Business startup lessons we can learn from the TV show Ugly Betty


For those of you who’ve never seen Ugly Betty or the particular episode I’m referencing here, here’s the background info you need. Betty’s sister, Hilda, was an independent distributer for Herbalux. The company’s formula for a hand cream lotion was found to have extreme hair loss side effects, so the company’s entire line was recalled and Hilda was no longer allowed to sell the products.

She needed a new job, but no one was hiring her. She decided to start her own business by selling cupcakes made with her father’s recipe. She walked into her house one night and told her dad they had an order for a couple hundred cupcakes by 5 am the next day. Their kitchen was a mess, she forced her family into helping her, and there was no organization of the process or the budget or anything else. Let’s take a look at some lessons we can learn from her many mistakes with this startup!

You can’t just steal someone’s idea
Problem #1: Hilda didn’t ask for her father’s permission! Although he never intended to start a business based on his his cupcake recipe, it’s still his recipe and she decided to start her own business with it. There wasn’t any drama over this in the episode, but in real life I don’t think there are too many people who are okay with you taking their ideas so you can base your entire company off of it. If you like someone’s idea and you want to use it for anything you’re selling, make sure you have a detailed contract with them outlining the terms of how you’ll use this idea.

Don’t Depend on Rotted Wood to Build Your House
Problem #2: Hilda just threw together an idea and didn’t create a business model. There isn’t a need for an elaborate business plan, but there is a need for laying out who’s going to make your product, where you’ll get the money for supplies, and how you’ll figure everything else out so you can get started. She basically expected her father to make cupcakes endlessly with no breaks or real schedule to follow. He ended up leaving “his part” (which was baking the cupcakes) to be done by her because he was too tired to continue.

The process. Do you know it?
Problem #3: Hilda didn’t do any research on how to make her product (cupcakes) before she “started a business” doing it. So when her “employees” left her to fend for herself, she didn’t know how to bake cupcakes. Don’t start a business if you don’t even know how to make your product because if your “help” gets tired of helping you, you’ll be the only one left who cares about getting anything done. So make sure you know how to do it!

Invest Your Time and Money Wisely
Problem #4: she didn’t make the right investments. It’s funny because in the episode when she had just lost her job, she was walking in her kitchen past a Kitchenaid mixer and I literally thought to myself, She should just sell the cupcakes instead of getting a new job. But being a business-minded person, my imaginary business plan for her was to use what she already had - the Kitchenaid mixer that would make mixing the batter 10x easier! There was absolutely no need for her to buy another one!

And what’s with the 10 different colors of icing? The store that bought her cupcakes bought it for the flavor, not the rainbow of colors. She spent money on supplies she didn’t need and couldn’t afford, and she spent time doing things that didn’t make her any more money than if she hadn’t done them in the first place. By mixing the different colors of icing, that’s more dishes for her to wash, more time for her to spend, and ultimately it’s time she won’t have to spend on something more important. Like learning how to make the cupcakes!

That little thing called the law
Betty makes a good point when she tries to tell Hilda that she needs a license, permits, and even insurance. Hilda could get herself into a lot of trouble by not preparing for things like someone getting sick from her cupcakes. If someone decides to sue, she’ll have much bigger problems on her hands than car payments because she won’t have any way to legally back herself up.

Think with your brain, not your emotions.
When Betty tried to explain logical flaws within Hilda’s “business model”, Hilda got defensive. If someone with absolutely no business experience can point out major flaws in your business, you should really see the red flags. You’re doing something wrong, and you need to fix it. They aren’t hurting you by trying to help you, you’re only hurting yourself!

You just need a plan
All of these problems could have been avoided if Hilda took 30 minutes to make a plan for this cupcake business. This is what she should’ve done:

  1. Ask for permission to use her father’s recipe.

  2. What is the process for making her product? How can she simplify it?

  3. Evaluate her current standing. What resources did she have available before asking for help from anyone or buying anything?

  4. Now that she knows what she’s selling, how she’ll make it, and what supplies she currently has available, she can solicit help.

  5. She shouldn’t invest any money in more expensive resources (like the mixer) if she hasn’t even seen how one mixer will perform for her. Just because she thinks she needs another mixer doesn’t mean she does.

If you’re think about starting a business, make sure you set yourself up for success, not failure!