Although I’m an activist and whistleblower, I’m also an entrepreneur who works tirelessly to build a sustainable business to put food on my plate. In my downtime, I often watch shows that focus on different aspects of entrepreneurs, operations, and other educational parts of business.
If you’re looking to start a business or become an entrepreneur, these shows help shed light on many aspects of what that life is really like.
10. Undercover Boss (2009-Present)
Like most American reality TV, Undercover Boss started in the U.K. before being adapted for U.S. audiences in 2010. The franchise is now global, with localized versions being aired in 14 markets, including Australia, Japan, Israel, and multiple European countries.
Undercover Boss features c-suite executives from various corporations disguising themselves to see how their business really operates from the ground level.
Although we’re clearly watching events unfold in these companies through rose-colored glasses, it is interesting to watch a CEO performing the blue-collared work of their entry-level employees.
Executives from a wide range of businesses, including Hooters, 7-Eleven, NASCAR, DirecTV, Chiquita, Boston Market, Utah Jazz, the city of Pittsburgh, and Gerber, have all participated in Undercover Boss with varying degrees of success.
The show provides a glimpse of the daily operations of major brands and how executives react when confronted with employees on both ends of the spectrum. Employees are routinely fired, promoted, and given motivational speeches by the end of the show, though it’s important to keep in mind you’re only seeing what the brand wants you to see.
Still, there are few better places on TV to watch major businesses in action than Undercover Boss.
9. How It’s Made (2001-Present)
Discovery and Science (channels owned by Discovery Communications) are known for producing compelling reality TV, but it’s the quiet documentary series How It’s Made that’s done the best job of educating viewers on the manufacturing process since it premiered in 2001.
Instead of a host, the show employs a narrator, rarely showing humans on camera. This allows How It’s Made to focus on the machinery and processes in a way that’s easily translatable to other languages and cultures.
Although the show can often be dry, there is some humor mixed into the narration. It very much plays like the type of video shown in a classroom, and that’s not a bad thing.
If you’re curious about the manufacturing process of anything from food to appliances, electronics, clothing, art, sporting equipment, musical instruments, toys, automobiles, or any other common object, there’s no better place to start learning than How It’s Made.
8. Kitchen Nightmares (2004-2014)
For a solid decade, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay traveled around the United States and United Kingdom to help revive failing restaurants in Kitchen Nightmares, one of the shows that helped make the man famous.
Criticisms of the American version focusing more on drama than cuisine are absolutely correct, through both versions do allow viewers to learn what it takes to run a restaurant as a business.
Ramsay is a compelling personality, and although he’s mostly recognized for being domineering and bluntly honest to the point of insulting, there’s no denying the man is a savvy businessman.
Being successful in the restaurant industry requires much more than just a flair in the kitchen; otherwise the millions of culinary school graduates produced each year would own their own restaurants instead of prepping food at Applebee’s.
If you’re truly interested in running your own restaurant, both versions of Kitchen Nightmares are must-see TV, especially the infamous episode featuring the now-defunct Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale, AZ.
7. The Apprentice (2004-Present)
These days, the Internet is mostly interested in stopping Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States, but the man is a businessman before a politician.
Billed as “The Ultimate Job Interview,” The Apprentice is a reality game show by Survivor creator Mark Burnett and follows a similar premise. Instead of competing for a simple cash prize, the original prize (before Celebrity Apprentice) was a $250,000 contract to run one of Trump’s businesses for a year.
Contestants divide into teams and compete in a series of sales and marketing projects. Before and after each project, Trump and his advisers (sometimes his kids) discuss the teams and dole out business advice.
Although the series is much campier than other business shows, there is still some educational value in it for aspiring entrepreneurs. As a franchise, there are over 24 international versions of The Apprentice around the world, making it a global phenomenon.
Everyone on the show has some kind of business background, even the celebrities, as show business is one of the hardest businesses to break into. It’s also worth noting Trump’s show outperformed competing billionaire Mark Cuban’s The Benefactor in the ratings by a large margin, easily ending the latter after only a handful of episodes.
It’s fitting that most of the contests involve sales and marketing, because winners of the show don’t actually handle operations for Trump, instead acting as promotional spokespeople.
The Apprentice is a great show to learn more about branding, as that’s an area Trump clearly excels in.
Love or hate him, you know exactly who he is and what he stands for. He’s more vocal about his beliefs than just about anyone in the one percent and we can only hope more people in that position open up the way Trump does.
6. Shark Tank (2009-Present)
Probably the highest-rated and most popular show on this list, ABC’s Shark Tank is another Mark Burnett creation (based on Japan’s Dragon’s Den, which will be discussed below) in which entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to wealthy shark investors.
Although the shark rotation often changes, the mainstays of the show are Barbara Corcoran, Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John, and Kevin O’Leary. Kevin Harrington, Jeff Foxworthy, Steve Tisch, John Paul DeJoria, Nick Woodman, Ashton Kutcher, Troy Carter, and Chris Sacca have also appeared as sharks.
The show has been so instrumental in jump-starting American businesses that President Obama even gave it a shout-out (even naming Daymond John as one of the White House’s entrepreneurial ambassadors) during one of his speeches on global entrepreneurialship.
Shark Tank is the perfect place to see how investors react to small businesses of every shape and size. The sharks routinely ask financial questions, and, although only small fragments of hour-long interviews are aired, viewers get to see the successes and failures of each business.
Both entrepreneurs and investors have something to learn from Shark Tank, as the same issues have come up repeatedly throughout the show’s run. Although it can still be as glossed-over as other shows, the competition between sharks, combined with the desperation of many featured entrepreneurs, makes Shark Tank essential viewing for any aspiring entrepreneur or investor.
5. Beyond the Tank (2015-Present)
Shark Tank is so compelling is spawned its own spin-off in 2015, called Beyond the Tank.
Where the original series mostly focused on boardroom pitch meetings, Beyond the Tank shows more of the story behind many of the popular brands and businesses featured on the show.
The show focuses on businesses that both succeeded and failed to solicit an investment from the sharks, and expands on the mini-segments featured before each pitch.
Although the sharks often dispense advice in the tank, it’s difficult to tell whether or not businesses will adhere to it.
I’ve seen a variety of businesses featured on Shark Tank at trade shows through my travels, and in talking to some of these entrepreneurs, many hardly ever meet with the actual sharks off-camera. Typically interactions happen via email, and it’s most often with a member of the shark’s business team.
Beyond the Tank gives the sharks a reason to put boots on the ground and either sort out problems or celebrate successes. We also get to meet some of their teams.
For those who love Shark Tank, Beyond the Tank is a great way to see what happens after the deal is done and the real work begins.
We learn that some businesses have issues with their technology, which is especially an issue on the night the show airs, as orders typically spike that night. Other businesses were able to pay back the shark investment at a rapid pace and multiply profits for everyone involved.
Beyond the Tank does a great job of showing the compromises entrepreneurs have to make (and the lessons learned) when giving away a percentage of their business. In addition, you get to see more of the operations behind your favorite Shark Tank brands.
4. Bar Rescue (2011-Present)
Although on the surface, Spike TV’s Bar Rescue seems like nothing more than a rip-off of Kitchen Nightmares, star Jon Taffer does separate himself from the competition. He’s at the very least walked away and given up more than Ramsey, lending it an air of realism.
The show features struggling bars and pubs that call in a business consultant to help turn things around. Taffer regularly rebrands businesses, completely redoing the interior, drinks, and menu, by calling in teams of experts.
In watching Bar Rescue, you’ll learn a surprising amount of detail about bar operations, right down to the POS systems. In working with CardFellow, a card-processing marketplace, I’ve learned quite a bit about how much a POS can change your business.
Not all of Taffer’s “rescues” are successful, and, the featured businesses often have trouble after the fact. One of the more infamous cases was Nashville bar owner Chris Ferrell, who, the night before his episode was to air, was arrested for the murder of country singer Wayne Mills.
Despite the setbacks, Bar Rescue serves as an entertaining lesson for anyone interested in either starting a business or becoming a consultant.
3. Dragon’s Den (2001-Present)
While many of the shows here have international versions, I’m featuring Dragon’s Den because, like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, I fell in love with the U.K. version on BBC America long before the American version premiered, so I’m familiar with the differences.
Whereas Shark Tank adds a lot of production values to entertain American audiences, the U.K. version of Dragon’s Den is dry and focuses much more on business.
I find the U.K. version to be much more educational, and the dragons aren’t afraid to use real business terms. Watching it makes you realize how dumbed down Shark Tank actually is.
In addition, I’ve checked out the Canadian and Australian (now called Shark Tank) versions through torrent sites. Both are quite watchable, and most Americans will recognize the Canadian dragons, especially O’Leary and Herjavec.
You would be naive to think only Americans can come up with good business ideas or inventions (which is a complaint many foreigners have about the American mindset). Watching the international versions broadens your mind to what types of products and services are important in foreign markets.
Entrepreneurs interested in doing business outside the United States can benefit from seeing how pitch meetings in Dragon’s Den, Lion’s Den, Tiger’s Den (or whatever the local version is called) compares to Shark Tank.
2. Silicon Valley (2014-Present)
HBO’s comedy series by Mike Judge is about as accurate a portrayal of tech entrepreneurship in northern California as Scrubs is of working in a hospital.
That being said, Silicon Valley is a very entertaining comedy that pokes fun at the crazy deals and business environment in its namesake area.
By using comedy as a buffer, the show actually does a decent job explaining some complicated ideas in the tech sector. When Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) leaves Hooli, a Google-like company, to turn his Pied Piper compression algorithm into a business, the ensuing story is one entreprenuers should pay attention to.
Hendricks lives in an incubator, which is basically a group of people living in one house and doing business in their garage. As the company gains steam, they encounter every possible issue, from problems finding employees to expand to IP lawsuits, logo problems, and stiff competition.
Not every business show has to be realistic. Let’s face it – even the reality TV shows aren’t exactly real. Instead, Silicon Valley is an entertaining look at the culture of tech startups that can be hilarious at times and tells a compelling story based in a particular setting.
Entrepreneurs and employees of any startup or tech-based business with a sense of humor will love Silicon Valley. Even that guy we all know who loves correcting every small detail will find some enjoyment smugly correcting inconsistencies to their friends.
1. The Profit (2013-Present)
Although it may seem like I’m obsessed with the Shark Tank franchise, the true focus of my love is CNBC’s The Profit.
Marcus Lemonis doesn’t get paid as an on-air personality the way everyone else above does. Instead, he focuses on the promotional benefits of name-dropping and cross-promoting his brands throughout the show, and occasional affiliate marketing through companies like LegalZoom.
In The Profit, Lemonis visits businesses that are seeking an investment much like Shark Tank. However, instead of sitting in the board room, Lemonis gets his hands dirty, learning about the businesses by performing tasks and reviewing documents.
The Profit is one of the best in-depth shows for seeing exactly what it takes to run a successful business. Lemonis is extremely business-savvy and is able to communicate with people on every level, whether business owners, entry-level employees, customers, or the viewing audience.
When watching the show, Lemonis often uses graphics to explain why it is he asks the questions and makes the decisions he does. One of his most consistent mantras is to focus on the people, the product, and the process, and he never strays from his process.
The Profit manages to humanize a CEO in an era when public trust in that particular category of people is painfully low.
Lemonis is a no-nonsense kind of guy, having no fear getting in people’s face, as he proved with meathead bully Anthony Leggio at ASL Signs.
But he also has a great sense of humor, which comes out any time the show has awkward moments, such as his inability to come up with a graphic for the relationship overshare at West End Coffee.
The Profit has gotten so popular that Lemonis now has a spin-off series coming called The Partner, in which he auditions a partner to help him run the businesses he invested in during the show’s run.
Having invested over $12 million of his own money to save struggling businesses to varying degrees of success, Lemonis appears to be on a personal quest to compete against the sharks and dragons to save the world one investment at a time.
Entrepreneurs seeking motivation to succeed in an era when financial wealth is seen as a bad thing will love The Profit. Any time I’m struggling to push through my work or having trouble remembering the end game, it’s my go-to.
Marcus Lemonis the person never veers from his process, and the result is one of the most compelling products I’ve seen on TV in a long.
Bonus: Nathan for You (2013-Present)
And then we have the business show spoof Nathan for You. Comedian Nathan Fielder portrays the exact opposite of Marcus Lemonis to varying degrees of success in his Comedy Central show. Although the character Nathan plays on screen isn’t a real person, everyone else involved in this show is. It’s a brilliant send-up of the business reality show genre.
What most interesting about Nathan for You isn’t that Fielder comes up with oddball ideas like poop flavored frozen yogurt or a soundproof box to stick kids in so parents can have sex. It’s not even that he convinces real businesspeople to try out his ideas – it’s that some of them actually work.
Fielder has made numerous headlines in the media for business ideas like Dumb Starbucks, a coffee house that uses fair-use laws to sell dumb coffee drinks and dumb music to dumb patrons, a hero pig that went viral on YouTube, and The Movement, a ghostwritten self-help book meant to convince people to pay to work for a moving company.
Fielder’s ideas are actually quite brilliant (though most are obviously unethical), and it’d difficult to know sometimes what it is you’re actually watching, but the business and marketing lessons are solid.
Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work appears in High Times, Huffington Post, Fast Company, The Street, Small Business Daily, DumbLittleMan, and Hardcore Droid.