Mindhunter is a Netflix series created by director David Fincher. It explores the early years of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. The Staff Street team has just finished binge-watching the show. One thing we noticed is how well the show captures the struggles of every startup ever. Setting aside the fact that the protagonists are funded by taxpayer money, the story of Mindhunter is, in essence, a story about a startup.
It’s about a young and restless agent (Holden Ford) who is not satisfied with the current standards of catching criminals and stopping violent crime. So, he teams up with a seasoned agent (Bill Tench) and a psychology professor (Wendy Carr) to prove a concept: that the world needs a new approach to solving violent crimes.
Much like other founding stories, it’s a slow burn. In addition to their day jobs, Ford and Tech travel around the country researching cases, talking to primary sources, and educating their key audience—law enforcement practitioners—whenever they can. On top of that, the reigning FBI Director Robert Shepard doesn’t exactly believe psychology has a place in law enforcement. It’s an uphill, oftentimes frustrating battle (literally, they start out in the basement of the FBI building) for the team to prove themselves.
The showrunners make an interesting story out of hours of fieldwork, consultancy, interviews, lectures, dialogues, and negotiations. A far less exciting coterie compared to other flashier episodic detective shows that make a quick fix of every case. But as any founder knows, it’s not the big moments but the daily discipline that makes the journey.
Here is PART 1 of the moments that show why Mindhunter speaks so well to the startup experience.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
Just like in startups, communication drives the story in Mindhunter.
Whenever we speak with startups and entrepreneurs for the Mover’s Spotlight, nine times out of ten, they’re going to mention that communication is everything. Whether they’re talking about speaking transparently with your partners or connecting genuinely with your audience, communication is critical to building a brand. After all, you need people from all sides to believe in the work that you do. And the only way you’re going to build that community of support is to communicate.
It goes without saying that there are layers in the way that communication is treated in the series. After all, the premise of Mindhunter is to show how talking directly to violent criminals helped the FBI profile them.
From the start, it’s a story about figuring out the best way to get through to people. Whether you’re trying to convince your boss to invest in your idea or discuss with a colleague how to improve a project or sell your product to a particular market, communication is key. Like all startups, the story of Mindhunter explores the way people communicate.
Holden Ford is introduced as a frustrated hostage negotiator-cum-instructor. He spends the first episode trying to find the words to describe the inadequacy of the current FBI training curriculum. He converses with a lot of people: his fellow instructors, his boss, his girlfriend Debbie, and his eventual partner, Bill Tench. Through these conversations, his ideas find shape and direction.
Unlike other detective shows, conversations, not action, drive the story forward.
Just as they do in Mindhunter, conversations also play an important role in every startup story. We don’t just communicate to convey or clarify instructions. We do it to sharpen our own ideas. Not only do you gain new perspectives, but you can also learn a lot from people’s reactions and feedback. You recognize which images capture their imagination, which words resonate with them. And the only way to get that is to put your ideas out there and keep the conversation going.
Getting to know your audience makes all the difference.
One of the fundamental things about starting a business is getting to know your audience just as well as you know your product. And it’s not because you want to know whether your product will do better in blue or in red. It’s because you want your target consumer to embrace your product regardless if it’s blue or red. That kind of relationship requires trust. The easiest way to build that trust with your target consumer is to speak their language.
In the first episode, Holden and Bill visit a precinct in Fairfield, Iowa to deliver a lecture on the nature of motive. Their visit comes at the heel of a gruesome murder that has set the city on edge.
It’s the first time we get to see Holden and Bill work as a team. Everything goes well until Holden takes the floor. Soon enough, he starts losing his audience. Part of the issue is that he keeps using obscure references to get his point across.
Later on, Bill coaches Holden to make his lecture less complicated and more relatable. So, Holden decides to use Charles Manson as a reference point. It proves tricky. The cops at Fairfield don’t react well to Holden encouraging them to reflect on Manson’s upbringing. They mistake understanding for sympathy. And when one of the detectives turns out to be a former LAPD cop who personally knew the people who worked on the Manson case, it’s game over.
It becomes a teaching moment for Holden. Bill reminds him that he needs to figure out who his audience is first and foremost. The scene highlights the process and the difficulty of selling your ideas to people. It also shows the unpredictability of people’s reactions once you leave your messaging to chance.
Like the story in Mindhunter, startups know that how you sell your idea is as important as the idea itself. And to figure that out, you need to know who you’re talking to. Only then can you translate your ideas into things that audiences can connect to.
Do your due diligence and gather data!
No matter where you are in your journey as an entrepreneur, research is important. Gathering data about your market, your consumers, your product, and so on is part of everyday business. Entrepreneurs that we’ve spoken to are adamant about constantly finding better ways to do things in order to grow. Whether they’re finding more sustainable packaging or figuring out how to reach their consumers more effectively, every inch of progress requires research.
Both Holden and Bill put a lot of value on doing research beyond the service of investigations. Which often puts them at loggerheads with FBI Director Robert Shepard. He isn’t fully convinced that the training curriculum at the FBI needs updating. As far as he’s concerned, “Psychology is for the backroom boys.”
Shepard’s approval of Holden and Bill’s teamwork has hard limits. And when Holden tries to test them, Shepard is quick to put him in his place. In the end, it comes down to Bill to step up and level with Shepard about the potential of the work that they’re doing.
But even with the minimal support, Holden and Bill do their due diligence. They find ways to compensate for not having Shepard’s explicit blessing. They use their lectures as a way-in to having dialogues and discussions with cops on the ground. During their travels, they famously begin to visit and interview serial killers in prison. Their efforts are finally affirmed during their initial meeting with Wendy Carr.
A psychology professor at Boston University, Carr tells them that their work has a far-reaching impact not just on law enforcement, but also on behavioral science and criminology as a whole. She gives them constructive feedback, advising them to use recordings, transcription, and carefully designed questionnaires.
Just like in Mindhunter, research is central to the growth story of any startup. Gathering data allows you to bridge gaps in the way you do things. And since information changes every day, it’s a relentless pursuit. And one you can’t avoid if you want to keep making informed decisions.