Startups, Mad Men, and Missing Out

February 13, 2014

Before Breaking Bad, before Mad Men, before The Shield, HBO had cemented itself as the center of television, with era-defining shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Sex and the City.

Good talent begets good talent. They should have had the entire world’s elite writers pitching them ideas… and they did. But opportunity isn’t everything: you need to pursue those opportunities.

At the precise time that there were more and more varied options for TV writers with serious visions, the impression began to spread around Hollywood that HBO’s door was closed more than it was open—and then only to well-established writers.

“David Chase, remember, had worked on all network shows,” said [HBO President of Programming Michael] Lombardo. “We had gotten to the point where we might not have taken a pitch from him. He might not have been on our level.”

Excerpt From: Brett Martin. “Difficult Men.” iBooks.

Matthew Weiner gave HBO the Mad Men pilot. He even worked at HBO, writing and executive producing some of the most important episodes of The Sopranos. He even had David Chase, showrunner of The Sopranos, telling HBO how important Weiner was.

But Weiner never even heard back from HBO about the pilot. And Mad Men went to AMC.

Staying scrappy

There seems to be a common workflow for a startup’s growth:

I think the problem is that some startups view these as a progression rather than three complementary areas. In other words, the company grows and they focus on hiring more and more specialists. Sure, those specialists are necessary (and likely the majority of the workforce), but that doesn’t mean that generalists aren’t necessary, either. These are the people that look beyond silos, that can stitch the entire company together.

Just like Weiner and HBO, I think a number of startups end up reaching some type of blindness as they grow and reach success. They are the same companies whose founders are college dropouts, but now that they’re a hundred employees they decide to follow Google’s model and recruit exclusively from top five-ranked schools. They are the same companies that hire a monoculture, not realizing that their success stemmed in part from the oddball founding crew that came together in the initial years. They are the same companies that miss out on the clever-but-unknown hacker because they’ve been in the spotlight themselves for so long.

It’s not easy. Trajectories aren’t a bad thing; they keep your momentum going as you speed through your growth. But don’t feel like you need to act a certain way just because you’ve reached a certain size of business. It might be the difference between your product’s next Mad Men feature, or a slow status quo until something else externally puts you on your heels and forces you to change.

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