3 Management Lessons from HBO’s Silicon Valley

May 19, 2014
6 Min Read

HBO’s new TV series Silicon Valley has gotten favorable reviews even from the object of its humor: the SF Bay Area start-up ecosystem. The show is funny, almost satirical, and very revealing: It exposes the non-existent project management skills of celebrated young entrepreneurs. Based on the episodes shown so far, it will be a miracle if Pied Piper, the company founded by Richard Hendricks, the series’ anti-hero, ever gets its product to market.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an “intrapreneur” trying to inspire innovation in a corporate team, or someone who simply wants to get a product out the door, you can probably take away dozens of lessons from this series — mostly about what not to do. Three big lessons stand out to me, and even if you never watch the show, you might want to take them to heart.

A business is not just about the product.

Richard, the shy founder, has an idea for an audio compression application that also protects against copyright infringement. He lives in an incubator house in Palo Alto, but also works for a large corporation. Richard shows software to his buddies at the corporation, and they think it is cool.

But no one asks the question, “How much would someone pay for this?” Much less any project plan or cost analysis.

Under the guidance of the incubator’s owner, Richard goes out to raise money, and is successful – unfortunately (I believe). He gets a seed round of $200,000. This is just enough money to make him believe he has a business, but he finds out immediately that he doesn’t; he can’t even deposit the venture capitalist’s check without a corporation and a bank account. Haphazardly and without any sense of process, Richard blunders from episode to episode trying to get ready to accept this funding.

And then he needs a team.

Don’t hire friends and family.

Some of Richard’s housemates also work with him at the large corporation. (It is reminiscent of Google.) Once they hear he’s getting money, his Brogrammer buddies are desperate to jump ship and work for the startup. Richard is happy to have them, so he “hires” them, or rather they hire themselves, forcing him to accept them. No contracts, no offers, no clarity around expectations.

No wonder the buddies do not see him as a leader, and they don’t feel they have to work very hard for him. They don’t have job descriptions, and he has a hard time figuring out where each one fits. Worse, he has to get rid of one person who isn’t needed on the team. (Fortunately, the kid gets a really good job offer from the large corporation to do nothing for $600,000 a year, or Richard would be in an HR nightmare.)

Put processes in place from the get-go.

It takes until episode 5 for Richard to realize that if the product is ever going to launch, he has to resort to some systematic method to get it built. It can’t just be fun and games.

So he and his business advisor decide on Scrum, a well-known software development method that can (among its other virtues) get people who are loners to work together toward a common goal. That would be a good idea – if it were the right process for the team. Scrum is a pretty non-invasive and inclusive project management methodology. But the Silicon Valley team groans when it is introduced. It’s supposed to let teams self-organize with daily communication and yellow post-it notes. But the power of scrum comes from allowing the software team to interact with customers and respond to their needs, and Pied Piper’s product has yet to see a customer.

And here's one more management lesson...from our interview with Kumail Nanjinai himeself, who plays Dinesh on Silicon Valley.

These are the first lessons I see from the TV show, and I’m looking forward to upcoming episodes to garner more. Which takeaways do you think can help your team?

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