The Men Who Built America is an eight-part documentary that focuses on five titans of the American industry.
The series showed how men like John D.Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie helped create modern day capitalism and industry between the Civil War and World War I.
The documentary features archival footages, interviews with historians and current moguls, and dramatic re-enactments. To date, it is my best documentary of all time, full of facts, and details you rarely find in the regular biography.
One of the writers and also a producer, Stephen David had always been fascinated with these famous men and since 1997, he’s been trying to tell their stories. The Men Who Built America was his biggest project to date and it earned him four Emmy nominations.
Dorothy Pomerantz of Forbes talked to David about lessons he took away from his in-depth research into Rockefeller, Carnegie, Henry Ford, Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan.
“There are a lot of business cliches out there,” says David. “But when we started making this we realized a lot of them are true.” Here are his five business lessons from The Men Who Build America.
1. The Bigger The Risk, The Bigger The Reward
“Most of these guys failed many times before succeeding,” says David. “Even after they were rich, they would leverage themselves to ridiculous degrees in order to make the next thing happen.”
It’s a lesson David can relate to. Even when he had History on board for the show, he had a limited budget and big plans for the series. Plus he hoped to make some money from the project.
“We didn’t really make money on it but we will in the future.” Thanks to the success of Men, David says he’s getting many more opportunities.
2. There Are No Rules
David says that when the titans of industry played by the rules they were stuck. But when they made their own rules, they moved forward very quickly.
As an example, he cites Rockefeller’s takeover of the oil industry. His ruthless monopolization of the industry was something new and the government eventually had to step in to level the playing field.
It might not have been nice but it was a brilliant business move. David says History gave him the room to go against the rules with his documentary series. “They said, ‘Do whatever you want, there are no rules,’”
says David. “That was a pretty rare thing to have happen.”
3. Get The Right People On The Bus
This was a bit of advice from Jack Welch who was one of the many moguls David corralled to comment for the series.
In this case, Welch meant that you need to find the right people to work with. David says a perfect example of why this is important is the partnership between Andrew Cargnegie and Henry Frick.
“Carnegie knew the kind of guy Frick was but he needed him to get an edge,” says David. “He brought him on and it was the rise and almost fall of his business.”
4. Money Is A Good Way To Keep Score But It Doesn’t Buy True Happiness
Becoming the richest men of their age didn’t mean happiness for any of the moguls David profiled. Rockefeller was a man who had been conned by his own father. He always felt like he didn’t have enough. J.P. Morgan was always trying to live up to his father.
Carnegie was trying to get respect. Ironically, respect came only when Carnegie gave away almost all of his money.
5. If You Want To Get Rich, Come Up With Something The Whole World Needs
Sounds easy enough. “These opportunities always exist,” says David. “It’s just a question of who’s going to find them.” In the time the documentary examines those things were oil and steel. Today they are Google and Facebook. The men who had serious money and power were able to create or control industries.
This isn’t a lesson that hits home for David. “I’m not even playing that game,” he says. “In order to play that you’d have to own something like Netflix.