The Greatest Business Lessons from P.T. Barnum

INT. HIGH SCHOOL AUDITORIUM – NIGHT

The murmur of a packed house fades away as the lights go down.

The orchestra’s opening number softens as a drumroll begins.  BARNUM runs down the aisle, leaps onto the stage and says, “Barnum’s the name; P.T. Barnum…” The monologue is interrupted by CHARITY (Mrs. Barnum) declaring that everything he is saying is humbug. After a bit of romantic comedy, Barnum begins his song about suckers being born every minute.

A couple decades ago, my interest in Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum began on stage as I lived out the story of his life set to music. Now, his story is back in the spotlight with “The Greatest Showman.” While my mother will tell you that I outshined Hugh Jackman, the box office tally has “The Greatest Showman” several zeros ahead.

Regardless of which version of the story is your favorite, PT Barnum left behind a guide for entrepreneurs that has withstood the test of time. His guide includes items like customer service, recruiting, business growth, and marketing.

THE GREATEST CUSTOMERS

When Barnum first started, he assumed he knew what the customer needed. His approach led to a lot of wasted time and finances while he tried to adjust. Though he did not initially listen to the customer, the customer spoke to him by their lack of interest. Barnum learned to listen to the customer first. He would then create or twist what the customer desired.

Today’s entrepreneurs must also listen to the customer. Many start-ups are confident they know exactly what the customer wants or needs. Business model canvassing pushes the entrepreneur to seek out and listen to potential customers. This results in an evolution of their business idea to better match the products and services to the market.

THE GREATEST TEAM

Barnum recruited the most unique talent he could find to fill his team. “I make no apologies, this is me!” From the very first trailer release, this message has resounded as an anthem for overcoming your critics. Barnum had a knack for making everyone feel special. He made the bearded woman feel beautiful, Tom Thumb feel bigger than life, and Joice Heth feel young again.  Barnum could adjust to his varying employees in the same way he adjusted his shows to the customers.

Hiring the best people you can find will not dilute your position as an entrepreneur.  The people you bring in will elevate your abilities and business with their own strengths and talents. Once you have the right team in place, you are responsible for making them feel at home. Employees who feel special have no reason to look for other employment and will perform at a higher level.  Getting the person hired is the easy part. Keeping the employee requires ongoing nurturing and development.

THE GREATEST GROWTH

In order to grow his business and, more importantly, stay relevant, PT Barnum had to be willing to evolve and pivot. Even after finding great success as an entertainer, he decided to evolve his business model by moving it around. Rather than taking on this daunting task alone, Barnum aligned himself with circus veterans; most famously, James Bailey. This pivot in his business model came with great success as it mixed Bailey’s knowledge of the circus with Barnum’s advertising skill. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus continued until 2017. Even today, we see another successful pivot in this industry.  Perhaps if Barnum were still around, “Barnum’s Kaleidoscope” would be housed in one of the six Las Vegas resorts currently housing Cirque du Soleil.

Entrepreneurism is a difficult journey to take alone. Finding the right partners can help you expand your perspective and find the right markets for your product or service. Just as Barnum recognized his limitations, the entrepreneur must be vulnerable enough to know when to look for help. Whether it is an advisor like the SBTDC or a business partner with different experience, having great partners will bring value to your company.

THE GREATEST MESSAGE

While stories told by the alleged 161-year-old nanny of George Washington and newspaper illustrations of beautiful mermaids being exhibited in “other” cities were a bit embellished, the techniques used by Barnum to gain attention are still being used today. Barnum’s use of horse-drawn wagons covered in posters is seen today with city buses painted from top to bottom with advertising. Billboards, newspaper ads, banners, elaborate writing, and even penning anonymous letters to the editor questioning the authenticity of his own show is just the tip of the iceberg.

Content and inbound marketing, social media and sustainability are current marketing trends that entrepreneurs must already be involved in if they want a chance at being today’s Barnum. The methods of marketing are changing as fast as the technology that drives them. PT Barnum was not on the leading edge of marketing.  He WAS the leading edge of marketing. When you ask the customer what they want, you better be listening for cues on how to deliver your message of the NEW AND IMPROVED products and services.

PT Barnum did not stumble into these business lessons by chance. He constantly educated himself on the latest trends and technologies of his time. He treated every person he interacted with as though they were his customer. Barnum found opportunity in every moment of every day. And when in doubt, he could always fall back on humbuggery.

About the author
David Steffes is the Regional Director for central Missouri’s Small Business & Technology Development Center.

About the Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC):
The Missouri SBTDC is a statewide network which helps businesses succeed in every stage from concept to startup, growth to renewal, maturity to succession through a variety of programs. Missouri SBTDC counselors are located throughout the state providing education and individualized assistance on a variety of issues. The Missouri SBTDC is funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration and is a program of the Missouri Business Development Program, hosted by the University of Missouri Extension.