the Nest Learning Thermostat, a device that learns and adjusts the room temperature based on the occupants’ habits. Nest Labs employs over 200 of the world’s best engineers, but they have chosen to focus on a single product before releasing the many other products that are likely in their pipeline. Nest’s uncompromising focus while developing the thermostat has put them on the forefront of connected home devices, similar to how the purity of Walt’s meth allowed him to conquer the methamphetamine market.
Lastly, Walt, like many tech founders, is the brand. He cultivates his own image — Heisenberg — by wearing a black porkpie hat and large black sunglasses when he conducts business. The hat-and-glasses combo is equivalent to the Zuckerberg hoodie or the Jobs turtleneck. They’re simple, symbolic, and brand building. On top of that, the blue color of Walt’s meth makes it instantly recognizable to his customers. Walt revolutionizes an industry by creating a brand in a formerly generic marketplace; indeed, the Heisenberg stamp is a seal of legitimacy and keeps customers coming back for more.
“Breaking Bad” is the American Dream in action, just thrown in a different arena. It has all that we love in the rags-to-riches startup story, and then some. After Steve Jobs’ death, fans went to their local Apple Store and left a candle in his honor. I’ll light one up for you, Walt.
[This piece was originally posted on the Yale Daily News.]