As you may know by now, I'm a fan of Mad Men. In fact, recently my wife and I caught up on the past few episodes of the show that we previously Tivoed. Yes, things started out slow, but as usual we're loving the series.
There are plenty of TV shows I love that do nothing more than make me laugh. The Daily Show, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Modern Family are three that immediately come to mind. But Mad Men is different. It's pretty much the only drama I watch. For years I persuaded myself that by watching Mad Men (which, in case you just moved here from North Korea, is about a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the 1960s) I was learning more about business. But let's face it: After four seasons of dutifully watching the show, I can admit that I haven't learned much about running a business. I have learned, however, that smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, regularly drinking bourbon before 10 a.m. and having an affair with my daughter's elementary school teacher (and 817 other women) may very well get me in trouble. I've also learned not to have a sofa in my office. Sofas can be a bad influence in the workplace.
This doesn't mean that there aren't good, quality, educational shows on TV about small business and entrepreneurship. In fact, I can name at least six shows that I regularly watch that teach me much about running my company and doing a better job. These are shows that will help you run your accounting practice and may be good to recommend to your clients.
• Your Business (MSNBC on Sundays). Yes, I'm partial to this show because I've been on it a bunch of times and love the staff. And it's the only show on national television that's fully devoted to helping small-business owners grow and succeed. I like that Your Business is not a show dedicated to startups. It's for people, like myself, who are already in business and looking for answers to our everyday problems. It's fast-paced and fun to watch. And its host, JJ Ramberg (a small-business owner herself) knows her stuff. The show's producers frequently like to send JJ on the road, where she interviews small-business people at conferences or profiles an interesting company (my favorite is the guy who turned his house into a shrine to honor and sell everything related to the movie A Christmas Story, much to his wife's frustration). JJ then leads a discussion with a couple of experts back in the studio about the segment. I also like the "elevator pitch," where an entrepreneur pitches their product or service to those same "experts". The show also features additional segments and tips on its Web site. It's worth getting up early on a Sunday to watch or, if you're like me, sleep off your hangover and record it.
• Kitchen Nightmares (Fox on Fridays; BBC America, check listings). Give Gordon Ramsay some credit. This is a British guy in America, advising Americans on how to ... what? Cook food? A British guy? I love Gordon Ramsay. I love when he drops the f-bomb. I love when he berates other people. My wife loves when he takes off his shirt to change into his chef's gear. And I love his optimism. Doesn't he realize that dopey guy who spent his life savings to buy that stupid Italian restaurant in that empty strip mall is never going to make it a success? Oh well, it still makes for good TV. And Ramsay never gives up. Nor does he disappoint. His temper tantrums are epic. But they're all with good intentions. And emotions aside, this show is not about running a restaurant. It's about running a business. Creating quality products. Marketing. Production. Hard work. And if you watch it long enough, you soon get a feel for which business owner will eventually succeed. They're the ones who realize that if they don't hire the right people, fire the bad ones (oftentimes the chef) and manage their finances the right way, they'll soon be out of luck. My advice is to not watch the U.S. version of the show, unless you like feeling superior to simple-minded people from Long Island. Watch the older British episodes that are endlessly replayed on BBC America. That way you can feel superior to simple-minded people from Sussex.
• Shark Tank (ABC on Fridays). You realize that this show was copied from Dragon's Den, another British show? And, like Kitchen Nightmares, Dragon's Den is a much better show than its American counterpart. There's something about a hopeful entrepreneur being humiliated by a guy with an evil British accent that adds more zest to the experience. Nonetheless, both shows are an excellent way for the aspiring startup or business owner looking for money to see what it's really like to face a potential investor. Of course, this is Hollywood-type entertainment, but the group of "sharks" (like the "dragons") are experienced investors who, despite their lame arguments and manufactured bickering, do wind up asking pertinent questions that any potential investor or banker will ask. Whether we're a startup or have been in business for a while, it's still all about the exit plan. How will our company, which is only just an asset, maximize its value? What is the return on investment? Who is our competition? Can't Mark Cuban just give me a million and we'll call it a day? Forget about all those "how to" books -- this show is a fun way to understand the real questions we should all be asking ourselves about our businesses, whether we're looking for financing or not.
• Flipping Out (Bravo on Tuesdays). Jeff Lewis is a crazy, compulsive, manic, obsessive micro-manager. In other words, a typical small-business owner. He's also a design savant, specializing in taking his clients' down-market homes that look almost as dumpy as, well, my home, and turning them into attractive, hip, sleek dwellings that are instantly resellable (or flippable). I interviewed Jeff a few weeks ago and learned that he counts his money in his bathtub. But look, this is America in 2012. Who reads anymore, right? And who actually still takes baths? Just turn on the TV and watch him in action. Like many of us, Jeff runs a small business. And like many of us, he struggles getting the most out of his seven people, pleasing his customers, balancing his books, arguing with suppliers and generally trying not to kill himself in the process. My favorite is Zoila the housekeeper. Jeff's mistakes are our learning experiences.
• Clark Howard (HLN on Saturdays and Sundays). I'm not going to lie -- I've never actually made the time to sit down and watch Clark Howard's show. I don't go out of my way to Tivo it either. But for some reason I keep stumbling upon it, mostly in airport lounges. And I love it. Howard's show is primarily about personal finance and saving money. But it's his personality that endears me. He's not arrogant or preachy. He's a nerd and a nebbish ... like me. And his advice on personal finance is very relevant to what every small-business owner should know. He talks about new technology, how to save money on travel, putting money away for your kids' college education (thank God my kids aren't smart enough to go to an expensive college) and specific tips for saving as a small-business owner. You'll feel like you're cheating off that smart kid in science class all over again. But this time it's OK.
• How I Made My Millions (CNBC on Saturdays and Sundays). CNBC does amazing specials about companies and industries that are worth the time of anyone running their own small business. My all-time favorite is Cruise Inc: Big Money on the High Seas, because what guy hasn't spent at least half a day while on that Royal Caribbean ship trying to figure out how much money that boat is generating? Am I right here, guys? Ignore anything that comes on before 8 p.m., unless you can stay awake watching reports from Wall Street or don't mind being emasculated by Suze Orman. And watch How I Made My Millions, which is all about those successful companies that we all know (and many that we don't) and how they came to be. Jelly Belly. Nerf. Herr's Potato Chips. The Marks Group (just kidding ... not there yet). Getting advice from so-called experts like me is one thing. Watching real-life stories about entrepreneurs that succeeded in a big way is ... priceless.
A final word -- don't laugh when I also recommend Donald Trump's The Apprentice or even Undercover Boss. OK, you can laugh. But both shows teach a little, just a little, about teamwork, employee management and productivity. I didn't include either on the list above because, well, after a little time watching I'm usually drawn back into Paddy's Pub to hang out with the gang instead.
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.
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