5 Business Lessons from ‘You’ve Got Mail’

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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The 1998 Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starred “You’ve Got Mail” is more known as a romantic comedy set in the beginnings of the internet. I watched it again recently, looking for familiar and feel-good entertainment. But as I viewed it now from the lens of a pandemic-struck world, I realized the film offers several lessons relevant in this time of competition, coronavirus, and closures for many businesses.

“You’ve Got Mail,” tells the story of Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) and Joe Fox (Hanks) who meet at a chatroom and start writing messages to each other using their code names. It’s set at the start of the internet, when, 22 years ago, we still used a dial-up modem to connect to the World Wide Web. They form a connection online, unaware that in real life, they are business rivals. Kathleen owns an independent children’s bookstore that she inherited from her mother. Joe is the third-generation owner of Fox Books, a chain of massive bookstores that supplies books, coffee, and discounts.

Here are five business lessons that we can take away from “You’ve Got Mail.”

1. Don’t give up without a fight.

When Shopgirl (Ryan) asks NY152 (Hanks) for business advice, he quotes “The Godfather” and tells her to “go to the mattresses.” Meaning, fight. So she does. Kelley gains media mileage as the rivalry is framed as a battle for New York’s soul and culture.

Today, businesses are fighting to survive against the damage wrought by the pandemic. We see this in how companies are trying to generate revenue: through promotions and discounts, multiple revenue streams, and new products and services that adapt to the times. Companies are slashing costs by holding off capital expenditures, furloughing or laying off employees, or renegotiating rent and other expenses. Businesses are doing what they can to survive until some simply can’t anymore.

2. Know when to move on.

Despite the media mileage, sales in The Shop Around the Corner don’t improve. Kathleen has to make the tough decision to close her 42-year-old shop and lay off her three employees who are like family to her. She does this while she still has savings left.

Many difficult decisions are being faced and made, more so in this pandemic. If you have or had to close a business, whether due to coronavirus, competition, or other reasons, you may feel like a failure. But you’re not. You did what you could.

You can take time to grieve your loss. But move on, knowing that when a door closes, a window opens.

3. Business is personal until it isn’t.

NY152 advises Shopgirl: “It’s not personal, it’s business.” Later, a frustrated Kathleen tells Joe after her shop closes: “What is so wrong with being personal anyway? Because whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

They’re both right, depending on the context.

When unpleasant things have to be done, such as undercutting a competitor, laying off people, or reneging on a deal, we often say, it’s not personal, it’s business. Somehow, that reasoning makes us feel better.

But business is personal. Every enterprise, big or small, starts with a personal story, whether of ambition, necessity, passion, opportunity, or serendipity. The personal interactions and relationships with customers, employees, colleagues, and stakeholders are among the fulfilling aspects of working and doing business.

Any worthwhile endeavor is nurtured by one’s capital of time, money, or talent, usually all of the above. For those who have devoted their lives and dreams to a business, it is of course personal. One’s identity is closely linked to the business.

That is why ultimately, we fight for the business’s survival — because we can’t help it, it is personal.

4. Nothing is certain.

The irony of “You’ve Got Mail” is that while the independent bookstore falls to the mega-bookstore, Fox Books will face its greatest threat in a few years from a startup called Amazon. And should it survive Amazon, another threat will come in the form of a pandemic.

“Unprecedented” is a word that comes up when talking of the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions. Some companies may have prepared for worst-case scenarios, but no one was ever prepared for a pandemic that closed-off countries, disrupted supply chains, imploded markets, shut down businesses, and so easily infected millions of people and killed hundreds of thousands.

Plans will have to be reexamined and previous assumptions are thrown away. People and businesses will have to adapt to the next normal. In these times of so much uncertainty, the only constant, as always, is change.

5. Look at what’s next.

After she closes her bookstore, Kathleen receives several offers. She has built a reputation in the industry for her flawless taste, gentle nature, and love for books and children. Post-business, she finds herself writing a children’s book. She would not have considered writing before when she was running her bookstore, but now with time on her hands and encouragement from her online friend, she is venturing into a new career.

As we are holed up in our homes, the pandemic has given many of us time. Time to think, to reflect, to plan. Time to work, play, or try something new.

It will be hard to see it now, but we can only look forward to the future. We must, because to be fearful will impair us. We will stumble and fall, but we must get up and walk, even if slowly, towards the new world waiting.

As old Birdie tells Kathleen when she decides to close the bookstore, it’s “the brave thing to do. You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.”

To consider that there is something else possible ahead.

These words ring true for every one of us.



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Debbie Rodolfo

Debbie Rodolfo

Writer, mother, book lover, businesswoman, traveler from the Philippines || www.bloomingpen.net