Innovation

Breaking Bad comes to a close: Seven business lessons from Walter White’s black-market empire

Patrick Stafford /

After five years Breaking Bad, one of the most beloved television shows of all time, comes to a close. Viewers will finally get to see how Walter White concludes his own destruction – and whether any of the other main characters will make it out alive.

The finale has already begun in the States, but Australian viewers have a few more hours to wait before seeing how the ending pans out.

For those who aren’t in the know, the series focuses on Walter White, a high-school chemistry professor who turns to cooking high-quality meth to support his family after receiving a lung cancer diagnosis. But his career in crime takes him on a descent into darkness.

Regarded as one of the highest quality shows ever, Breaking Bad has set a new benchmark for thrilling television, in both character and plot.

But there’s more to Breaking Bad than exciting science and character development – there’s plenty here for the business owner to learn.

After all, isn’t the drug trade nothing but a market economy of its own? According to the Bureau of Statistics, the black economy and illegal drug trades are worth more than $30 billion a year. That number is worth several times more in the United States.

You don’t make that much money without being a savvy businessman. The same principles that apply in the legitimate business world remain the same when dealing with black-market product.

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Breaking Bad isn’t just a story of exciting plot twists and fascinating characters. The show does an excellent job of integrating the realities of a black-market economy – and there’s plenty here to learn.

Here are seven lessons business owners and entrepreneurs can take away from Walter White and Breaking Bad (but shouldn’t necessarily emulate!):

(And don’t worry – all lessons are spoiler free).

Hold on to a good thing

There’s a legitimate business lesson in Breaking Bad before Walter White even touches a meth lab.

Back when he was a professional scientist, White had a hand in creating a company called Gray Matter. It’s never specified what the company does exactly, although it’s pretty obvious this is a type of research and development firm.

White left the company for “personal reasons” – it’s never specified exactly – and took a buyout of $5000.

But that was a mistake. The company skyrocketed in value to more than $2.16 billion, and even received a Nobel Prize.

White keeps saying he looks at the valuation “every week” and tortures himself over what could have been. This isn’t an uncommon story – plenty of investors know the pain of selling out of a stake early on and then watching the company in question explode in value.

Breaking Bad has a lot to say about creating wealth. But this lesson is probably the most potent – don’t give up on a good thing based on emotions. It usually never ends well.

Put your best foot forward

Meet Gus.

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Gustavo Fring is a legitimate member of the Albuquerque business community. He owns a chain of successful fried chicken restaurants, Los Pollos Hermanos, and is a public supporter of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Gus sits on the board of at least one hospital in the Albuquerque area.

He’s also one of the biggest meth kingpins in the area.

Part of the reason Fring is never suspected by the DEA – (they’re even sceptical after questioning him) – is that he presents the best version of himself. He is articulate, well-dressed and successful. Why would anyone suspect him?

The same goes for the shady lawyer on the show, Saul Goodman. He’s articulate and well-versed in the law. Of course, people suspect he’s dodgy – but as long as he maintains a squeaky-clean image of a damages lawyer, no one can touch him.

While it’s probably not the best idea to use deception in any of your business dealings, Gus and Saul understand the principle of putting your best foot forward. Business deals get done when you give a good impression. Suiting up and playing the part goes a long way.

Diversify

There’s a second reason Gus is consistently successful – he never places all his eggs in one basket.

Even though Fring oversees a huge meth operation extending to Europe, he’s never only in the meth game. Every character in the show who places their fortune squarely in drugs – including Walter White – sees their empire crumble at some point.

But Fring takes an alternative approach. His assets are strewn across businesses, both legitimate and illegal. A fried chicken franchise and a commercial laundry are solid businesses, and the show strains to portray Fring as successful.

Diversification is the key to any good investment and business strategy.

Create a premium brand – then charge for it

Walter White’s success is built on the premise he can create consistently high-quality meth. His product is incredibly pure, giving meth addicts a better high – naturally, this creates significant demand.

But creating good meth isn’t good enough. White’s product carries a signature blue colour due to the chemicals used in the cooking process. He creates a brand – everyone knows what Heisenberg meth is due to both the quality and the appearance. It’s a solid business strategy.

But White goes further. In an episode during which he and partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman talk about getting their meth on the streets, he makes an order to raise the price.

“Corner the market, then raise the price,” White says. “Simple economics.”

Simple economics, indeed. And it leads to both Jesse and White making a lot of money.

Keep inventory flowing

When White’s first batches of meth start hitting the streets, Pinkman brings his employees together and gives them a pep rally. Start selling more meth, he says. And don’t back down.

He also makes a key selling point to his employees, who are more like franchisees: keep selling as much as you want – the inventory will keep coming.

Supply and demand is simple economics, but plenty of businesses struggle with the idea of maintaining growth. It’s important during the early stages of a business to ensure that growth is sustainable – and keeping inventory flowing freely will ensure you don’t fall behind.

Pay to reduce liability

In the fifth season of the show, White and Pinkman go into business after controlling the market for themselves. But there’s one problem. After making an incredible amount of money from just one cooking session, White is surprised by the amount of money that must be spent on overheads.

Not only does he have to pay Saul Goodman for legal protection, but there’s also plenty of money set aside for dealers who “know too much”. All up, a huge amount of the money made from cooking meth goes to paying for the business itself.

While White is upset about the prospect of paying others, there’s a significant lesson here. You want to pay top dollar for services to help your business succeed. Although you might be frustrated about having to pay large salaries for top employees, or legal services to keep your business in line with the law, it’s worth the payout – ignoring these payments would be devastating.

Don’t accept less than perfect

A recurring theme in the show is that of perfection. No other cook can reach the purity level White can achieve when cooking meth. Even the next best cook, White’s partner Jesse Pinkman, is still a few percentage points short of hitting White’s mark of nearly 100%.

In fact, that purity level is one of the ways White has managed to survive over the course of five seasons – by convincing others he’s the only one able to cook meth at such a high quality.

That greed for perfection has kept his business partners from turning on him during several points in the show.

Perfection is a common trait among entrepreneurs. Any number of companies will say they don’t release a product until it is “perfect”.

Breaking Bad underlines a key point for businesses – even close to perfect isn’t good enough.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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