As Al Swearengen sips his morning coffee, looking over the dusty town of Deadwood from the balcony of his saloon, one thing is certain: He means business. Swearengen, played by Ian McShane, is a ruthless small-business owner in HBO's Deadwood-a series based on the real-life South Dakota town, circa 1876. Entrepreneurs, take note: You can learn a thing or two.
"Deadwood is the single best source of economic and business thinking that has ever hit popular media," says David Tufte, associate professor at Southern Utah University's business school in Cedar City, Utah. But extracting business lessons from TV is nothing new. In fact, there are several books based on lessons from HBO's other hit drama, The Sopranos, while Six Feet Under features an entrepreneurial family. So what makes Deadwood so good?
For starters, the show revolves around a town of businesses trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog environment-including saloons, a hotel and a freight and postal delivery business. Competition is fierce, and Swearengen is the craftiest of the bunch. "He doesn't get locked into anything," says Tufte. "He's seeking new information and changing his decision as he goes."
Tufte, who doesn't make viewing mandatory but encourages his students to explore the show's concepts, also appreciates Swearengen's approach to competition, pointing out that Swearengen often looks to his competitors for temporary partnerships when it's beneficial to him.
Then there's Swearengen on negotiating: He seeks the help of a bagman to kill a territorial administrator holding a warrant for his arrest. The bagman requests $20,000. Swearengen offers $2,000, assuring the bagman that if he accepts that price, he can expect more lucrative jobs in the future. The bagman accepts.
The lessons are far from sporadic: In the first season, Deadwood addresses leadership, contracting, property rights, marketing, managing and business expansion. If you can't wait until March for the sophomore season, read Tufte's blog, VoluntaryXchange.