Tech Startup Case Study: Ghostbusters (1984) Inc. Part 1

The real story of the exceptional comedy Ghostbusters (1984) starts when Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz (Dan Akroyd), and Egon Spengler are kicked off a university campus for their "popular tripe", "questionable methods", and sloppy theories. Out of work and severely lacking in funds, their encounter with a specter in the library and Egon's theories trigger the American dream in roguish Dr. Peter Venkman. Egon (Harold Ramis) and Ray had the idea, Peter had the inspiration, but all of them had no money.

With a malicious but eager grin, Peter Venkman, masterfully portrayed by Bill Murray, says "I don't know" when they ponder on finances. Thus the three founders become the greatest 1980s venture capitalists of all time.

*All screen captures from the Ghostbusters Double Feature DVD Gift Set

"Professional paranormal investigations and eliminations"

How did they finance their startup? At the insistent prodding of Peter, Ray Stantz had to mortgage his house to the Manhattan City Bank to finance the Ecto-containment system. However, audiences understood that although Peter was only after money (and women like the lovely Dana played by Sigourney Weaver), Ray and Egon were there for the technology and the study of supernatural beings. Ray, who Peter would later announce as "the heart of the Ghostbusters", was excited just to see books flying off the shelves on their own.

Unlike most startups, these budding businessmen already had something to work with - Egon already designed a PKE valence measuring device. Moreover, Ray and Egon had been interviewing paranormal sightings all over the country for years. Yahoo! back in the day and AOL had neither that type of initiative nor patience.

The three middle-aged professors weren't exactly spring chickens or as well off as the guys who set up Google a decade later. Egon and Ray were nowhere near as interesting as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. And Peter Venkman, for all his piss and car salesman vibe, certainly wasn't Steve Jobs (though Jobs probably couldn't pull of the "Back off man, I'm a scientist line."). But the company that was the Ghostbusters started small with cheap daytime commercials ("We are ready to believe you!") and unlicensed and untested nuclear accelerators.

Note: The movie was remarkably prescient. When Janine remarks that Egon probably reads a lot, Egon responds by saying "Print is dead."

The original Ghostbusters, however, had the same verve and initiative many successful tech startups had in the late 90s. Egon, Peter, and Ray took risks. Huge risks. They even risked their lives on their first outing (and on every job afterwards). These three adventurous entrepreneurs had absolutely nothing to lose and successfully built a thriving business, an unenviable reputation, and even saved Manhattan from a inter-dimensional god.

Ghost Pest Control

The Ghostbusters concept was originally a comedic look at pest control with a heaping dash of Dan Akroyd's love for the supernatural and Harold Ramis' brand of tongue-in-cheek comedy. However, the resulting blockbuster was something more: a brilliant satire of the tech startup.

The company that the three academic hobos eventually established had a difficult product/service to sell: supernatural containment. Ray and Egon knew ghosts existed and knew their clients would know it if they experienced it. The challenge was to convince people their technology could remove or prevent the offending monster, ghoul, or entity.

In many ways, the Ghosbusters' products/services could be similar to the Internet to bitcoin to Windows 7, and even the tablet PC or iPad. People initially didn't buy into it. Consumers had the need but didn't know who could provide it and make sure the product or service was worth paying for.

The Ghostbusters had what venture capitalists and all start-ups initially have - they were fearless. However, unlike most tech startups, Peter, Rey, and Egon and even Winston practiced their bravery on a daily basis.

In one of the most memorable lines close to the end of the movie, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) humbly steps forward and tells the mayor: "I've seen shit that will make you turn white." This could have been misconstrued by sensitive America as a statement with racist overtones but instead it was a down-to-earth and thoroughly accurate admission of the deadly and frightening work the Ghostbusters did on a daily basis.

The business plan and their revenue model wasn't perfect. The proton sticks did more damage and created losses for Venkman's company and affected revenue.

Note: On their first job at the Sedgewick Hotel, Peter charged $4000.00 for entrapment and $1000 for containment and proton charging. This was a hefty amount in the 80s and the Ghostbusters probably charged even more once their service grew in popularity and reliability.

The Ghostbusters 2 PC game (1989) released after the second movie highlighted this business problem. Players would have to catch ghosts while limiting damage to public or private property or the Ghostbusters would be brought to court. Jeff Bezos' Amazon had a similar problem with shipping, discounts, and state tax.

The three tech entrepreneurs had no business plan and had no idea they would be as successful as they would be. In one of the greatest montages in the 80s, audiences saw the Ghostbusters running across Madison and Chinatown and generally enjoying their horrendously tiring work.

Even the hiring process was straightforward. When Winston stepped into the firehouse he was assaulted by a barrage of belief questions by dependable Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts). Winston answers honestly and succintly and was immediately exposed to some hands-on training with the containment system and traps. IT companies could learn a lot from that simple and effective hiring process (particularly companies like Google).

Ghostbusters training course

Moreover, the Ghostbusters had arcade and a pinball machine before companies started providing fitness memberships and billiard tables.

And PR? Apple WDDC? CES? Black turtlenecks? What's that for? Who needs tech websites like Wired, Ars Technica, and CNET when you have a spokesman like Peter Venkman?

Peter wows the crowd and promises "no fee too big"

Team meetings were also awesome and were done over smokes and twinkies and even in a prison cell.

Team meetings with the Ghostbusters didn't have long-winded, self-important managers and sycophants in the room (hear that Tim Armstrong?).

When "dickless" Walter Peck from the EPA started fooling around at the firehouse, he annoyed Venkman and hurled legal threats. "Dickless" is someone we encounter every day on the Internet and during legal altercations with business sharks. He was nothing more than an ignorant, hating, FUD-filled troll - but a FUD-filled, dangerous troll that crippled an honest business of ghost-hunting.

EPA rep Walter "Dickless" Peck

Tech startups clash with the government and even police at times (such as the Megaupload case). The Ghostbusters actually worked with the police, the military, the Catholic Church, and at the end of the day, had the mayor on their side and an applauding audience. Apple has nothing on Peter's ghost-hunting team.

Continued in Tech Startup Case Study: Ghostbusters (1984) Inc. Part 2

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