The Formula

Last night Amy and I watched the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show The Newsroom. It started out strong but by about 30 minutes in I said to Amy “this isn’t going to last for us – this is Sports Night, but less interesting.” By the end I realized Sorkin was simply following “The Formula” which many people, both creatives and professionals, fall into. I’ll explain in a bit, but first some play by play analysis (to mix metaphors).

We loved Sports Night. I’m the sports widow in this family – I don’t really care about or watch much professional sports. But we watched Sports Night on DVD from beginning to end around 2002. I remember watching five or six episodes at night at some point. We literally couldn’t stop and just raced through it. We were already into The West Wing by then and felt like we’d discovered a special, magic window into Sorkin’s brain – a parallel universe to the brilliance that was the first few seasons of The West Wing. But even faster paced, punchier, rougher, less polished, and less serious.

Isaac, Dana, Casey, Dan, Natalie, and Jeremy became new friends. We loved them – flaws and all. The dramatic tension existed in every thirty minute (well – 22 minute to allow for commercials) show. We could watch three episodes in an hour. Six in two. Awesomeness.

Thirty minutes into The Newsroom and I already recognized Charley as Isaac, Will as Casey, Mackenzie as Dana, Jim as Nathalie, Maggie as Jeremy. Only Dan was missing. The supporting characters in the newsroom all looked familiar and as non-memorable as the one’s in Sports Center. There were a few gender change ups, but not many, and the obvious romantic / sexual relationship with Will-Mackenzie (Casey-Dana) and pending Jim-Maggie (Nathalie-Jeremy) were front and center.

I won’t bother watching episode two. I’ll let The Newsroom run its course for the first season and if it gets great reviews go back and watch it later. I’m bummed because I was hoping it would feel like another West Wing to me rather than Studio 60. We’ve been looking for a new TV series to watch since we burned out on Mad Men – I guess it won’t be this one.

Back to The Formula. I got an email from an entrepreneur on Saturday. He described his new business in the words of his last successful business, which exited in 2000. I have no idea what he’s done between 2000 and 2012 – he didn’t go into it, but he used his 1996 – 2000 experience to explain why his new business was going to be great. While the context was different, the business was different, the environment was different, and the technology was different, The Formula was the same.

Big companies love The Formula. They keep doing the same things over and over again until they don’t work anymore. Suddenly, when they don’t work, they either go through radical transformation, upheaval, or disruption. In some cases, like IBM in the early 1990’s, they have a near death experience before re-emerging as something completely different. In others cases, like Novell, they just quietly disappear.

VCs use The Formula constantly. I’ve sat through thousands of board meetings where I hear the equivalent of “in 1985 we did blah blah blah and you should also.” Or, “sales works this way – you need to be getting $X per rep for direct – it has always worked this way.” I could give an endless list of examples of this. It’s one of the challenges with VCs, especially ones who had some success, drifted for a while, and then rediscovered “The Formula” as the path to being successful again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The Formula works for a while. Eventually it gets stale. If you go back 30 years, you’ll see The Formula hard at work in the sitcoms of my childhood. Happy Days. Laverne and Shirley. Three’s Company. Try to sit through two hours of these shows – you’ll pluck your eyeballs out with a tweezer. They are campy, fun and nostalgic for 15 minutes and then mindblowingly dull.

If you are an entrepreneur, recognize that The Formula is hard at work all around you. Many people – your investors, your partners, your competitors – are simply using a newer version of The Formula they used for the last 20 years. Don’t be afraid to completely blow it up – it worked in the past but people are attracted to new things, inspiring things, things that challenge the way they think. Inspire – don’t fall back on “it’s always worked this way.”

Don’t ignore The Formula. When it’s working, it’s awesome. But remember that it doesn’t work forever.

C’mon Sorkin – inspire us!

  • Mike Pierce

    Brad, firstly Sports Night was an awesome show. Thank god I finally found someone else who enjoyed it so much.

    Second, I’d throw one additional add on to your post. When you’re challenging the formula you’re challenging the status quo, which people hate. I work in the construction industry which is known for being a late adopter and very entrenched in their beliefs.

    When we’re challenging the status quo, which we do everyday via telesales, it’s important to remember that there are early adopters in every group. So, when an entrepreneur is challenging the formula, about 95% of people will tell you ‘No’, but there’s always that 5% that’s looking for ways to one up the market and for the new edge. The trick of course is finding them.

    Happy hunting,

    Mike Pierce

    • Well said – totally agree.

  • Maybe there is a point where a person, like Sorkin, has proven themselves without doubt, so all there is left to do is to pile on what has already worked. What do you do when you reach the mountain top, like Sorkin or IBM? Just change the formula, i.e, starting at the bottom of a different mountain?

    • I love the idea of going out “on top” and picking a totally different mountain to tackle.

      • They say that “there is nothing new under the sun”, and that creativity involves using the same elements that everyone else has but combining them in novel ways. I’m not sure if that is the case in true disruption but I like that idea as applied here. It means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to break out of the formula. You can infuse what you do with new characteristics and meaning, just as the circular staircase keeps coming to the same place but at a higher level.

        Life is about growth, and that is one reason why formulas grow old. As there is no standing still in life, if we’re not moving forward in life then we are moving backwards. A wise man told me that.

    • This is a well-known phenom in the film business. When a director (or producer or writer) gets so successful that he/she no longer has to collaborate — when no one dares say, “Aaron, this sucks” — that’s when you get Newsroom.

      • Interestingly, we hung in for Episode 2 which was MUCH BETTER than Episode 1. #3 was solid and #4 was dynamite, so we are still watching it at this point.

        • They pivoted 😉 Well, now I have to check it out. I do like many of the actors involved.

  • Brad Feld is a fucking genius. This is the best thing I have read in a long time.

  • I grew up not watching TV, just getting into shows in my late 30s, currently watching the West Wing with my wife. If you don’t mind the language, Deadwood is a great show!

  • @bfeld:disqus knows the SECRET of *irony*:
    Start with a SEXY phrase to grab attention.
    Deliver key points in a COMPELLING manner.
    Explain how to rinse, lather and repeat – great copy never fades.
    Brad knows great copy never fades 😉

  • I vividly remember pitching a sequel to the movie ‘Line of Fire’ with Clint Eastwood, in which Clint plays a Secret Service agent protecting the President. The studio had been trying to make a sequel for years but couldn’t find anyone for Clint to protect who was as important as the President. Our take was to avoid this problem by not having him protect anyone but rather to use his skills in protecting someone but penetrate someone else’s protection. The producer and agents were excited about our take – there was finally a way out of the box of trying to find someone more important than the President. We pitched to the studio executive who listened, agonized then declared – ‘He has to protect someone. Find me someone for him to protect.’ And in that moment I realized that to him repeating the formula was low risk, to me it was exactly the opposite, audiences don’t want to watch the same movie. Of course, ‘Line of Fire 2’ was never made because they could never find someone more important than the President. And there we have it, it doesn’t matter what the business is, there are always going to be people who think regurgitating something that worked in the past is a formula for success and there will always been people whose instinct is to innovate. I have come to the conclusion that this is very much a matter of the way one assesses perceived risk and that this is largely a matter of temperament. The sort of person who thinks you can minimise risk by means of a formula is hard to persuade to take a leap into what they see as the unknown. And the sort of person who senses that a retread is unlikely to be well received is just as hard to dissuade. These kind of differences in temperament of very hard to bridge. But they are critical to recognize – they are, for example, intimately related to the class of adopters Clay Christensen describes in ‘Crossing the Chasm.’

    • Awesome example. Disruption never occurs by those who simply do more of the same. You’ll get your movies made, or find a way to make them yourself.

      • After I had been screenwriting a while I won a competition and part of the prize was mentorship from a seasoned pro. I vividly remember him telling me – “One day, if you continue to work your ass off and advance your craft, and if you’re very very lucky, someone will make a terrible movie out of one of your scripts.’

        I have had movies made. And he was exactly right. 🙂 No tears.

        • I’m glad. Hope it was a good experience.

          • Bitter sweet. Satisfying to get something made in the face of impossible odds (if you think getting a startup off the ground is hard, try to get a studio movie made). But painful with respect to some of the creative compromises.

          • Maybe that will serve as a baseline to which you will continually upgrade. Use the law of attraction to bring to you people who share your creative vision.

          • Exactly.

  • Brad, have you checked out Breaking Bad? It takes 3 or 4 eps to really get drawn in, but then is really great writing and acting combined w/ scenes/plots that are very entertaining and exciting.

    • A bunch of folks have recommended Breaking Bad. We’ll probably end up jamming through it near the end of summer when we are tired of writing.

    • I was just coming to recommend the same thing. I watched it from the start and it’s one of my two all-time favorites (next to The Wire). It’s incredibly well done, very unique plot, the cast and acting and cinematography are top notch.

      The new season is coming up on July 15th, and I was going to re-watch (since I had surgeries and chemo overlapping with some of these seasons) – and got her hooked. We blew through 4 seasons (hour long episodes) in a matter of a week. More addictive than the crystal meth they produce 🙂

      The first three seasons are up on Netflix. We watched the 4th from DVR but I do know it’s on iTunes etc.

      HIGHLY recommended.

  • The best ‘new’ show this past season for my wife and I was ‘Once upon a time’…it was fun with a solid story and decent writing (in my opinion of course)…

  • James Mitchell

    Foundry Group has certain themes it is interested in. For FG, that is The Formula.

  • DJ

    Great post. One thought I have, though, is that you have to be picky about where you innovate. For certain aspects of your business you should be looking to change the world, but in other areas you should be utterly mundane. Remember business model patents? Ugh.

    So maybe you have an amazing new technology that will be difficult to pull off. In that context, the answer to how you make money should be relatively straightforward, not relying on pulling an inside straight. For web companies that basically means SaaS, advertising and.. actually I can’t think of another.

  • The formula is often repeated down to the word…. in screenwriting and in business. No sense plagiarizing yourself, creativity and originality always win.
    This totally hammers your point home:

  • It’s not just the Formula – it’s the entire script:

    I’ll probably watch it anyway.

  • That’s an astute post. Like the old saying goes, the smart person believes only half of what others say. The brilliant person knows which half to believe. The analogy to the Formula is that some things have a parallel in the past, while others don’t. If the future was just a linear progression of its past, then we’d just learn to draw straight lines and follow their paths.

  • If you’re looking for a new series – I think it should be Breaking Bad as I said below (on someone else’s recommendation).

    Some other things we really are enjoying together now too…

    * Boss (Starz), starring Kelsey Grammer. It’s pretty dark, well done, he plays “corrupt” Chicago mayor. 2nd season coming soon.
    * Homeland (SHO)
    * Hell on Wheels (AMC)
    * Game of Thrones (HBO) is great, of course, though books are better.
    * Shameless (SHO) starring William H Macy as a drunk.

    Another old SHO time series that ended too soon, but I would highly recommend, is Brotherhood. About two brothers in Rhode Island, one a politician and the other a mobster.

    Hooray for quality television 🙂

  • No one recommends “Boardwalk Empire?” Am I alone here?

    • I liked the first few episodes but then got tired of it.

      • You’re a tough customer! 😉 I’ll have to check out Sports Night and see what I missed (never watched it).

        • Sports Night holds up really well.

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