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What Startups Could Learn From the Writing of “Bridesmaids”
05.25.11

 

This is going to be a strange post but one of the things I like to do is look at lessons, commonalties, and examples from one industry and tie them back to another industry. A lot of good business, frankly, is pattern recognition -- but patterns don't always come exactly -- so finding patterns and success stories in other industries can be good guideposts.

A few days ago, I saw "Bridesmaids" -- frankly, one of the funniest movies I've seen in recent memory and my favorite Apatow produced film of all time. 

Annie Mumolo, who along with Kristin Wiig, co-wrote the screenplay, was recently on Jeff Goldsmith's podcast "The Q&A" [link] and recounted the writing of "Bridesmaids". Here were some of my favorite tidbits from the podcast.

13:20 -- Judd Apatow asks Kristin Wiig if she has anything else (after working with her in "Knocked Up")

  • It obviously helps if you're in comedy and Judd Apatow basically says that he likes your work and will get behind your work. That being said, how many times have we all said "no" when we could've said yes? And the no doesn't necessarily have to be a harsh no -- it could be one out of humbleness, insecurity, or just worried that one isn't ready. After all, "Bridesmaids" is the first script for both Kristin and Annie. Were they "ready"? Maybe not. But who cares? They said yes to encouragement and now Kristin is the star of a major film and Annie has her first screenwriting credit and recently sold a new pitch to Paramount. 
  • What does this mean for startups? Try to say yes instead of saying no. The reality is a lot of meetings, pitches, interviews, etc. are dead ends. Or seeming dead ends. Bill Gates once said that only 6 people made all the difference in his business career. Think about all the people he must've met in his life and only 6 made all the difference. You don't know which will be 1 of those 6 for your startup. 

16:22 -- "Oh my gosh, we have to write a movie."

  • Annie and Kristin pitched Judd on the basic concept of "Bridesmaids." However, the next day, they had a change of heart, called him up, and said they wanted to do a different idea. Turns out Apatow had already sold the idea to Universal so that's the one they were going to do.
  • When you work for a company, there's a giant forcing function. It's called your boss. He/she tells you to do something -- you sort of do it (or you start looking for another job -- voluntarily or involuntarily.) This function doesn't always exist with startups (but sometimes it does.) For example, let's say you're in an incubator -- what's the forcing function? Demo day! You need to have a working demo by that day -- so you kill yourself to do it. But let's say you don't have that function? What do you do? I'm not sure -- but this is where I've seen startups get in trouble, particularly ones that have a bit too much money. Weeks can turn into months which is a lot of wasted time in terms of burn rate and market/mind share. Know yourself -- do you need a forcing function to get things done? Are you holding you and your startup to a high enough standard in terms of shipping product, closing deals, core metrics? Do you miss these metrics?

17:18 -- "Let's just think of it as writing a series of sketches."

  • Annie and Kristin are searching around for books to read and a way in to start writing the film. Kristin says "let's just think of it as writing a series of sketches" which gives both of them comfort to get started (they have significant backgrounds in writing comedy sketches because of their improv/comedy training.)
  • Here's my take on this. Things can seem overwhelming at times. For example, I've talked to many folks who have seemed intimidated by product management. Do you know what the first thing I do with them is? I get them up on their feet at a whiteboard to start sketching out how the product might look. No words. Show me. Where does the nav bar go? How about the buy button? How are you planning on merchandising the item? Step by step, bit by bit. The end product can seem overwhelming (e.g. try imagining yourself building a car tomorrow) -- but even the most complex processes are a series of discrete steps. Focus on those steps, one by one. 

18:33 -- Judd Apatow believes in the "vomit pass"

  • Just get it out there.
  • The subtle thing with this with startups is that you can't launch a terrible product (or at least it's a bad idea.) That being said, it's not bad if the product is problematic in many ways. It just needs to be improved quickly. One of the biggest problems with product, if not the biggest, is not shipping -- not having a product. When it's out there, you can fix it and you have all the market feedback to fix it. But the inertia is always strong not to get it out there. I would say this is similar to "launch broken, but not too broken." [link]

20:46 -- "Layering in and layering in over time."

  • Annie describes how they took their series of sketches, re-worked the structure, and then added a B-story and layered in additional details over time.
  • This is a big thing with me -- particularly with product but also with anything business-wise. Details. The small details really matter. The best example I can give is Apple. Typically, in companies, there's a certain amount of glory associated with doing "strategy" -- here's where we're going or what we're investing in. Below that is the execution of the business-lines. Below that is all the individual items -- let's say something like instruction manuals or whatever else. This is a gross oversimplification. But here's why I bring it up. Steve Jobs himself evaluates the packaging of an Apple product. A couple of years ago, I bought both Final Cut Pro (made by Apple) and Adobe Creative Suite at the same time. The box for FCP was strong, thick, sharply done -- felt befitting of a very high quality product. The Adobe box was thin cardboard, cheap, and flimsily constructed. Both are very expensive products. What's Adobe's thinking? Maybe they don't think the box is very important. Maybe their executives thought it was beneath them to rigorously evaluate it. Whatever it is -- it's a consequential detail in the overall product -- it touches and affects the customer and therefore it matters. 
  • Let me give one more example. I heard from a guy who used to work in marketing at Gatorade when Michael Jordan was at his apex. They had a binder -- the Jordan Rules, so to speak. It literally covered everything -- who should greet Michael when he arrived, where he would park, the type of food he liked to eat, etc. It would be easy to dismiss this as more ludicrous celebrity trappings. But at the core of it, MJ was a 9 or 10 figure asset for Gatorade. Every minute they could get of his time to film a commercial or do a promotional event was worth more than gold to them. They had to maximize it and make sure he was happy, in the right mind set, not distracted or worried about his handlers, etc. They did this by making sure, to the best of their ability, that every detail was thought through.

28:00 -- "Let's have a table read."

  • A table read is when actors get together and read the script around a table. There's something great about this because jokes that might be funny in your head or dialogue that seems crisp and great might fall flat. It can be hard to know before actually getting it up on its feet, so to speak. There are also other people there too -- so do they laugh? Are they invested?
  • Here are 2 things I'll throw out here. When I PM a product -- I feel differently about a product when it's in my mind, when I've sketched it out, when a designer has created mocks, when it's on a development server, and when it's live. This is just how I viscerally feel. I can't feel these things absent those stages -- that's why it's so important to get to each stage because I'll have new thoughts at each stage. The second thing is for as much planning and thought that goes into a product -- before the market has a chance to use it -- you simply don't know how they'll respond. Knowing that, or using that as a base, that means it's about speed to market -- getting a product that basically encapsulates your vision to market so you can get feedback and iterate on that feedback.

29:36 -- "What was the scene that bombed that is no longer in the movie?"

  • Annie recounts a scene that is no longer in the film that was killed by Apatow because of what a big tonal shift it was.
  • One of my big things -- especially because I not only worked in a lot of corporate environments where this wasn't the case and deal with a lot of individuals who have a low tolerance for this -- is that startups need permission to fail. Frankly, I think all of us, not just startups or businesses in general -- we all need permission to fail. A lot of the stuff a startup is going to do isn't going to work. Maybe they have a thesis about how to generate revenue. Won't work. Or won't work right away. I see this all the time. Company launches X. X doesn't take off. Press says X is a failure. Years later -- turns out that's a big business -- just needed time. Don't kill things off too quickly and even when things turn out badly -- chalk it up to failure. Sometimes failure = incompetence, but not always. Give good people breathing room to make mistakes. If you don't, you run a safe organization and that's much worse.

33:13 -- "We were under his wing for so many years."

  • Annie recounts working with Apatow for such a long time and said that the big thing she remembered was how he kept encouraging them to go to places they didn't want to go and to take bigger risks.
  • It's easy to get too little or too much feedback. It's also easy to get bad feedback. There are a lot of stupid people out there. The worst ones are the ones with fancy titles or seeming big accomplishments and you assume that because they have X, they must be good. Sometimes true, but not always. That being said, the value of having someone give *great* advice, guide and mentor someone -- is staggeringly valuable. Figuring out if you have that person in your life or getting that person if you don't have that person -- is difficult. So this is what I would encourage with startups who are looking for advisors, mentors, etc. Meet a lot of people. See who resonates with you. See who shares your values. See who provides value on a regular basis in terms of their advice. Evaluate and re-evaluate them over time as you yourself good better. Find the equivalent of your Judd Apatow. We all have them. Even Steve Jobs. He and Bill Campbell supposedly still meet once a week for a 1:1.

36:25 -- the "food poisoning scene"

  • For those who have read anything about this movie, this is about the infamous food poisoning scene. Annie says that they had a different scene here originally and Judd pushed them to create a different scene -- one where there's a much bigger mistake. Annie and Kristin were hesitant about this scene. Judd said they'll shoot both of them and see which works.
  • A/B testing is talked about a lot but frankly, not used nearly enough. A/B testing can be a waste of time -- it's not a substitute for instincts because it's expensive (just like shooting two of the same scene is expensive in filmmaking.) That being said -- the mentality is the same. Be open to the possibility that something outrageous might be right. I often say this to startups -- especially when they send me things to review which I consider "safe". Push the envelope. What if the sales/marketing on a particular page was extreme? What would it look like? Bring 3 examples of it -- the one you like, but then 2 more which are crazy for whatever reasons and push it in a particular way. You don't have to use them, but at least we can then reference them. That's what I see here -- giving yourself intellectual permission to go places you wouldn't otherwise normally go.

I'll close with what resonated most with me (and the first thing I mentioned.) Just say yes / just do it. Annie and Kristin (with the help and encouragement of Judd Apatow) -- went out and created a great movie. But even if they created a bad movie -- that's ok too, it would've been good experience and practice. Don't worry about whether you're ready or what other people think. It's ok if they think you're stupid, your idea is bad, or that there are so many other, more accomplished people who should be doing it instead of you. Go build what you want now. Get some help and be open to feedback, but it's ok to screw up and it's ok to fail. There's nothing like doing work to get better faster. And sometimes you hit it too :)

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