Five Lessons Every Small Business Can Learn From…Mad Men

On July 25th, Matt Weiner’s journey through the Madison Avenue advertising world of the 1960s returns to television. Mad Men, has been nominated for 32 Emmys, winning nine of them, and has won four of its eight Golden Globe nominations, including Best TV Drama Series for each of its three seasons. There’s a good chance you haven’t seen any of the show’s 39 episodes, but you can fix that by going here. Like most critically acclaimed shows, Mad Men has a relatively small audience — averaging less than 2.5 million viewers each week. Jon Hamm plays the charismatic Don Draper, an ad man with a murky past and a talent for persuasion — both in his advertising campaigns and for the numerous women in his life. It’s his way with words that saves many client relationships for Sterling Cooper, the agency where Draper works, based on the real-life agency, BBDO. Maybe some of his words can help you, too.

“Why reinvent the wheel?”
Season 2 Episode 1: Flight 1
There are many things that motivate a customer to buy, and if you Google it you’ll see that everyone draws their own conclusions. But, when it comes to why a customer chooses one company over another when they’re ready to buy, there are only four reasons:
  1. Do you provide something the customer can’t get anywhere else?
  2. Do you provide something at a better price than anyone else?
  3. Is the quality/value of your offering better than anyone else?
  4. Is your purchase process easier to understand than your competitors’?

Consumer behavior is beyond your control. Take a second to digest that. However, consumer behavior is not beyond your influence. You can’t change why a customer would choose you over a competitor, but you can make a more persuasive case when your product or service has more “yes” answers to those questions than your competitors do.

“I don’t think there’s much else to do here but … call it a day.”
Season 1 Episode 8: The Hobo Code
If you’ve ever worked with anyone in sales, you’ve probably worked with one who didn’t have the word “no” in their vocabulary. See number 8 in this list
You value the business relationship you have with a client or a supplier, but when it comes right down to it, it’s your relationship with your business that you have to protect. If a client is demanding services that are unrealistic, or generates costs that will never be repaid, even with goodwill and referrals, you have to walk away. If a supplier can’t give you what you need (and you should take some time to assess what that is), you’re the customer, decide whether you can get that need met by another vendor. 

“You still might need to give us a hint as to what it does.”
Season 1 Episode 11: Indian Summer
When one of Sterling Cooper’s clients brings a new product to the agency, Don is at a loss for how to market it. The modern day equivalent would be one of those ab-workout belts. In 1962, it was a pair of rubber shorts that did a similar thing, but with unexpectedly stimulating side-effects for female users.
Know your product. Thoroughly. Know its benefits, intended or otherwise, its limitations, and the kind of customers it is best suited to. Too often business owners fail to be honest with themselves about what they’re selling — seeing what they want to see rather than what the customer sees.
The best software testing isn’t done by programmers, it’s done by end-users who have enough knowledge to be dangerous. Break your product just to see how robust it is. Then go back and make it stronger, faster, better for the user. 

“Don’t you have a coterie of trusted advisors, friends, kings…?
Season 3 Episode 7: Seven Twenty Three
You’re good at what you do, right? Well, I have bad news for you: if you know another person, you know someone who can do something better than you can. That might mean that they can sew sequins or that they can change the drive train on your truck; maybe they can run faster or make sure that their kids are on time for school every day no matter what. In business, it might be that they have years of experience in outside sales, or that they founded a company that is an industry leader, or that they know how to secure venture capital.
If you’re a start-up, it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. Then you go find people in your network who can help you overcome those weaknesses and challenge your strengths. you call those people your advisory board. Most people will readily agree to be on an advisory board because it’s not a big time commitment and the overwhelming attitude of entrepreneurs is one of helping other entrepreneurs.

“I never saw myself working in a place like this.”
Season 3 Episode 13: Shut the Door, Have a Seat
If you’re in business for yourself after leaving a corporate job, you probably recognize this sentiment. Remember the day when you looked at the length of your to-do list and compared it to the list of things about your job that make you happy? Remember how you found that there were very few reasons to stay and work for someone else?
At we embrace the entrepreneur in everyone (in a very HR-friendly kind of way) and think that every cube-dweller with an idea and the drive to make it a reality should be able to pursue that dream. But we also offer this word of temperance to you if you just started making two lists. Make a third. Hit Google and make a list of other companies who are in the market segment you’d go into. Then make a fourth — all the companies who provide the product or service you will. Then a fifth — work out how much it will cost you to turn your idea into reality. Then a sixth and, for now, final, list — the people you know who can help you to fund your dream. And expect to put all your money into it for a while. And all of your time. 

Remember that, in the end, it’s worth the anxiety and sleepless nights. The feeling that you’re your own boss, that the effort you expend is related to the results you can see is liberating. Change isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible, either.
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