filmI’m writing this on my first day back from a week-long vacation, during which among other more interesting and exciting activities we spent a late night watching Wolf of Wall Street. I’m not quite sure what caused all the uproar around the movie– I didn’t find it in any way spectacular, nor did I think it was grossly raunchy, cinematically innovative, or particularly well written. It was incredibly long, and had we not been lounging on vacation, we certainly would not have made it to the end.

However, the small business lessons from the movie practically jumped off the screen. From the recurring “Sell me this pen” line, to establishing a trust relationship with a customer, to starting from nothing, returning to nothing, and getting back up and reinventing again, the movie can be viewed as a lesson in how to be a great entrepreneur. Of course, it is also a cautionary tale warning against the perils of excess, self-importance, and not having the best interests of your customers at heart.

But the true irony is that the movie itself, due to its dragging excessive length, breaks several cardinal rules of sales and of business in general:

  • Keep talking until you make the sale, then shut-up once you do.
  • Less is more. This applies to advertising, marketing, social media, email, phone messages, and every other type of business communication. Get to the point quickly, succinctly and effectively make your point, and don’t waste your customers’ time.
  • Shock value can work if you employ it once. Use it too often and it not only becomes ineffective, it can also be viewed as annoying, or worse insulting or disgusting. Many have criticized the movie for an excessive use of “pornographic” sex scenes and drugged stupor scenes. One such scene might have provided the “shock” factor the movie was going for; but multiple such scenes that didn’t drive the plot were just annoying (movie prolonging) distractions.

Wall Street Movies

If you’re looking for small business lessons from more watchable movies, happily there are many other options. The Lifehack post 10 Unforgettable Financial Lessons From The Most Entertaining Wall-Street Movies, highlights the Margin Call lesson about facing significant risks, the perils of trying to impress others displayed in Boiler Room, the havoc the press can wreak when it sinks its teeth into you from Bonfire of the Vanities, and the horror of a personal meltdown in American Psycho, among others.

Of course, no mention of movie business lessons would be complete without the 1987 classic Wall Street. Business Lessons From 3 Iconic Movies, from the Huffington Post, cites two related lessons from the movie: There are no short cuts to business success, and you must exercise patience to succeed.

Horror Movies

Starting a small business can be scary, and sometimes it seems that you need the strength and perseverance of a horror movie hero or heroine to succeed and be the last one standing.

Small Business Tactics learned from classic horror movies from Hub Runner highlights business lessons in small business ownership from Nightmare on Elm Street, such as “Study how your competitors are interacting with them, then do it better;” lessons on collaboration from Scream; and lessons on creative thinking on your feet from Halloween.

While not in the Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street vein, Jurassic Park is a sci-fi horror movie of science and business gone wrong. A recent YFS Magazine post, 5 Startup Lessons From 90’s Sci-Fi Hit ‘Jurassic Park’ claims that, “There is a science to creating a successful startup, whether you are cloning dinosaurs, or trying to avoid the hiccups that come with establishing a thriving business.” The lessons it gleans from the movie include looking out for Raptors, by which it means social media trolls that study your company’s moves and strategically attack from all sides; and preparing for imminent attack by having a crisis plan in place for the crisis that will inevitably arrive.

Classic Movies

While it may seem strange that movies from the 1970s and 1980s, to say nothing of those from the 1930s, can teach us anything about running a small business in the 21st century, some lessons about business and leadership are truly timeless.

This five-part series from CEOWorld Magazine looks at leadership through the lens of the 1939 The Wizard of Oz movie. It begins with Courage, then discusses the Ruby Slippers as the “power within” that leaders need to both realize and trust to succeed, Dorothy’s Goal as an example of participative leadership, The Scarecrow’s Brains as a lesson in wisdom trumping knowledge and the power of adaptive leadership, and The Tin Man’s Heart as an illustration of heart-centered leadership. The series as a whole posits that the effective leader must strive to merge all of these characteristics to succeed.

9 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn from “It’s a Wonderful Life” calls George Bailey “the quintessential entrepreneur” who teaches about the importance of focusing on community as part of a “triple bottom line” that is not all about profit.

5 Smart Business Lessons from Your Favorite Christmas Movies highlights the perils of taking on premature debt depicted in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, as well as the value of putting the customer first in Miracle on 34th Street, and the power of product placement highlighted by the still strong demand for the Red Ryder BB Gun featured in A Christmas Story. (Be sure to check out the post for some great clips from these classics.)

Movies Highlight the Keys to Success

From the strong to the ethical to those following their dreams, small business owners can draw inspiration from these fictional heroes and heroines.

3 Essential Small Business Lessons from Jerry Maguire from YFS Magazine, includes the Dicky Fox The Secret to Success clip, teaching us: “The key to this business is personal relationships;” “Roll with the punches. Tomorrow is another day;” and “If [the heart] is empty, [the head] doesn’t matter.”

Small Business Lessons From The Hunger Games discusses key business lessons taught by movie heroine Katniss, including that small business owners are not afraid to take chances and “go big,” that the most successful small businesses fight for a cause, and that winning at small business is about “survival of the fittest.”

Big Business Lessons from the Movie Big from Inc, suggests that we should all emulate the 13-year old boy inside a 30 year-old body from this classic 1980s Tom Hanks movie. In the movie, Hanks’ character succeeds in the business world precisely because his child’s sensibility allows him to be fearless, inquisitive, positive, and to be himself– all key characteristics of a successful small business owners.

Movies with Marketing Lessons

Marketing lessons come in plots, as well as promotions of the movies themselves.

7 Content Marketing Lessons Your Business Can Learn From Marvel’s Superhero Movies looks at Marvel’s marketing strategy for the entire franchise including how it builds and maintains its brand, how it interacts with viewers in multiple formats, how it embraces the entire “universe” it has created, how it involves customers with constant teasers and announcements of upcoming movies and characters, how it uses symbolism including icons and logos to help viewers connect with the characters, and how it leverages everyone’s love for a Hero.

Moneyball is a movie about how the Oakland Athletics used player statistics as the basis for assembling a winning baseball team. In a New York Times You’re The Boss post, Applying the Lessons of Moneyball and Golden Motions to Your Business, Robert J. Moore explains how his business intelligence software company uses a similar data-mining approach to help businesses of all types succeed. For example, he discusses how the company analyzed its own free trial users in order to find the “golden motion” or key trial activity that if performed is the best predictor of conversion into a paying customer. Once identified, that behavior was highlighted in training calls, resulting in doubling the conversion rate.

The 2014 movie Chef is ostensibly about a chef who quits his job to start a food truck business, and his cross country journey to success. 8 lessons from Chef to build your business on Twitter shows that the movie is as much about leveraging social media as it is about cooking. Among the lessons taught by the Chef’s young son are: You can only post a private message to someone who is following you; and tell your fans where to find you.

The Perfect TV Ad

Ghostbusters is essentially a movie about starting and running a small business. It starts by defining a niche service offering to meet a pressing customer need and compiling a winning team, and then takes us along on their journey from acquiring their first customer to saving the city and reveling in the glory of a wildly successful small business.

Along with the trials and tribulations of being slimed, exorcising demons, and fighting giant stay-puff marshmallow men, these entrepreneurs also need to drum-up business. The following clip of the Ghostbusters TV ad serves as a lesson in less is more advertising that even 30+ years later is worthy of emulation.

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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