The early to mid-90s sit-com The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is beloved of a generation on both sides of the Atlantic. It re-launched the multi-faceted career of Will Smith, at the time rebounding from the career low of squandering his early fortune following a Grammy award with Jazzy Jeff.
But the series wasn’t just a career launchpad for its lead. Behind the laughter and family commentary, there can be found a lot of lessons to be learned about setting up and running a business. While they might not initially be the most obvious, once you’ve read this article, you’ll never watch an episode in the same way again.
Have a story — and tell it
The theme tune for the Fresh Prince of Bel Air is one of the best known of its generation. If you don’t believe me, check out this audience sing a long on Graham Norton from back in 2012. But it’s not just catchy — it tells Will’s backstory. It tells you everything you need to know about the character, where he comes from, what his character is like, why he finds himself in Bel Air. In the space of two minutes we know Will is more interested in chilling out and playing basketball than fighting, and when the time comes, he does what his mother tells him. Moreover, it prefaces every episode, so you never forget who he is, even as the seasons and years roll on.
As a business founder, you will have a story too. What inspired you as a young entrepreneur? Why did you set up your company? What are you hoping to achieve? This is your story and it’s a vital element of who you are a business. It helps you to differentiate from your competitors, too.
Be different, and use it
Which brings me to my next point. One of the most important things to keep in mind when starting a business is how to differentiate yourself from your competition. In The Fresh Prince, Will is by default different from his familial hosts having been born and raised in West Philadelphia.
But it is this difference, his being a ‘fish out of water’, which makes the show. Not only that, but through his differences to those around him, Will is able to influence their way of thinking, living, even talking, challenging and disrupting the existing status quo. Your business needs to be and do the same.
Pick your partners carefully
When Will relocates from Philly to Bel Air he doesn’t come alone. Jazzy Jeff, his best friend comes too, frequently calling in on him, only to be summarily tossed out by an angry Uncle Phil. It’s one of the running jokes of the series, but it also illustrates an important point. Despite being evicted on numerous occasions, Jeff returns, never swayed or cowed by his rejection.
The old adage says to keep your friends close but enemies closer. While this may be of use in the Machiavellian hallways of power, when you’re starting out with a new business enterprise you could do a lot worse than having someone you trust beside you, especially if they are as resilient and persistent as Jazzy Jeff. After all, business can be a bruising experience.
Legal advice is about more than just legislation
Uncle Phil is an esteemed lawyer, who then becomes a judge in the fourth season. Throughout the running of the show, on countless occasions his status and knowledge are called upon to rescue Will, Jeff and on occasion even Carlton from sticky situations they have found themselves in. His legal counsel is invaluable to the young men growing up on the show. Yet his influence extends beyond that. Despite an admittedly short temper, Uncle Phil also provides many of the show’s most profound moments, providing moral guidance to those in his charge. It’s worth remembering that issues of law don’t always align with morals — tax evasion is a prime example — and you should be wary of veering too far from your principles in search of success.
Employees should be more than paid staff
Geoffrey, the house butler, is often an invaluable source of comedic relief, not least due to his traditionally stiff upper lip. However, as the family grow, a theme revisited time and again is of his value to the family, not only as a paid member of staff, but as someone who given the opportunity will generally (albeit begrudgingly) have their best interests at heart.
However, Geoffrey’s ongoing pay dispute with Uncle Phil is one of the main negatives about the latter’s character, and serves to illustrate to any entrepreneur why valuing your staff is vital to a positive working environment — and business success.
Any entrepreneur keeping these points in mind as they make their way in business could find the show could be as much a springboard for their career as it was for Will Smith in the early 90s. Because although the show may be showing its age, the ideas behind it are undoubtedly still Fresh.
[This blog post was also featured in Total Business Magazine]