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!