10 business lessons from stand up comedy


I spent five years working for JLA, the UK’s biggest speaker agency. The company has a prejudice in favour of people who’ve ‘been there and done it’ rather than been an armchair CEO and written a book from imagination and not practical experience. So, with a deferential nod to my former employers, here are ten business lessons from what I go out and do – in this case, stand up comedy.

1. Be authentic

Don’t try to be someone else. Occasionally, I’m asked if I want to be ‘the next Michael McIntyre.’ I always say no, I want to be the first Ian Hawkins – and hopefully the last one too. When we buy a McDonalds or an Innocent smoothie, we trust them to give us what they’ve given us before. When McDonalds started selling Innocent smoothies, fans of the drink were initially outraged that these two companies should be working together, it became a big news story, and Innocent had to justify their position. Lesson one: your customer might have a clearer idea of you than you do. Lesson two: who’d’ve thought a smoothie could have fans?

2. Your brand is your product
There are filthy comics and there are clean comics and there are political comics and there are comics who defy description. In a busy marketplace, what a comedian does off stage is as important as what they do on stage. Plenty of mediocre comics make a good living because they turn up when they say they will, are quick at responding to email and always pick up the phone. They get gigs because the promoter has met them six times and have run out of reasons not to book them. They may not be the best, but they are easier to work with than some diva who demands champagne in the Winnebago.

3. Be confident in your product
Tell an audience you’re not funny and they will believe you. Tell a potential customer your product is rubbish, and they will never turn into a real customer. Stand ups sell themselves from the second they walk on the stage. How is your product turning people on – or off – at first glance? Does your product have a good reputation? Does the marketing match the wrapper? A lot of comedians I respect make a habit of changing their shirt before they go onstage, even the ones who look like they’ve just walked in off the street. The dapper dandy tottering home at two in the morning may well be the scruffy stand-up from ten minutes ago. How is your product positioned? Who is it supposed to appeal to? Does it?

4. Friends are great, enemies are expensive
You cannot get on with everyone, but never make an enemy unless you really have to. Network, and be organised in networking. Comedians, generally get on, even though we are all technically business rivals. Who are your competitors? What is your relationship with them like? Is the marketplace big enough for both of you? Look through your phone book – do you know everyone in there? How do you communicate? There are some people you might want to feel loved – have you done anything in this direction? How many times have you had a communication from a company that you do business with that makes you feel good?

5. Keep your promises

When an audience member hands over money to see a comedian, they are entering a contract, and there is expectation on both sides. Comedians have a duty to provide, to the best of their ability, entertainment worthy of the ticket price. You can charge a premium if your product is better than the others on the market. If you’ve cut corners, scrimped and your product falls to bits, you have to compete on price. Price is part of the promise you make. It says: this will last you a lifetime, this is disposable, this is important, or this is trivial. Don’t expect your 50p shirt to survive as many washes as your £200 hand-stitched tailor-made.

6. Fail
When an audience member gets a free ticket, they owe the comedian their attention and respect. The comedian has total carte blanche to do their new material, explore tricky angles, or do that bit with the glove puppet that sounds funny but might well not be. Fear of failure is what puts many people off being a comedian, but if you don’t fail, you never learn. The only true failure is a gig you don’t learn from, irrespective of whether the audience laughs or not. If you can learn to fail when the damage is minimal, you will find you can step up to challenges when you really have to. Tommy Cooper and Sid James to one side, very few comics have literally died onstage, and in business, you will have another day, another customer, another product.

7. Innovate
R&D is as important in comedy as it is in business. Sometimes big things happen, and you have to respond to them. The Prime Minister is caught in bed with two hookers and a farmyard animal; you’d better have something to say about it when you’re onstage that evening. Joke thieves are an occupational hazard to the comedian, but the truth is that if you make a habit of innovation, you will always be one step ahead of them. I’m writing this on a tablet computer. There are loads on the market now – but they are all playing catchup to the iPad.

8. See things through the eyes of your audience

If you have become a comedian to satisfy your own ego, you’re in trouble – because your happiness depends upon the approval of others. If your aim is to entertain an audience, leave them feeling better about themselves and give them a break from the humdrum, then nobody will resent you for making a living if you achieve this. Green & Black made very good, high quality, ethical chocolate before they made a penny in profit. Customers will pay a premium for G&B because the perception of it is as a reliable product, offering a little indulgence with no guilt.

9. Always leave them wanting more.
And, hopefully, they will buy more.

Ian Hawkins is, entirely unsurprisingly, available for bookings.

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