Building a startup is a lot like cooking meth
January 6, 2016
Have you seen the Breaking Bad tv series? At times, we’ve often joked that we’re a lot like the two characters from Breaking Bad. Running a startup with an international reach is a lot like cooking meth. Perhaps you can draw some parallel lines here too :)
Here are some parts of life in a startup that remind us of the funny situations the characters of Breaking Bad find themselves in each episode, and how you can apply the lessons of Walter and Jesse to achieve success:
“No, listen, I know it sounds risky, but it wouldn’t be anything that would get him into real trouble, nothing that could lead back to our business. Just some minor offense.”
~Walter White (Season 3)
Working in a startup you’re often working for years on a idea you believe in, with absolutely no guarantee that you’ll be successful. In fact, your family and friends will beg you to stop this “insane project” and get a “real job”.
Naturally Walter and Jesse couldn’t talk to anybody about what they were doing. At Filecamp we didn’t have the exact same problem, however when we talked enthusiastically to our relatives about exciting terms like “Digital Asset Management”, “Metadata”, and “SaaS”, we often felt just as alone and alien as Walter and Jesse who were operating in a criminal underworld.
It helps to have partners who balance each other’s strengths and reinforce each other’s belief that the project will succeed.
You dream 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)
Like Walter White, we also dream big and have since the very beginning! As crazy as it sounded at first, each day we get a little closer to becoming the preferred solution in our niche worldwide.
Dreaming big motivates you to put in the big work needed to see your dreams become a reality. The more you work, the more your dreams become reality, it’s a positive feedback loop and it starts with believing that your idea can change the world.
You need a plan and a team
“So you have a plan! Yeah Mr. White! Yeah science!”
~Jesse Pinkman (Season 1, Episode 7)
Walter was smart and knew he had to work with Jesse in order to get the meth to the streets. You’ll be extremely busy when building a startup, and it’s impossible to be an expert in all fields. So at some point you’ll have to hire help. Seek out smart people in fields that are outside of your primary skillset.
You also need a good plan to succeed. At Filecamp, we were sure there was a need for a solution that was somewhere in between the (semi)free file sharing tools, primarily for private use, and the large enterprise Digital Asset management systems. We saw that many, especially creative businesses, had many challenges when exchanging comments and annotations on artwork files.
Our plan was to meet this niche and build collaboration features into Filecamp. We started with a great product and a roadmap of features. We released Filecamp version 1, back in 2010, and we were fortunate to make some big deals. We got some pretty amazing and very large customers, many who are still with us.
You learn as you go
“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)
Walter White experimented with chemicals to cook the perfect meth. At Filecamp we experimented with features, usability, performance, and 1,000’s other small tweaks. We started with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) version and brought the first people onboard to use the service. From their feedback we added some features and dropped some other features.
Next, we refined our onboarding process to show more of the benefits of our service to free trial users so that they would become customers. We’re continually looking for ways to build a better service, like Walter White was always looking for ways to improve his product.
Build your brand
“Say my name.”
~Walter White (Season 5, Episode 7)
Our customers are professional and many are visually oriented people. At Filecamp, we we need to think about branding in everything we do. Not only about our brand, but we also thing about our customer’s brands too. We even let our customers sub-brand folders for their clients!
Having a good name and a good brand is one of the keys to success in a startup.
You have to be 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 general, when building a startup you also need to be goal-oriented and stay on track. You’ll be dealing with a lot of distractions every day, and people are very eager to tell you which direction they think you should go. As Steve Jobs said, “Don’t let the voice of others drown out your own voice”. Stay on target and stay focused on the goals you know will make a difference.
Like Walter and Jessie from Breaking Bad, a two-person team runs Filecamp. Luckily, we don’t face the risk of getting shot or something worse. However, like Walter and Jessie, we are up against some pretty impressive opponents with millions to spend on marketing.
Notice: Of course we don’t recommend the use of any illegal drugs. Like other fans of the Breaking Bad series, our favorite part is the strange humor that results from the high stress situations the characters find themselves in each episode. Sometimes a day at a startup is a lot like that, you never know what you’re gonna get! And it helps to have a good sense of humor to get through the stressful moments :-)