Silicon Valley is an HBO comedy about Pier Piper, a Silicon Valley startup. While this comedy show is a hilarious work of fiction, there are some very real business lessons and hopeful digital marketers and entrepreneurs can learn while watching. Here are a few important lessons key characters Richard, Erlich, Gilfoyle, Dinesh and the rest of the gang have learned the hard way while building up their business.
1. Raising Capital Means Less Control
A capital infusion can help a business grow much faster in some cases, but taking money from investors also means giving up equity. Every time you give up equity or a board seat, you lose a little control over your company. In Richard’s case, it has meant some serious problems and unpredictability.
If you bring investors into your startup, make sure you understand exactly what that means and understand how the contracts are written. Whoever controls the majority of the stock has the most influence in the event of a dispute, and whoever controls the most votes on the board controls the future of the company. If you lose control, you can even be fired as CEO of your own company. It has happened to Steve Jobs, among others, and it can happen to you if you’re not careful about raising funds.
2. Understand the Legal Issues of Your Business
A major plot line takes us through the journey of figuring out who owns the intellectual property, or IP, developed by the Pied Piper team. At the beginning of the show, CEO Richard is employed by fictional tech giant Hooli, loosely modeled after Google. Hooli alleges that Pied Piper technology actually belongs to Hooli and files a lawsuit to take control of the IP.
I won’t spoil what happens, but this is another important lesson for entrepreneurs looking to build their company as a side hustle. Never work on your own personal projects on work time or a work computer, even outside of work hours. While odds are it would never come up, you don’t want to lose your job or your business after an avoidable use of employer property for your own work.
3. Don’t Grow too Fast
Each time it seems like Richard and team have figured out the financing of the company, something happens that leads to growing the Pied Piper team. While hiring new employees for a business can make sense, growing for the wrong reasons can lead to terrible financial problems.
To grow the right way, only hire when there is a specific role with a specific business need to fill. Hiring a big team of marketing staff and salespeople may see smart until you notice your burn rate has skyrocketed and you hardly have enough cash to continue regular operations.
4. Focus on Your Core Competencies
At one point in the show, Pied Piper developers are forced to work on a non-core product. While it was the best version of that product available, it was not the core product for Pied Piper and was a big distraction from the core product and path to success.
Many entrepreneurs are filled with business ideas and jump to pursue shiny new ideas while losing focus on the most important product. If you have a business that is good at something, don’t lose focus and put too much effort into ancillary offerings if you need to keep your resources focused elsewhere.
5. Don’t Waste Your Funds on Stupid Publicity
Erlich Bachman, the first funder to put money into Pied Piper, brings a great comedic presence to the show. However, his business ideas prove to be less than stellar. In the name of publicizing himself and Pied Piper, Bachman blows through millions of dollars and nearly brings the entire company down with him.
If something seems a bit too extravagant, it probably is. Don’t “pull an Erlich” and waste a bunch of money on something that will lead to little, if any, payoff.
6. Learn from Mistakes to Make Good Business Decisions
If there is one unifying theme in Silicon Valley, it is that all mistakes are not permanent. One big misstep does have the chance of destroying a company, but business executives make mistakes all the time and find a way to recover.
If you have a big issue with your startup, don’t take it personally and don’t let it derail your greater vision. If you stick to it for the long run, you can create your own path to success.
7. Being flexible is a huge asset
You’ve probably heard the statistic that eight out of 10 businesses fail within 18 months.
While this stat is debatable (The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 50% of all new businesses make it to their fifth year and one third make it to their tenth year), many businesses do in fact fail.
But if you’re flexible and nimble, you can switch up your game plan to account for change and unexpected curveballs along the way. In the show, the team’s initial idea was to create a music app for songwriters to ensure they weren’t infringing on any copyrights.
But after getting feedback, they quickly realized this idea wasn’t going to fly. What did they do?
They took a completely different approach and developed a “compression cloud” solution, widening their demographic significantly. Just like in the show, adaptability in business is incredibly important in real life. It’s not always who’s the smartest or who has the most financial backing. Sometimes, success comes to those who are most able to adapt to change, making the necessary adjustments.
If it’s clear a particular digital marketing technique isn’t working, you may need to change your direction to get the results you’re looking for.
8. Don’t burn bridges or make enemies
Erlich Bachman is a funny guy. But he’s also quite crude at times.
He has a bad habit of pissing off venture capital firms and thus missing out on valuable funding opportunities. As a business owner or a marketer, you definitely don’t want to do that. Relationships are huge. In many cases, your relationships (or lack thereof) can make or break you.
Don’t take them for granted. Always make an effort to remain professional even if you don’t always see eye to eye with everyone. Even if your colleagues’ ideas completely suck, don’t bash them for it.
Instead, conduct yourself with tact.
9. Never overlook legalities
We live in an extremely litigation-happy world. You see it in Silicon Valley—the show and the real thing.
Thankfully, there’s this guy:
He is not very cool, but he knows how to keep the startup from getting screwed over by lawyers. And it’s a good thing because “there are over 100 million cases filed in US state courts every year.”
Law is a recurring theme in Silicon Valley, especially as it pertains to intellectual property. When it comes to digital marketing, you’ll want to have some basic knowledge of branding and trademark law to ensure you’re not overstepping your boundaries or infringing on anyone’s brand identity.
Check out this resource from Branding Strategy Insider for more details on this.
10. Be careful with your brand name
As mentioned, Erlich tries to shamelessly generate publicity for himself and Pied Piper. In the process, he blows through massive wads of cash and he almost ruins the company. The point is be careful about how your brand is depicted and with whom you choose to align your brand. And let’s be honest: it’s not all that difficult to tarnish your brand’s reputation.
Between review sites and social media, a few unsavory comments can quickly bring the walls crumbling down. Although you can’t totally control how the public perceives your brand, try to stay away from stupid publicity stunts that may do more harm than good.
11. Building a brand is a process
If I’ve learned anything during my time as an entrepreneur, it’s that patience is a huge benefit. We live in a microwave culture, where instant gratification has become the norm. And many marketers get frustrated and disillusioned when they don’t see overnight success.
But it doesn’t work like that with branding. It takes time. Sometimes, it takes several years for any noticeable results to emerge. In Silicon Valley, the team goes through a lot of twists and turns before Pied Piper becomes a household name.
So, a big part of making it is simply staying the course. You need to have the mental fortitude to keep moving along and take it step by step. But the thing I love about branding is the snowball effect, when a brand keeps getting bigger and bigger with time. While your brand equity may be next to nothing initially, it keeps growing to the point of explosion. Understanding that branding is a process that takes time should help sustain you when things seem bleak and you’re tempted to give up.
12. Embrace mistakes (but learn from them)
I absolutely love this quote from Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek:
If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.
This simply means that mistakes are an inevitable part of making progress. I’ve learned not to beat myself up too badly if I botch something or even flat out make a stupid mistake. I just chalk it up to progress.
In Silicon Valley, people make mistakes all the time, but they always work to get past them. In digital marketing, you’re likely to make plenty of mistakes along the way. I know I did (and still do).
But as long as you’re genuinely learning from your mistakes and utilizing that knowledge to improve, you should be good to go.
13. Do Better at Meeting the Needs of Customers
Pied Piper decided to innovate the Dropbox concept by making it easier to upload video and audio files. The reason why this gained the attention of investors was because it solved a major problem that had plagued the industry for many years. It shows that marketers need to focus more on how they are meeting the needs of customers, rather than using fancy language and clever marketing techniques.
You have to do better at meeting the needs of customers if you are going to gain any traction in your chosen industry. It’s the job of the marketing team to illustrate how what they are selling brings a range of benefits to the table.
Excelling at making the customer come first is crucial to the very survival of your company. You need to go out of your way to serve your target market in a superior way.
14. Strive for a healthy work/life balance
Working hard and having a strong work ethic is good and all. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of your own personal well-being. I know this all too well because I have workaholic tendencies. In the show, Richard explains to his doctor that he’s been having night sweats induced by stress. The doctor explains that this can be a precursor to bed-wetting, which is never a good thing. It’s quite embarrassing.
Try not to allow yourself to get overwhelmed with your marketing activities. Strive to find a healthy work/life balance, and recharge your batteries from time to time. This will make you more effective in your marketing, and you won’t have to worry about being an adult who wets the bed.
15. Keep your eyes on the prize
It’s easy to get distracted in business and marketing. There are always new techniques and tactics that can distract you from what you’re good at and what’s really working.
For instance, at some point in the show, the team is forced to work on a non-core product, which ended up being a major distraction. In turn, this created a road block on their path to success.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t experiment, but it’s important to focus on your strengths and not lose sight of the ultimate goal.
16. Quality is key
At one point, Gavin Belson, CEO of a competing company, presents company’s new product Nucleus, which ends up being a complete disaster. This serves as a reminder that quality should always be of the utmost importance. You want to put in enough time and energy to ensure your audience is getting the best possible experience. Whether it’s creating blog content or running your social media campaign, it’s better to focus on quality over quantity.
Taking shortcuts is never the way to go.
17. Make the right hires
If you’re assembling a marketing team, you need to go about it the right way. Don’t carelessly choose someone without ensuring they’ve got the chops and will mesh with your culture.
A bad hire can kill your vibe and stall your progress. In the long run, this can also put a damper on morale and be disruptive to team chemistry. For tips on hiring and creating an awesome team, I suggest reading this article from Wired.
18. Trust Feedback from Users
Always trust feedback from users – they are the ultimate judges of your marketing campaign. Since 74% of buyers now conduct more than half of their research online, you can trust it’s a good source of information. In the show, Pied Piper received a tepid response when they initially launched. As they changed up their business offering, their customers started to respond in a positive manner.
This goes to show that trusting feedback from users can pay huge dividends. Failure to do so can make it difficult to defend yourself. For example, Hooli hired an online reputation firm to defend Gavin Belson’s image. By removing negative results from public view, they were able to essentially press the reset button.
Either way, trusting in feedback from users as a marketer can give you infinitely better results
19. Don’t Fear Your Competitors
It’s easy to fear your competitors in a niche as competitive as marketing. In Silicon Valley, the focus is on the app industry. The main characters had to deal with copycats all the time, but it didn’t deter them. All it required was for them to innovate again and again in order to stay ahead of their rivals.
When you are marketing a product and you feel like you are getting nowhere, it’s tempting to give in and quit. You may decide to look into another niche, but this isn’t a reason to give up. There are few lucrative niches that lack competition these days. Competition is just a fact of life – and it can be a sign that you’re working on something valuable.
Nothing is ever done in marketing. You are in a race that never ends. If something isn’t working, figure out why and then implement it. Take a look at what other companies are doing and learn from them. The competition provides you with an opportunity to improve not to run away.
20. Always Have a Backup Plan
There are many times during the show when the employees of Pied Piper are forced to rethink their plans. Television shows often have moments like this because they need to create drama, but failure is something most businesses will have to deal with. If one idea doesn’t work out, there’s no reason for you to throw in the towel. You should always have a backup plan; perhaps a few more ideas at your disposal in case something goes wrong. At one point, Pied Piper has to completely rethink their business model because they were outshined by another company with a similar idea. If you allow your business to be flexible, while still keeping the same ideals in mind, there’s a much greater chance you’ll be successful.
Although Silicon Valley is a comedy, there are many entrepreneurial lessons that can be applied to digital marketing and business in general. In fact, I feel a lot of wisdom can be extracted from this amazing show.
Whether it’s learning to adapt in an ever-changing marketing world, learning from your mistakes, or simply refraining from being a douchebag, the business lessons from Silicon Valley can make you a better digital marketer in many ways.
Can you think of any other business- or marketing-related takeaways from the show?
Photo Credits: HBO