Five lessons in entrepreneurship from The Simpsons

In The Simpsons plenty of characters start their own business: so what can others looking to do the same learn from their experiences?

There is barely a situation in a person’s life that has not also been experienced by a character in The Simpsons. For more than 20 years the residents of Springfield have been through the mill in more ways that you’d think imaginable. From having to move their whole town to living through alien invasions, they’ve seen it all.

During that time a large number have started their own businesses; following in the footsteps of many great American captains of industry from the Gold Rush to Google. So what can we learn from these often hapless but always willing yellow entrepreneurs?

1. Get your name out there

In the episode When Flanders Fails, Christian do-gooder Ned Flanders quits his lucrative job at a large pharmaceutical company to pursue his entrepreneurial dream and open his Leftorium. His shop full of products for left-handed people looked to have found a good niche in the market.

Despite putting his heart and soul into the business it initially fails horribly. Now this is partly attributed to the fact that Homer secretly wishes it to fail, but more realistically it’s because no one knows about it.

You can have the best product in the world, but if no one is aware of it it’s no use to anyone. With the advent of the internet, people assume it will be easier to get your start-up known. Well this is half right but in an increasingly crowded online marketplace even that can be harder than people think.

>Related: Are entrepreneurs cool?

Finally Homer assuages his guilt by helping Ned to succeed and spreading the word about the Leftorium. Despite only one-in-ten people being left-handed, that’s still more than enough to make it a success. As soon as people know about the shop they come in their droves and things turn around for Ned.

So whether it’s calling in a favour from a neighbour who has wronged you or putting together a savvy and focussed marketing campaign, just make sure people know you’re around and what you have to offer.

2. Play to your brand’s strengths

In the episode Mr Plow, Homer famously takes advantage of a cold snap to set up his own business helping to clear the roads.

He is hugely successful as he is the first to realise that, with very little capital (the cost of a snow plow) he can charge for a service that everyone needs. He is even awarded the key to the city for his services.

Unfortunately things start to go South when drinking buddy Barney essentially steals the idea and takes all of his customers. Barney’s business has a shiny new marketing campaign that suddenly makes him the toast of the town.

Panicked, Homer abandons the low-budget but catchy advertising campaign that brought him his initial success. He throws as much money as he has at the problem and ends up with an impenetrable television ad that doesn’t even appear to be for his product.

Clearly his attempt to win back business from his upstart rival doesn’t work. He loses everything and even has to return his key to the city.

When you have a business that is enjoying early and fragile success, there is always a chance someone else will come along and do something very similar to you. Often they will take a large chunk of your customer-base.

When this happens it’s always tempting to press the panic button and change everything. But throwing away the brand that, even at this early stage, you’ve built up is business suicide. Stick to your guns, re-double your efforts and make sure your business is the best that it can be. But don’t be forced into any rash changes in direction simply by some stiff competition.

3. Be careful when working with family

In episode Oh Brother, Where Art Though Homer meets his long-lost brother Herb. His relative is head of Powell Motors, a successful car company that’s going through some tough times.

>See also: Top five reasons why start-ups fail

Herb, delighted to meet his estranged family and find out about his roots, invites Homer to stay with him. When the subject turns to cars he realises that Homer represents the kind of demographic he is missing with his product – the average blue collar American.

Whether it’s through desperation or a surge of sibling love, Herb invites Homer to design the new car; giving him free rein and complete control over his production team. Unfortunately the whole thing is a complete disaster and Herb, along with his company, is ruined.

Family and friends can be imperative when starting and running your company. Whether it’s providing a loan for initial capital (if you’re very lucky!) or using a network of contacts, any entrepreneur will gladly take any help they can get.

But if relatives do get involved you have to make sure it’s for the right reasons and that it’s in the interest of both parties – and be aware of the massive risk involved. If this turns sour you may be tearing a whole family part – not just ending a business partnership.

4. Don’t sell yourself

Lovably cantankerous barman Moe Szyslack provides the next lesson in the episode Flaming Moe’s. In it Moe steals Homer’s secret recipe for a winning cocktail (PS stealing your customers’ ideas is very bad).

Moe manages to turn his ailing business around using this formula and soon transforms his bar to the hippest venue in town. While this success lasts for a while, ultimately it’s not company Moe is comfortable in and it fails. Moe is eventually back to where he started.

Now the message here is certainly not to prevent your business from growing and evolving. Plenty of successful entrepreneurs find success when they react to trends and move quickly to corner the nascent market. But chasing after short-term success is not advisable if it is in an area you neither have any interest in nor understand.

Like Moe, you may find that when the giddy days are over you’re in worse shape than when you started. You may also have to grovel to your loyal customers to take you back after you decided you’d be better off serving those with deeper pockets and better haircuts. By all means evolve, react to trends and take risks – just don’t ever sell yourself.

5. Work, work, work

One thing that all of those who start businesses in The Simpsons have in common, even Homer and Barney, is that they all work their socks off to make it happen.

Obviously the show doesn’t depict what it’s really like to start a business – the endless search for funding and 18-hour days – but even the laziest characters seem to step up to make things happen.

And this is something that can be reflected in real life. If someone is terminally lazy there is little chance they will ever start or run a successful business. But there are people who have gone into business on their own ­– many of whom have done so through necessity following the recession – and really found their feet.

Working towards your own dream can be inspiring and give access to reservoirs of energy and resilience people didn’t even know existed. But all of this is only possible with more work in a day than 99% of those working nine-to-five get through in a week.

The rewards are great but so are the sacrifices. Be strong, focus on your end goal and for god’s sake don’t stop working.

Further reading on entrepreneurs:

> Five business giants who failed first time around


Hywel Roberts

Hywel was editor of Growth Business in 2015 and then moved on to be deputy editor at Works Management.

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