Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants," with its brightly hued colors and juvenile hijinks, may seem like the last place you should look for business or career advice. But if you take a slightly closer look at SpongeBob's madcap energy and Mr. Krabs' relentless pursuit to sell Krabby Patties, you'll notice some familiar workplace scenarios -- and some surprisingly important lessons.
So what can you learn from the gang from the underwater city of Bikini Bottom? We decided to take a closer look.
1. SpongeBob SquarePants has integrity that every entrepreneur and employee should emulate.
When Mr. Krabs, in one episode titled "The Graveyard Shift," tells his staff that the Krusty Krab will now be open 24 hours a day, SpongeBob is thrilled. In the episode "Just One Bite," when Squidward sneaks into the Krusty Krab in the middle of the night to secretly eat some Krabby Patties, he spots the famed sea sponge and asks why he is there. "I always come here at 3 a.m.," SpongeBob replies. "This is when I count the sesame seeds."
Lisa J. Rinkus, president of LJPR, a West Newton, Mass.-based public-relations firm, says one of her favorite pastimes is hanging out with her daughter after school and watching "SpongeBob SquarePants." "During the shows," Rinkus says, "we chat about SpongeBob's incredible work ethic, his ability to work with what he has and make the best of every situation. I can't understand why many parents don't let their kids watch SpongeBob. It's chock full of great lessons -- business and otherwise."
2. Don't stray from your core competency.
In "The Krusty Sponge," a restaurant critic applauds SpongeBob as one of two reasons to visit the Krusty Krab (the Krabby Patty being the first reason). Mr. Krabs is deliriously excited by the idea of promoting SpongeBob as another reason to visit his restaurant. So excited, in fact, that he goes overboard, changing the name of the restaurant to the Krusty Sponge and making perennially disgruntled employee Squidward wear a SpongeBob costume. SpongeBob, meanwhile, is made to run a SpongeBob train outside the restaurant. In effect, the restaurant's main reason for being -- the food -- is ignored. And just as one might expect to happen in real life, customers then become sick after eating the food.
Another example of this is "the episode when Pearl, Mr. Krab's daughter, wants to change the menu and marketing strategy of the Krusty Krab" to be trendier, says Anu V. Murthy, avowed SpongeBob fan and president of Rex, a full-service wholesale intermediary offering agencies access to worker's compensation markets nationwide. "SpongeBob felt absolutely uncomfortable with it because it strayed from the 'core' strategy."
As it turns out, Pearl ended up leaving the restaurant, which returned to normal. "Lesson? Stick to your knitting," Murthy says.
3. Quality counts.
In the episode, "Born Again Krabs," Mr. Krabs forces SpongeBob to sell an old, filthy, germ-infested Krabby Patty that was found under the grill. Mr. Krabs can't stand the idea that this patty, which could have been used to make money, would be allowed to go to waste. However, weeks go by, and the Krusty Krab loses a lot of business until Mr. Krabs, trying to prove the patty is perfectly good, eats the food and winds up in the hospital.
Then there's the "Patty Hype" episode in which SpongeBob starts his own stand, selling "pretty patties" -- Krabby Patties that are different colors. SpongeBob ended up having approximately 46,853 customers. Unfortunately, the colored patties literally make the fish in Bikini Bottom change different colors.
"SpongeBob comes up with a patty that seems to be, on the surface, what everyone wants," Murthy explains. "It was short-lived because, in the end, everyone was [ticked] off because the patties ended up changing and was not what the customers expected."
The lesson entrepreneurs can take away, Murthy says, is that you should "be sincere in what you are selling. Customers aren't idiots. They will learn quickly what you are all about. Long-term strategy is key for customers."
And, of course, we haven't even mentioned Mr. Krab's arch-enemy, Plankton, who is always trying to steal the Krabby Patty formula. Plankton clearly recognizes that the formula's quality would attract customers, but he's too lazy to come up with anything superior on his own. Instead, his restaurant, the Chum Bucket, is recognized throughout Bikini Bottom for serving inferior, pathetic food.
4. You get what you pay for.
When Mr. Krabs shoots a Krusty Krab TV commercial, he shoots it himself, to bring the production costs down, and he pays for the cheap time slot of 3:28 a.m. Not surprisingly, few fish in Bikini Bottom see it.
In "Krabby Land," Mr. Krabs figures he can make a fortune if he has a playground for kids at his restaurant (shade of McDonald's and their playgrounds). It's a mess, cheaply made and not very safe. By the end of the episode, the children have tied up Mr. Krabs and are feeding him lima beans. If you're cheap in a way that insults your customers, you're the one who will likely lose in the end.
5. Don't let your work take over your life.
Joe Wos, executive director of the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh's Museum of Cartoon Art, notes that "with the exception of Patrick, everyone in the show has very defined jobs, and at least half the show revolves around their jobs, which is something you don't see in a lot of cartoons. They take their jobs very seriously in SpongeBob."
Wos adds that in the episodes where SpongeBob "loses his job or spatula, his life falls apart, and if you think about it, that often defines our own situations as well. When we lose our jobs, our world literally falls apart. I think one of the greatest examples of that is the episode where SpongeBob loses his name tag. Literally and figuratively, it's a complete loss of identity."
True enough, when SpongeBob discovers his name tag is gone, he freaks out until he faints. In this animated moment -- at least it can seem this way after the 27th viewing with your kids -- SpongeBob becomes something apart from a simple cartoon on a children's cable channel. It is a cautionary tale for the 21st century businessperson, a warning to everyone, from the CEO down to the lowliest fry cook, that while it's swell to be at one with your career, you can always take things too far.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 10/7/10.