25 Things I Learned About Business from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"

Updated: October 12, 2009

Fans of FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia might chuckle at the idea of gleaning serious business advice from such a silly show. Between Frank's bluntness and Deandra's cluelessness, the characters are hardly captains of industry. But a little imagination goes a long way, and business lessons are practically jumping out of the TV screen at executives open-minded enough to see them. So take a break from the usual platitude-filled management texts, sit back, and learn the 25 things It's Always Sunny can teach you about business.

Stick to proven business models

Too many entrepreneurs go wrong trying to "reinvent the wheel." Rather than sticking to businesses that have worked for countless other people, they stake all their hopes and dreams on "the next big thing" that's sure to awe the world. So it was refreshing (and hilarious) to see Frank respond to the recession by wrecking Dee's credit to bootstrap a door to door sales business hocking knives and vacuum cleaners. It didn't help that he sliced his hand open while demoing the merchandise - or that Dee purposely dumped wine on a prospect's floor - but they had the right idea! When times are tough, you can usually bank on time-tested business models.

Don't be afraid to seek help

Another common failing of the entrepreneur is taking the "go it alone" spirit to extremes. But you need not do it all! In the episode "Dennis and Dee go on Welfare", Dennis and Dee shamelessly fake a crack addiction and mental retardation to game the system and receive unemployment benefits for weeks. Unfortunately for them, they got a little too caught up in their new personas and developed real crack addictions for the duration of the show. Nevertheless, the underlying lesson is sound: don't be afraid to seek help when your workload becomes too much for one person to bear. Whether it's from a small business development center or even a fellow executive, help is never far away.

See the opportunity in everything

One thing the whole cast of It's Always Sunny never shies away from doing is exploiting opportunity - even if it means exploiting their siblings. Take the mortgage crisis episode, where Dee announces that she is going to be a surrogate mother. Rather than wishing her well and getting on with life, Dennis and Charlie showed up to the surrogate family's house posing as a gay couple whose child Dee supposedly agreed to have in order to "negotiate a higher price for that womb." Like all successful businesspeople, they looked past the surface all the way to the opportunity that (they thought) lurked beneath.

Get serious about cost-cutting

The "underage drinking" episode offers a terrific lesson in cost cutting, albeit in a questionably legal way. The gang notices an increasingly younger crowd coming into Paddy's for drinks (who of course are never carded or denied booze) and the light bulb immediately goes off. Since high schoolers are new to the bar scene, they wont easily know whether a drink has a little alcohol or or a lot. Sensing a golden opportunity to rake in full price for less booze, the gang transforms the bar into a safe haven for underage drinking and eventually score prom dates with some of the clientele. The lesson? Never overlook a chance to sell less for more. Keeping prices steady while moving less inventory is a sure-fire way to cut costs.

Keep business and personal separate

One of the oldest adages in business is to keep your personal and professional lives far, far apart. Mac learns this lesson the hard way in the episode "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom." After engaging in what he believes to be a passionate bedroom romp with Ms. Reynolds, Mac is crushed to find that it was little more than a casual one-off to her. Heartbroken and disillusioned, he then spends the remainder of the episode pathetically trying to woo her back, to no avail. On the show and in life, it's pretty tough to be productive when your judgment is clouded by matters of the heart. Let this serve as a cautionary tale to all businesspeople against intermingling business and personal affairs!

Act the part

Business is unlike many fields in that no one really cares what degrees you have, training you have received, or asses you have kissed. It's all about results. This is why, when interacting with esteemed professionals, you can go a long way simply by acting the part. Dennis and Mac pull this off in the mortgage crisis episode, applying the timeless good cop/bad cop routine to their assumed roles as real estate agents named "Honey and Vinegar." Despite lacking any experience as agents, Dennis and Mac successfully (albeit forcefully) convince a couple to buy their foreclosed property. Similarly, composing yourself in a manner similar to experienced professionals in your field can give you a boost in earning their cooperation and respect.

Take initiative

While Dennis and Dee were gaming the unemployment system, Charlie and Mac have a ball with hookers in a stretch limo when Charlie decides to steal some of the money sitting in Frank's bank account. While the conniving pair are eventually caught, Frank is surprisingly lenient toward Charlie, recognizing that his bold decision to steal is proof that he has decisive leadership abilities. Mac, on the other hand, was castigated for being a follower and a thief. The takeaway here is to be seen as the one stepping up and setting a direction within your company (within ethical boundaries, of course!)

Dress for success

We can't exactly call Dennis' attempt at running for political office a "success" but make no mistake: the women who told him he was handsome (while ignoring his campaign promises) highlight a valuable tip. Like it or not, appearance matters in business and in life. Study after study confirms that people who are perceived as being attractive get promoted higher, win more elections, and generally make more favorable impressions on people. Of course, not even Dennis' good looks could rescue his campaign from sabotage by Charlie's illegal campaign contributions...

Fire deadweight employees

One positive aspect of recessions is the opportunities they create for firing dead weight employees. Dennis and Mac sieze upon this in "The Great Recession", when Frank's financial insolvency forces them to start assessing the bar's efficiency. Despite longtime employment at Paddy's, it turns out that Deandra's skills as a bartender are seriously lacking! When challenged to prepare a drink she is actually unable to mix something as simple as a Mojito, offering instead to "crack open a beer" she claims is complex because it comes in a cold-activated bottle. Employees as clueless as Deandra permeate every company with more than a few dozen people, and you should use the recession to jettison as many of them as possible.

Don't be discouraged by failure

Let's face it: the It's Always Sunny cast is pretty mean toward one another. Consider the following dialogue from "Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody's Ass"

Dee: I am not a failure!
Mac: Dennis, what is it that you call it when somebody tries to do something but doesn't succeed?
Dennis: Uh, that would in fact be a failure.

Dennis was definitely right in that scene, but in business, this is exactly the wrong attitude to have. Read up on some of America's biggest business success stories and you will find the failed projects and false starts that paved the way for their eventual rise to stardom. In fact, it would be hard to think of a highly successful businessperson in any field who instantly succeeded out of the gate. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for instance, both dropped out of college before striking it big in technology. So don't take early failures to heart - keep trying.

Foster a competitive environment

Die-hard It's Always Sunny fans will remember the "clothes off pose-off" that Frank puts Dennis and the others through in order to select a model for the Paddy's billboard. While we certainly don't advocate throwing laundry detergent in your employee's faces, this episode teaches us about the value of fostering a competitive environment at work. Forcing Dennis to endure all of these humiliating trials lets Frank gauge how serious he is about modeling for the bar, and challenging your employees will serve as a test of character and ability for them as well.

Retain a strong legal counsel

One of the most memorable It's Always Sunny scenes takes place in "Dennis and Dee's Mom is Dead", when a lawyer is called in to explain what was written about the twins in their mother's will. Needless to say, Deandra belligerently ordering the lawyer to relay insults to her deceased mother did not exemplify a productive legal relationship. So in this case, the lesson is to do the opposite. Rather than ignorantly mouthing off to your lawyer, try to keep things civil, because in today's litigious society you never know when you'll need him to get you out of a bind.

Give your customers a reason to come back

In "The Great Recession", Dennis and Mac are at a loss for how to increase customer loyalty at Paddy's until a visit to Dave & Busters inspires them to create special currency that can only be spent at the bar. Pass this special money out, their thinking goes, and people will have no choice but to buy more and return to Paddy's over and over again. Sadly, Dennis and Charlie's customers bilk the bar for free booze and never buy any more of the currency, but the thinking was good. Businesses that make it easy and convenient for customers to spend money often generate more loyalty, which means more sales in the long run.

Use other people's money (or property)

It would've been easy to call the road trip off when the Land Rover blew its tires in "The Gang Hits The Road" and Charlie, who previously never left Philly, was eager to do just that. But Frank, ever the opportunist, saw a way to keep the dream alive - using Deandra's new car. By piling into her tiny red 4 door the gang discovers several advantages over using the Land Rover, including easier access to the beer and (at least for Frank) more leg room. The business lesson? When your own resources aren't enough, try using other people's money in the form of partners or investors. By shifting risk from you to them, you maximize your chances for success while avoiding any of the downside.

Practice social responsibility

In "The Gang Gives Back", Mac can be seen lamenting how he has to perform 120 hours of community service for "accidentally burning down a building." Seconds later, he admits "I would rather have to pay a huge fine than give back to the community." But is this the right attitude for business owners to take? We think not. In these post-Enron and post-bailout times, business leaders should be on the up and up in their communities, ready, easier and willing to step up and serve wherever an opportunity may arise. Don't want for messy circumstances to force you into it after the fact.

It's not what you sell, it's what you stand for

Dennis was on to something when he told Charlie that Paddy's needed to sell merchandise that reflected their "take no prisoners, rock and roll lifestyle." While it's debatable that they actually live that lifestyle (and even more debatable that a Paddy's-branded thong reflects it) they were definitely on the right track. People don't simply buy a good or a service. Rather, they buy a perception or an attitude that goes along with it. As a business owner, your task is to identify the way your product or service makes someone feel and position yourself as a company who can offer that feeling.

Delegate tasks

It doesn't take Charlie long to use his newly appointed role as manager of Paddy's to begin delegating all his unpleasant tasks to the others. In the episode "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom", such chores as sweeping and scraping human waste off the bathroom walls are referred to as "Charlie work" because of how Deandra and Dennis are forced to do it while Charlie builds houses of cards from an office chair. Here we see a classic lesson of management: delegate menial tasks to surrogates so you can free up time for the "important work." Of course, whether that work truly is important is as debatable in real life as it was on this episode.

Use the latest technology

In "The Gang Hits the Road", Mac implores Dennis to get a GPS device for the car rather than relying on maps from the 70's to get them to the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately Mac's request falls on deaf ears as Dennis nostalgically likens using old maps to doing things "the old fashioned way." Funny as this may be for the characters of a comedy show, no business should attempt to operate this way in real life. Always strive to give yourself and your employees the best tools for the job, rather than forcing them to function with inferior technology from bygone eras. It may seem expensive at first, but the results will vindicate you in the end.

Appeal to your target market

"America's Next Top Paddy's Billboard Model Contest" finds Frank, Dennis and Mac putting their heads together to decide what should go on Paddy's new billboard. Frank is first to offer his suggestion: "two gorgeous girls, up there, giant cans, me in the middle with my thumbs up!" The gang quickly decides that Frank is too ugly to be the man in the middle but keep the idea and go on to hold a competition to find the two gorgeous girls. In doing so, the gang is displaying more than humor; they are displaying a business lesson. Any business, big or small and regardless of what it does, needs to appeal to its target market. Laughable as this episode may be, the average bar patron is definitely attracted to beautiful women and the idea that perhaps a night at the bar will land them one.

Look for profit in problems

Some of history's greatest fortunes have involved savvy businessmen devising creative ways to solve painful problems. In "The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis", Dennis, Charlie and Mac set up shop with a folding table, barrels of gasoline and funnels outside of a real gas station, begging drivers to buy their gas for slightly less than the pump price. Sure, there were some difficulties with this particular approach -Dennis rightly asks Charlie how he plans on "counting" the gas they pour into cars, and Mac's idea of blowing fireballs to attract attention isn't the brightest marketing strategy ever devised - but look at the big picture. Here are a couple of guys who saw widespread dissatisfaction and made an honest effort to solve it.

Read up on your industry

One of the funnier scenes in "Charlie's Drunken Idea" is Dennis and Deandra's argument about college. While taking a break from scheming, Deandra argues that she isn't intimidated by big words (such as "caregiver") because she took psychology classes in school. Dennis wittily counters that she failed all those classes while he got a minor and passed all his, to which Deandra retorts that "three quarters of a a major is a lot bigger than a whole minor." No matter who won this argument, it's pretty clear that neither Deandra nor Dennis got much lasting value from their college education. You, on the other hand, should continuously study your industry or market to stay on top of new trends and opportunities. Whether it's a Wall Street Journal subscription or a glance at some industry-related RSS feeds, it'll go a long way toward keeping you ahead of the curve.

Any publicity is good publicity

Smart business owners are always on the lookout for ways to create buzz about their offerings. A case in point (albeit a rather disturbing one) can be found in "The Gang Exploits a Miracle", where Charlie spots a puke stain in the back office that looks like the Virgin Mary. Rather than scolding Charlie for sleeping at the bar, Frank exhibits yet another display of opportunism, seeing something in the puke stain that no one else sees. While the others bicker over how it got there or the deeper significance of what it might mean, Frank opines "it could be a miracle, it could be bullshit. There's only one thing we know for sure - it's a God damn goldmine!" So begins a shameless attempt at converting the Christian crowd into Paddy's customers by luring them in to see "Paddy's pub, the home of the blessed mother." Before long, Frank is even soliciting donations from them like the collection plates at church. The lesson here is obvious: nobody is going to create buzz for you. If you want people to hear about your place of business, you need to give them a reason to visit

Hone your sales skills

Fads come and go in the business world, but no skill is more timeless than sales. The guy who brings in the money will never be poor for long. Charlie attempts to be that guy by affecting the look and sound of a Texas oil tycoon while selling gasoline door to door with Dennis. Bursting out with hackneyed Southern phrases like "Why you're lookin' all sorts of good" and "we're itchin' like a hound to give you a-somethin' you want", Charlie goes in for the kill, makes his sales pitch with unrestrained unenthusiasm. As with many of these examples, the intentions matter more than the results. No one wants to buy things from an obnoxious fool, but if you have a good product or service, you should certainly put your best foot forward and confidently speak to its strengths during sales pitches.

Put work in its place

Charlie's brief stint in mail delivery reminds us all why nobody likes a workaholic. Overcome by stress and anxiety, Charlie concocts an elaborate conspiracy theory that every mail employee he cannot find and whose mail he cannot deliver does not exist, claiming that "half the employees in this building have been made up" and "this office is a God damn ghost town." Exasperated by Charlie's incompetence, Mac begs him to realize that "not only do all of these people exist, but they have been asking for their mail on a daily basis." Upon hearing that Charlie re-routed their pink slips to Siberia, Mac lapses into a panic attack over losing his health insurance. What this teaches us is to put work in its place. While workplace disasters are never pleasant, they are rarely as bad as we make them out to be, and little perspective goes a long way.

Think value, not price

Without intending to, Deandra gave us all a business lesson by blithely handing over her credit card for a pair of $700 shoes. Exclaiming "well I'll tell ya what, you pay for quality, there's so much crap out there these days", Dee forks over the cash for the superior product without a second thought. Yes, her card was declined, but what did you expect? Once again, ignore what happened on the show and apply the lesson to real life. As a business owner, you could cut corners by using the cheapest suppliers, lowest-paid employees or worn out equipment, but all you are really buying is a handful of problems waiting to blow up in your face at the worst possible time. Don't be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to running your business, or you'll regret it later.

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