Business Lessons in Mad Men

Last night’s season finale of Mad Men was, by my estimation, a season redeemer. Spoiler alert…stop reading if you have yet to see it. The much discussed poster for Season 6 showing two Don Drapers seemed to be an obvious metaphor for the conflict Don had reconciling his true self and the self he had to sell to the world of advertising in exchange for success. Don cultivated a persona in the same way that he helped clients sell product. Much of this show is about Don’s struggle to come to terms with and understand who he is without compromising the good thing he has going with the ad agency. Therein lies the business lesson or, maybe more of a quandary. Is it possible to always be truthful and “moral” without compromising profitability in business? Don came clean last night and lost his job at SC&P.

Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – Mad Men_Season 6, Episode 2_”The Doorway” – Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

To say that all companies operate amorally and only in strict adherence to the bottom line is intellectually lazy. It is possible to create a business plan aimed at turning a profit whose mission is to do good. This year at Big Omaha, Cindy Gallop of is working on debunking damaging conventions and backward attitudes toward sex through her business and I believe her efforts will disrupt a billion dollar industry by changing the national conversation regarding sex. Other speakers challenged Google on their “do no harm” statement saying that was too low a bar and that businesses should strive to actually have a positive impact on business.

Back to Mad Men. One of the most powerful images in this dark series comes at the very end of the episode when Don takes his three kids out to see the remnants of the run-down brothel where he was raised as an orphan. The sun is shining and he exchanges looks with his oldest daughter, one of the most painfully disillusioned females in Don’s life. There is something cleansing and pure despite the crumbling Pennsylvania inner-city backdrop. Don is starting over and next year will be the final season of this culturally significant series. We know that advertising evolves into a numbers game of demographics, focus groups and analytics. We know that consumers have become more knowledgeable, with greater access to consumer reviews and information as well as more choices from which to buy. Buying itself is now something you can do in your pajamas while the coffee brews. The big question then is this; will consumers demand high ethical standards from the brands they love? At the end of the day, can companies really be compelled to act in a greater public interest if they can still sell their product regardless?

Six years, 13 happy hours, and about 3-dozen California Tacos. That’s how long my interview process at Volano took and I couldn’t be happier how it all played out.

I’ve been tasked with penning the standard Volano first week blog post. About me, background, experience, etc. If you’ve been following what we’re up to – yes, I’m already using the collective first-person – you know the routine, so here we go! I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to NOT turn my background story into a thinly veiled version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song – something about being born and raised in West Philadelphia, playing basketball, a scared mother, smelly cab driver with a memorable license plate, yada yada yada. I could, but I’m not going to – but I actually just did.

I suppose I should dive into my experience, tell you about my technical skills, and professional accomplishments, but as I said earlier, if you’ve been following Volano at any capacity, you know they don’t bring just anyone it. My focus and expertise is in the web programming side of our world. What that that means to clients is I’m on the team that helps make your software less frustrating and a joy to use.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing these guys for quite some time and have always admired their focus to help their clients achieve a competitive advantage by marrying business with technology. I’m incredibly excited to be part of this team, and even though this was an opportunity six years in the making, the truth is that I probably would have waited another six.

Great things come to those who wait.

Volano is proud to partner up with Straight Shot , an Omaha based startup accelerator focused on supporting and developing young technology companies. Several senior level Volano software developers will act as mentors to Straight Shot businesses and share their experience building platforms, interfacing with clients and managing the phases of product development. This presents an exciting opportunity for us to help support the local technology community, aspiring business owners and to increase our recognition in Omaha as a big-picture collaborative partner in innovation.

Straight Shot is the brainchild of Dundee Venture Capital, an organization dedicated to investing in entrepreneurs who bring great ideas, energy and desire to succeed to the market place. Started by Mark Hasebroock, previous co-founder of and HayNeedle, Dundee VC brings an enviable amount of experience from finance and small business development to technology. There is a positive correlation between Mark’s level of humility and humor and his success in business. If Dundee VC puts an emphasis on the people behind good ideas, Volano does the same in choosing whom we do business. Straight Shot’s list of participating mentors and sponsors is an Olympic Dream Team.

Volano selected Erin Hawkins, David Carnley and John Stuifbergen to work on-site at the Peter Kiewit Institute of Technology building, our own development dream team. They will work directly with the seven companies (out of 400 applicants) selected in the Straight Shot accelerator program and look forward to lending their expertise. The start-ups we’ll be working with come with their own impressive technological pedigree and we’ll have an opportunity to learn from them as well.

Volano team members Erin Hawkins, David Carnley and John Stuifbergen

I’m still processing last night’s riveting episode of Mad Men. So much to say… The primary business lesson I took from last night’s episode though is not to let romance get involved in the workplace. We’ll come back to that point. It’s a great one that opens up so many possibilities.

A quick recap from last night. Ken Cosgrove had a Dick Cheney moment with his Chevy clients and was nearly killed by a shotgun blast resulting in his voluntary relinquishing of the account to Pete Campbell. Worried about getting bested by Bob Benson, Pete investigates and discovers the enigmatic character’s spotty past and uses the information to his advantage. Don Draper’s alcohol problem has officially graduated to vodka in his morning OJ and his daughter Sally continues to lay a dysfunctional foundation for what would be a pretty scathing memoir of her troubled childhood as she vies for the respect of equally insecure boarding school girls. And these are just the side character shadings and sub-plots.

The prevailing storyline revolves around Ted and Peggy. They are clearly smitten with each other and, as most workplace romances go, not good at hiding it. Don keys in on this right away. Since Don and Ted are natural competitors within the agency, this information is powerful ammunition for Don and at the end of the episode, he uses it with surgical precision for maximum devastation, managing at once to play hero for the company, ensure Peggy is not given credit for a potentially award winning commercial and publicly humiliating Ted. This is a wonderful example of the fog love can cast over work. The workplace should be about collaboration and equal weight. If you have good people, at every level their input should be valued and utilized in decision making and execution. Even the appearance of favoritism can destroy credibility and hurt morale. Having rose-colored glasses also skews objective thinking and adds one more unnecessary level of politics to an already crowded table of issues regarding strategic planning, work assignment and execution. The fact that Ted is married, apropos for this series, only makes the flirtation and attention all the more uncomfortable.

This series of blogs is about extricating business lessons from Mad Men. My favorite parts of the show are watching the pitchmen win and lose clients in the context of the interesting historical times, social code and their personal shortcomings. Keeping love outside of the workplace is probably one of the most important if not obvious lessons and one that seems to be the hardest for people to adhere. Part of what makes love such an intoxicant is the quiet conspiracy of two people becoming vulnerable, the letting down of guards. In business, relationship building is often about making business a little bit personal and building trust. These are interesting parallels but business is a contact sport. The very nature of competition and bottom-line awareness demands a level of cold, steel-eyed agnosticism that runs counter to this intimacy. As we approach next week’s season finale, it will be interesting to see if the writers of Mad Men stay true to the premise that love holds no place in “modern” New York ad agencies.

Volano Solutions has built a loyal customer base over the years of small to mid-sized companies and non-profits that needed insight and help on software solutions. As is the case with many businesses, the more clients you work with, the larger your network grows and custom development projects are not as hard to find. But you do need to find them. Last year Volano paid out over $70K in commissions to peers and partners who referred us to companies considering software changes resulting in custom work.

people at a conference table in a meeting

Omaha is a great example of a community where you are always one connection away from the connection. We like to tell our story and stay as connected as we can without compromising the obligation of tasks at hand. However, in business and software consulting, part of the task at hand is ensuring that you play an active role in helping your peers connect and engage with their potential partners. Reciprocity. Long ball. It’s hard to turn down meetings when you know that every conversation results in some new piece of information or a strengthened relationship. Volano has always been an open book company. We like to keep up with our peers and understand the marketplace. You get that from opening your doors and telling people about the work you do.

We are always interested in learning about companies that may be at a point where their current systems and process won’t scale with their growth. Meeting with these companies doesn’t always result in winning business. In fact, more often than not, it doesn’t. However, there is value for us in exploring the opportunity and offering consultation, even if it’s only to recommend the client that they buy off the shelf software that more suitably meets their needs and budget. We are happy to pay for these kinds of referrals when they result in business.

There is nothing like tuning into a dark, sardonic drama about characters whose moral compasses does not point north after 48 hours of near constant rain. Having watched the Miami Heat reassert their dominance last night on the Spurs, I turned on the late showing of Mad Men to see how the episode might tie into this week’s business theme; promote within. Trying to make the connection is a stretch so suffice to say, deconstructing the episode won’t be done in the context of that larger theme. If you didn’t catch the episode however, you should. Spoiler alert… Sally discovers what we’ve known since season one about Don Draper and once again, we see real vulnerability in the strong veneer of Draper as he hurts the most innocent of all the women in his life.

Mad Men isn’t always over the top. Ted had an all too familiar discussion with his wife about work life balance and her perception that he preferred to spend his time working and was more excited about competing in the office with Don than family dinner. Pete Campbell continues his decline in the aftermath of his separation with Rudy and his diminishing client base. A lack of communication at SC&P also lead to unnecessary time and expense spent landing competing clients. Nobody is reading Ted’s too frequently written memos.

So regarding this week’s theme; promote from within. In my experience it is preferred to promote your own people into roles of greater responsibility and impact. The benefits are obvious. Your employees see that talent and hard work are rewarded and feel more buy-in to your mission. You are less likely to have turnover and have mitigated your risk of a bad hire because you already have experience working with these people. This does not guarantee however that success in a role translates into success in another, especially where the goal changes from individual performance to that of procuring performance from others. It is not always possible to promote from within, especially as businesses change and the people who got you where you are may not have the experience to get you where you need to be. Bringing in someone from the outside might be the only best option. As we have seen on Mad Men, the politics and chemistry of an organization can become toxic if roles are ambiguous and personalities don’t gel.

graduation cap

I’ve been reading more and more articles calling into serious question the economic sense of completing a college degree. I’m a Gen-X guy and grew up hearing that an undergraduate degree was the new high school diploma. It was a minimum educational standard for “real world” preparation. In college I struggled as one heavily dependent on student loans with the decision to take courses that might best position me for success in the business world and classes I found interesting and intellectually stimulating. Those two things are not mutually exclusive for everyone but at the time, they were for me. In retrospect, a good deal of my “education” came from this struggle. It’s hard to quantify the value of knowing an E.E. Cummings poem if that knowledge doesn’t translate into a hard skill. A liberal arts education anymore it seems has become a means to an end and for those who have a hard time coming up with the funds, college and areas of study in college have sadly become business decisions.

Business week ran a good piece a year ago on this trend. As the article points out, it still pays to get a college degree. Kids who graduate earn almost a million more in lifetime-earning on average than those who only had high school diplomas. However, many students are avoiding degrees in areas that don’t pay as much out of school, especially as tuition continues to rise and student loan debt makes lower-paying jobs in non “hard science” fields untenable. Check out this WSJ piece on Harvard’s decline in Humanities majors. This is the football equivalent to the NFL switching to an option style of offense. Article Here.

There is a growing debate about the role of higher education. Some feel that education should prepare students for economic success after graduation where others feel, that the humanities make for well-rounded citizens play a role in the market economy as well. Tuition increases have been the greatest at 4-year private colleges and universities. Real tuition at the 4 year institutions has more than doubles since 1980. The question as I see it is will we reach a point where businesses need to liberalize their standards of on-paper qualifications if we see a rise in people entering the workforce without a 4 year degree? Will the decrease in students studying humanities and liberal arts re-define the caliber of an average, college-educated employee in any industry?

Shane and Jeremy work at Volano

Volano paid one of our own developers, Shane Fitch, $5,000 today for referring Jeremy O’Quin. Jeremy celebrated his 6 month anniversary today and we are very pleased with his performance and his input since coming on board. Volano will continue on with our referral program in 2013.

Anybody who refers a developer to Volano will receive $5,000 on the day of that employees 6th month anniversary. Obviously our own employees qualify and of course, have a keen understanding of what types of people achieve and enjoy working within our culture. We are always looking for high caliber developers and are very proud of our current roster. If you know a software developer, whether they are new to coding or a seasoned veteran that might be in the market, send them our way. Here are a few selling points.

If you know a developer who is tired of the bureaucracy of a large company, tired of maintaining a thing instead of creating things and does not look forward to coming to work, we’d love to help pull them out of the existential rut and into the FUN.

scene from Mad men

Last night’s Mad Men episode juxtaposed nicely the surreal, drug addled psyche of Don Draper in the context of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, another “am I really seeing this happen?” moment that actually happened. This was a heady head trip of an episode. However, through the hashish haze a business lesson yet emerges; Take Risks. There are a few examples here that show the characters of SCDP (soon to be Sterling Cooper & Partners or SC&P – are they figuratively preparing us for the killing off of Don?) taking calculated risks to develop business.

Joan pulls a fast one on Peggy to help her land the Avon account, business that Pete Campbell had been unsuccessfully trying to acquire. This is a move that could almost certainly cost Joan her job unless she actually takes Avon beyond a positive meeting and into an active account. I’ve rooted for Joan since early on in the show. She represents a high caliber employee hitting her head on the sixties glass ceiling while lesser men rise in the ranks. Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler are also taking risks in assigning accounts that could split the firm and weaken their pre-merger rival, Don. Big payoffs, big drawbacks…Don can usually small an ambush.

The decision to take risks can have payoffs beyond financial ones as demonstrated by fellow heartland entrepreneur turned angel investor Karen Linder in this morning’s Omaha World Herald column by Erin Grace – Read More.
It can also come with drawbacks if timed poorly. I wrote last week about the perils of innovation when execution suffers as a result of disproportionate focus on creating. Risk in business should be calculated to mitigate as many debilitating factors as possible. Linder took extraordinary risk but she involved herself in a business in which she was a subject matter expert. She did not get into investing in small upstarts who would not otherwise get funding through traditional means until she had the experience starting, growing and selling her own business.

Mad Men characters take as many horrible risks as they do calculated ones. The big question hanging over this series is whether or not Don, Roger and the old guard can adapt and change while the nation’s culture seismically shifts. Good Ad Men can’t simply react to the changes. And today it is not enough to simply anticipate the changes. Product marketing and sales need to cause the changes in society to earn the high praise of innovation. Risk is at the core of this change.