6 Business and life lessons I picked up from watching Back to the Future

Did you know that the Back to the Future trilogy is full with business and life lessons? This post will share and discuss some of those lessons with you.  I

One of my favourite movies growing up was Back To The Future. My love for the franchise grew in film school when we studied the screenplay in vivid detail. Each time I watch the film , which is at least once or twice a year,  I end up loving it just that little bit more. These last 12 months I have been spending quite a bit of time researching business and marketing and funnily enough, I started to spot these little business nuggets of wisdom hidden in Back to the Future. They had always been there I was just never looking for them before!

What is Back to the Future

Back to the Future is a movie about time travel set in the early 1980’s. Marty McFly played by Michael J. Fox is a high-school student who is friends with the eccentric inventor “Doc” Dr. Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) who invents a time machine made out of a Delorean.  Marty accidentally sends himself 30 years into the past and inadvertently  gets in the way of his parents George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) meeting and falling in love. This ultimately  jepordises his and siblings future existence.

1.  Know your audience

In the first instalment of Back to the Future Marty’s band, The Pinheads tried out for auditions the school dance playing the movie’s theme song, The Power of Love.  The selection committee was not their target demographic and was made up of  uptight school teachers (including an awesome cameo from Huey Lewis) Needless to say their music didn’t resonate with their audience and they didn’t make the cut.  Marty basically didn’t market research. He took his product ‘his music’ to the wrong audience hoping that they would come around.

Knowing your audience, your customer, is the most valuable thing that you can do for your business.  When I first launched my online store last year I made  a big blunder. Eager to get traffic I applied a very broad marketing tactic and was promoting my store in places where my customers would’t even be. Doing this was not only ineffective it was also a major drain on my time, money and resources. I would have had far better resources by spending more time doing proper market research and only promoting myself in very targeted avenues.

2. Timing Matters

One of my favourite scenes from the first movie is when Marty is at his  parents high-school Enchantment Under The Sea Dance . Marty ends up on  stage playing Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode song .The audience are loving it until Marty goes all 80’s rock at the end of the song leaving the students stunned and speechless. Marty tells the students ‘I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it’

Timing is crucial in both the online and bricks and mortar business world. So often products which should be a great success miss their moment because they launched too soon or too late.  One way to get your timing right when launching a new product or service is by  launching a new product or business  in a way that you can piggyback off current trends. 

An example is products that promote goal setting, personal development and general motivation services.  These launches generally  do better around January 1st as do calendars and diaries obviously.  Christmas decoration and gift sets are usually released into stores around September (how crazy is that) but you will notice that they do generally gather dust and don’t really sell until December.

3. You teach others how to treat you

Marty’s dad George McFly was a pushover.  The school bully Biff used to push George around in high-school and make him do his homework for him.   The same pattern continued 30 years later when Biff was George’s supervisor and  Biff bullied George into doing his work reports for him. By allowing others to treat us in a disrespectful manner we are teaching them that it is acceptable behaviour. George basically gave Biff permission to treat him like dirt.  He also taught his kids that it’s okay to let others treat you poorly.   On one occasion Biff is at the McFly’s home belittling George in front of Marty and as he leaves the house, Biff has a go at Marty. Marty doesn’t respond and simply follows  his dad’s example and takes the verbal abuse.

The effect of not accepting  disrespectful behaviour from others is obvious when Marty goes back in time and coaches George to stand up to Biff. By the time Marty returns back to his time 1985, that small change of standing up to Biff has rewritten not only George’s future  but their entire family. You can  clearly see  that the McFlys went from a family with little confidence and self-respect for each other and themselves to one that took massive action and had massive results.

biff and george mcfly

4. Get a mentor

When Marty accidentally travelled back in time he ended up becoming his future dad’s mentor – his very existence depended on it. Back in 1955 George was the same age as 1985 Marty and was still as awkward and lacking self-esteem as was in 1985.   Marty  become  George’s role model and taught him how to stand up for himself and become assertive.

In any industry having a mentor is great way to accelerate learning and growth in a supportive environment. The bests mentor relationships are obviously the one-on-one dynamic, but this isn’t always possible. Having role models is a great substitute when you don’t have that personal one-on-one contact.

Find someone in your industry who is doing great things and follow their career. Read their books, subscribe to their podcasts (if they have one) and follow their professional social media accounts. Although I would love one, I don’t have a one-on-one mentor but I have a bunch of roles models that I follow.

 However I should point out that although you might have a mentor or role model, you need to make sure that you do not fall into the trap of simply imitating your mentor or blindly following whatever they do without questioning it or thinking for yourself. The world would be a very boring place if all everyone did was imitate each other.


5. Speak in the terms of the other persons interest

Marty was having a real hard time getting George to become more assertive and ask Lorraine, his future mother, out to the school dance. He couldn’t get George to see past his own mindset barriers and take the leap. That is of course until Marty decided to approach the situation from a different angle.

Marty found out that George loved science fiction – it was his passion, so Marty decided to use George’s enthusiasm for science-fiction as leverage to get his attention.  In the middle of the night  Marty broke into George’s bedroom and dressed in a radiation suit from 1985. In his spaceman character and he persuaded George to ask Lorraine out to the Enchanted Dance Under The Sea.

This lesson can be applied to all areas of your life, business, family, personal  relationships.  If you want to make  people really listen to what you have to say and pay attention, you must frame it in a way that maters to them. Show genuine interest. Step into their shoes for a moment and ask yourself how an argument or topic can be raised in the most engaging way based on that persons interest.

For example lets assume that you are selling a new innovative business software to two different customers. One customer, customer A,  is an accountant and prides themselves on being frugal with their dollars. Customer B however, always complains how there is never enough time in their day to day life.

You would more likely secure customer A’s business by talking about the product in terms of how much money it could potentially save them. Customer B however, would more likely to show interest in your product if you pitch to them the software’s time saving efficiency benefits.  The sales pitch might have changed  to cater to the two different types of customers, but the product hasn’t. You have simply changed the sales pitch to fit in with your different customers interest.

6. Don’t ever let fear of rejection stand in your way

When Marty went back to the future to 1955 he learnt that his father wrote science fiction books and dreamt of becoming a science fiction novelist. Teenage George explained to Marty that he was too afraid to pursue his love of writing for fear of rejection a sentiment shared by George’s future son.  Over the years George stopped even entertaining any ideas of pursuing his dreams and by the time Marty was born George no longer wrote.

In the rewritten future, George who had since found his confidence thanks to his friendship with Marty,  became a published author and released his novel  ‘A Match Made in Space.’  The novel was based on his vision by an extraterrestrial in his teenage years – that of course  was Marty dressed up in a radiation suit.

Fear of rejection and failure is a very destructive mindset to hold. It is a limiting belief that hinders progress and holds us back from grabbing opportunities. If you must fear something, fear trying. You might fail, in fact you probably will.  Thomas Edison famously once said that

“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Just image how different the world might be today is Thomas Edison let a fear of failure and rejection become a barrier for him pursuing his dream – his path.


a match made in space