Everything I Need to Know About Startups I Learned from Watching Adventure Time

by Max

There’s a TV show on the air right now that can teach you everything you need to know about starting a company.

It’s not Shark Tank. It’s not Silicon Valley. It’s not even Restaurant Startup (featuring official Friend of Castle Banza!)

It’s Adventure Time1.

For those of you unfamiliar with Adventure Time, the cartoon follows the adventures (of course) of Finn, a boy who may or may not be the only human left alive, and Jake, a shapeshifting dog who’s also Finn’s adopted brother, as they journey through a post-apocalyptic magical world. But it’s so much more than that. Writing in the New Yorker a few months ago, TV critic Emily Nussbaum2 described Adventure Time as “one of the most philosophically risky and, often, emotionally affecting shows on TV.”

She didn’t mention all the startup lessons, but trust me—they’re in there too. Allow me to demonstrate:

Lesson #1: Be relentless.

Building a startup is an exercise in repeated failure. Fail, iterate, repeat, and so on, until eventually (hopefully) you succeed. The trick, basically, is just to not stop3.

Many of Adventure Time’s characters embody this lesson, from Finn and Jake’s relentless adventuring to Lumpy Space Princess’ relentless quest to go to Promcoming with Brad4. But none exhibit it better than the Ice King, the ineptly evil, socially awkward ruler of the Ice Kingdom.

The Ice King is relentless in his quest to marry a princess, whether by kidnapping one, brainwashing one, or even entering an epic Wizard Battle to win a kiss with one. Despite having no friends other than some penguins of unclear intelligence, the Ice King manages to stay upbeat about his situation5. It’s an example we can all learn from, even if our startups don’t (yet) involve kidnapping princesses6.

Lesson #2: Don’t get excited about a deal until you know all the details.

Whether it’s an investment round or a big partnership, I’ve seen so many startups get super excited about deals that turned out to not be so great once they read the fine print. (The classic example: raising a huge round [hooray!!] but giving away a huge percentage of your company [not so hooray…].)

Finn and Jake learn this lesson the hard way in the season one episode “Wizard.” They’re offered some magic powers by Bufo, a weird frog, but in their excitement about gaining sweet wizard powers, they don’t ask what Bufo demands from them in return.

Dustomancy—the power to control dust mites!

Holding up their end of the deal results in a lifetime of wizard enslavement—at least, until Finn formulates a winning escape plan. Because this is, after all, a kids’ show—albeit, an incredibly disturbing one.

Lesson #3: Not everything has a lesson.

How do nimble companies become sclerotic and bureaucratized7? Often, it starts like this: a mistake is made, a lesson is learned, that lesson is codified into a new rule or procedure. Rinse, wash, repeat, and a process that’s intended to eliminate mistakes ends up eliminating the very spontaneity that made you succeed in the first place.

While it’s important to learn from your mistakes, it’s equally important to recognize that not every failure has a lesson to teach. Luck is the perpetually under-credited component of success, and sometimes you fail despite doing everything right.

“Freak City,” my personal favorite episode of Adventure Time, makes this lesson hilariously explicit8. At the beginning of the episode, Finn is turned into a giant foot by a flamboyant douchebag known only as Magic Man, who refuses to change Finn back until he’s learned “a valuable life lesson.”

Foot-Finn becomes an outcast due to his freakish nature, but eventually—after an inexplicably auto-tuned musical interlude—he teams up with a bunch of other messed-up freaks to hunt down Magic Man. And after all that, it turns out the “lesson” Magic Man wanted them to learn was just that he, Magic Man, is a big jerk.

Some lesson, huh? But that’s how it goes: not every experience has a valuable life lesson to teach you. Sometimes, the best course of action is just to move on.

I watch Adventure Time almost every week, and with each new episode I’m more and more convinced that it’s one of the crowning artistic achievements of our era. And the business lessons? They’re not half-bad either.

  1. Kind of gave it away there with the title, didn’t I?
  2. No relation, I swear.
  3. Paul Graham said that “you can get surprisingly far [in a startup] by just not giving up.”
  4. Most cartoon characters are known for their limited, repetitive behavior sets, so none of this is too surprising.
  5. That said, it’s not too hard to tell that he’s masking a deep, incurable sadness underneath.
  6. “The royalty abduction industry is ripe for disruption!”
  7. I’m normally a super good speller, but man, “bureaucratized” trips me up every time. Get it together bureaucratized!
  8. This episode also contains one of my all-time favorite Adventure Time quotes: “I’m not gonna cry, man, I just FEEL like crying!”
  1. entercastle posted this