I’m addicted to Breaking Bad (BrBa), and its lead character, Walter White, proves that entrepreneurs are everywhere. A high school chemistry teacher developing a product and building a startup that would earn him millions of dollars in a short period of time? In Silicon Valley that’s not an uncommon premise – the products might be (very) different, but the elements of Walt’s entrepreneurial formula are the same ones I’ve seen in successful startups. While watching last night’s episode, I got to thinking about the characteristics of Walter White that would make him a strong startup founder (aside from the fact that he operates an illegal drug organization, which, disclaimer, I definitely don’t advocate). Here’s why.
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1. He created a great product
“So you have a plan! Yeah Mr. White! Yeah science!” – Jesse Pinkman (Season 1, Episode 7)
Science indeed, Jessie. Walter was a talented chemist who graduated from the California Institute of Technology, helped a team win a Noble Prize in Chemistry and founded a multi-billion dollar corporation called Gray Matter Technologies. Science was good to Walt; understanding the chemical process helped him to produce a higher quality methamphetamine. His attention to detail, preparation (who can forget the menacing fly?) and ingredients were meticulously calculated to produce exact results – both actual and monetary.
Bottom Line: He obsesses on creating a great product that is significantly better than anything else on the market.
2. He’s goal-oriented
“$737,000, that's what I need. That is what I need. You and I both clear about 70 grand a week. That's only ten-and-a-half more weeks. Call it eleven. Eleven more drug deals and always in a public place from now on. It's doable. Definitely doable.” – Walter White (Season 2, Episode 1)
In the uncertain world of drug dealing, Walter sticks firm with measurable milestones. He knows how many pounds of meth can be produced from 1 gallon of methylamine, how much money ($737,000) he needs to leave his family, and how pure his meth is (99.1 percent). When Walter set out to establish business ties with Gustavo Fringe, the big time distributor only gave Walt 60 minutes to deliver a few dozen pounds of meth. And Walt delivered.
Bottom Line: He sets clear, measurable goals, tracks his progress and accomplishes them.
3. He learns from his mistakes
“The moral of the story is: I chose a half measure when I should have gone all the way. I'll never make that mistake again. No more half measures, Walter.” – Mike Ehrmantraut (Season 3, Episode 12)
Listing all of Walter’s shortcomings on BrBa could fill a whole other article, but what sets him apart is his ability to learn and adapt from his missteps. One of his early mistakes in life was selling his share of Gray Matter Technologies, ultimately a billion-dollar company, for a mere $5,000. For good or (breaking) bad, Walt will never sell himself short again. So it comes as no surprise that after stealing 1000 gallons of methylamine from a train, he refuses to sell it for $15 million dollars when he knows he can make more money turning it into meth.
Bottom Line: He makes mistakes, but channels his learnings into improving himself and his business.
4. He’s a brand builder
“Say my name.”—Walter White (Season 5, Episode 7)
You’re Heisenberg, we get it. Your rivals get it. Do you think the black hat/sunglasses combination was an accident? Walt created a superior product and needed to distinguish himself from other purveyors. You didn’t need to try his Blue Sky product, only see it, to know that Heisenberg cooked that batch. Declan, his Phoenix-based rival, knew the product and its creator before they even met.
Bottom Line: He’s memorable and mysterious to his rivals, and his customers can immediately recognize his superior product.
5. He dreams big
“Jessie, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business.” –Walter White (Season 5, Episode 3)
You can’t make an empire in an RV, and Walter is not in the business to become another Mom-and-Pop operation. From confronting Tuco with a tough sales pitch to eliminating his competition (Gustavo Fring) to allying with Mike Ehrmantraut, Walt makes the moves to satisfy his short-term goals and realize his dream of creating an empire.
Bottom Line: He’s not afraid to set audacious goals and exude the confidence necessary to convince others that he can accomplish his dreams.
This list certainly isn’t all-inclusive; I would love to hear how else you think Walt exemplifies startup founder characteristics – or what startup he would do a great job running – in the comments.
Sam Shank is CEO of HotelTonight (which is hiring!). Follow him here or at @samshank.