5 Business Lessons from HBO’s “Westworld”

Have you been watching the new HBO series Westworld?

If you haven’t watched the series, it’s about a futuristic Wild-West theme-park populated by advanced robots that the guests can interact with in any way they please.

In episode 3, one of the guests says that it costs $40,000 a day to attend Westworld and it got me thinking about the idea of Westworld as a business.

Firstly I should state that the whole idea of a theme park with robots in an actual physical environment is so preposterously expensive and difficult to run that I doubt it would ever be cost-effective (although see point #4 below).

But what are the business lessons we can glean from a fictional cowboy robot theme park? (I never thought I would write those words)


1. Provide what customers want and they will pay whatever it takes

You can charge whatever you want. And people will pay if:

– You can’t get it anywhere else

– Demand outstrips supply

– It provides a value that is highly prized (in this case the opportunity to live out fantasies without consequence)

– The execution of the experience is close to flawless

Providing extras that the customer values

In the second episode the founder of the park, Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) tells one of the executives at the park:

“The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do. They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

The appeal of his creation is that it provides something deeper and more substantial than the initially apparent fantasy. This is what keeps them coming back.

In the book “Free Prize Inside” Seth Godin talks about the extras that are not part of the main purpose of a product but are sometimes valued more than the product itself.

An example he gives is orange flavored vitamins. Kids don’t care about the actual value of the vitamins, parents do. But what will make the parent buy the Orange flavored vitamin is the “extra” of the orange taste.

3. The Size Advantage

If you wanted to start up a furniture store that rivaled Ikea, could you do it?

It would be almost impossible. Because the competitive advantage Ikea has relates to the scale of its supply network and the massive stores which they have built.

To compete with them would require a huge investment with not very good odds of success.

Similarly, because Westworld is not a computer simulation, the scale of it seems so large as to make competition unfeasible.


4. Loss Leader

It’s not clear from what I’ve seen so far, but I did read somewhere that the park was apparently a loss leader for some other “agenda”.

In other words, they don’t make money from the park, but it serves some other purpose that will presumably mean a net profit.

When the Harry Potter books were launched, this was a bonanza for independent bookstores. But not as much as it might have been, because supermarkets were selling the book for below cost, as a loss leader to draw people into their stores.

The strategically thought out loss leader can be marketing gold as long as you have the ability to recoup the loss with an ongoing relationship (or some other “agenda”).


5. Treat different customers differently

The man in black played by Ed Harris is a customer of the park who has been attending for “decades”. In episode 2, we’re told that he specifically is allowed to do whatever he wants, presumably because he is such a valued customer.

While I don’t advocate giving carte blanche to psychopaths just to make a profit, it does show the principle of treating your best customers differently.

Have you ever had an experience where you spent a lot of money with a particular business, being one of their best customers but then they lost the relationship by treating you just like everyone else?

Even if you offer amazing customer service to everyone (which is a worthy ideal), it’s still possible to give better service to your best customers (perhaps in the form of special offers, better deals, volume discounts etc).

It’s About the Customer

Everything you do, must be focused on creating an unparalleled value for the customer. If this is your sole focus in your business, it will be hard to go wrong.