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5 Small Business Lessons from Mad Men

| markdegrasse |

There are some shows that speak to the unique experience of entrepreneurship, and I believe that Mad Men is one of them. Here are five of the top things I learned from this 1960s-based American drama.

Being an entrepreneur is hard. Everyone talks about “being your own boss” and “freedom,” but in reality the cons far outweigh the benefits in the beginning.

There’s doubt and frustration, fear and instability, endless work and obligation… not to mention the constant risk of having your entire plan and income evaporate in an instant for reasons you can’t predict.

Even so, some people can’t deny their need for independence and the potential for massive, overwhelming success. Mad Men does a good job of explaining aspects of small business that speak to both entrepreneurs and employees alike. Here are the 5 elements of small business that Mad Men exemplifies the best.

Lesson #1: Dealing with Business Partners Can Suck (BAD)

Business Partnerships and Mad Men

If you’ve ever started a small business there is a good chance that you’ve dealt with business partners. You may have heard that a business partnership is a more legally bonding relationship than a marriage. It really depends on the size and scope of the business, but in many cases it’s true.

In Mad Men business partnerships are established, cancelled, sold, and otherwise changed EVERY SEASON. The drama ensues in the show as Don Draper (Jon Hamm) butts heads with partners Joan Holloway, Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling, Lane Pryce, Ted Chaough, Bertram Cooper, and more.

In my experience and the experience of a lot of my friends, colleagues, and clients, partnerships are rough. Aside from simple management and operational concerns (things that aren’t simple either), you have differing objectives and motivations, changing personal life situations, and all the long term effects of REALLY getting to know someone.

The Mad Men Lesson About Business Partners: Roll with the punches, be flexible with your business arrangements, and be prepared for the epic breakdowns, failures, and mistakes that you and your partners are bound to make.

Always remember that you could always get drunk, sleep with your assistant, blow off meetings, skip town, and drive across the country whenever you feel like it and somehow bounce back to save the day every time (if you’re a fictional character named Don Draper).

Lesson #2: Mixing Your Business & Personal Life Can Be Very Dangerous

Everyone knows that mixing your personal and business life is not a good idea, but everyone does it anyways. We’re not machines, and spending most of your life with a group of people leads to unpreventable mixing of the two.

Mad Men takes “mixing” to the limit with drinking, drugs, sex, having (and hiding) love-children from business partners and employees, in-office parties, and a thousand other occurrences that would make any Human Resource professional’s head explode.

The Mad Men Lesson About Mixing: Mixing your business and personal life can lead to epic, entertaining drama that can be enjoyed by all (as long as you’re not the person insane enough to engage such events). I don’t know how much of what happens in Mad Men would be “recoverable” these days with things like sexual harassment lawsuits floating around, so it’s probably best to avoid any and all situations like this presented on the show.

Lesson #3: You Need Both Salesmen & Account Men (or Women)

Mixing business and pleasure in Mad Men

One of the aspects of advertising that is repeatedly presented in the show is the difference between Don Draper and Pete Campbell. Don is a talented salesmen with an ability to identify winning advertising concepts and present them to clients with conviction and passion. Pete Campbell is a snivelling weasel of a man who knows how to establish long-term, profitable relationships using a variety of tactics (you’ll hate this guy for many seasons and eventually grow to love him by the end).

Every small business owner knows that they need to constantly be selling their product of service, but the smart ones know that it’s WAY EASIER to sell to an existing client/customer than to go out and find a new one.

The Mad Men Lesson About Salesmen & Account Men: Don and Pete are vastly different but essentially two sides of the same coin. They show how both can succeed if they are willing to work together and accept the aspects of each other that are essential to make the business grow. If you want to be successful, you need to hire both of them (or BE both of them).

Lesson #4: Business Success Is Not What You Think It’s Going to Be

If you asked me ten years ago what I wanted more than anything in the world, it would be: “To grow a business to be successful enough to sell.” You know what? I did that, and it was WAY LESS SATISFYING than I thought it would be. Turns out that 23-year-old-me didn’t know crap about anything.

In Mad Men the advertising agency makes several epic leaps in business growth and each comes with consequences. Don’s goal from the beginning was to get the “big clients” like Coca-Cola (SPOILER: he gets Coca-Cola). Even so, when he finally achieves his goal after first becoming a boss, then a partner, then a rich partner, and eventually a head of a large advertising agency, he implodes (again).

The Mad Men Lesson About Business Success: The point is that Don continually gets exactly what he wants in business and eventually finds that what he’s looking for has nothing to do with business at all. His satisfaction eventually comes through painful self-development achieved through near total self-destruction. You need to figure out if you’re pursuing your business goals as a supplement for dealing with self-destructive personality flaws… fixing those may be cheaper.

Lesson #5: Discovering Your “Thing” Is Essential to Success

I constantly talk about the need for small business owners to find their “thing” online. The “thing” is a piece of content that establishes your business as a resource for your existing and future customers. For my wife, her “thing” was the “Outfit of the Day” when she had a baby clothing boutique (which she managed to create and sell in 9 months).

In Mad Men, their “thing” was the ability to identify and sell clients on winning, cutting-edge advertising campaigns. This sounds obvious, but the truth is that most companies like to keep it safe when it comes to marketing. The problem is that “safe” doesn’t increase sales like “revolutionary” does.

The Mad Men Lesson About Business Success: Even though the agency in Mad Men wasn’t the biggest, well-staffed organization available, they kept on landing bigger and bigger contracts. They were constantly shifting tactics, exploring options, and they never stopped trying to figure out what works.