Why entrepreneurship is like stand-up comedy
The world is changing
What worked in the iconic stories of Facebook and Google fifteen years ago might not work so well today. The challenges are entirely different and inspiration knocks the door at odd hours. What is an entrepreneur to do in such an ever-changing climate? As Peter Thiel said in his iconic book, Zero to One — the next Mark Zuckerberg will not be building a social network. The next Larry Page will not be building a search engine. Adding to that, I’ll also say that people don’t laugh at jokes that they’ve already heard.
I might invite some ire over this but I have come to believe that entrepreneurship is a lot like stand-up comedy. You have to know what your audience really likes and does to really write your jokes, or your product, so to speak. Most successful comics tend to know their audiences inside out. Whether it’s Russel Peters whose play on stereotypes made him an icon or if it’s India’s Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath, who target jokes specifically on millennials like themselves. The jokes are almost always funny because they are relatable. They anchor on something that the audience already knows or does.
Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, sometimes take a totally opposite route which often leads to failure. They design the product, write the code, and shoot an email out to everyone and their aunts.
The audience, so to speak, does not get the joke half of the time. The artist begins to doubt her abilities to entertain and starts questioning the execution of the joke rather than the audience of the joke itself. Inability to find the product-market fit is one of the major preventable causes of startup failure. Most entrepreneurs raise huge VC funding, and pour it into all sorts advertising channels and growth hacks. But what they fail to appreciate is no amount of money and backing can make a bad joke funny.
How to tell a great joke?
The parallel between entrepreneurship and stand-up comedy can be a helpful tool in determining whether your product will stick around the block. An early stage entrepreneur looking for product inspiration is very similar to an ambitious comic looking for new jokes. The comic always observes people that he wants to laugh at his jokes with a keen eye. Noting down their behaviors and motivations in a notebook, and then putting his own sense of humor and purpose around it. Product managers can take a leaf from this book when doing customer development research.
It’s not what problem the product solves, it’s how the customer feels sentimentally after using your product that gives it its value.
It is interesting to note how much product development resembles joke development. While the product should be inherently useful, the joke should be inherently funny. But how it is delivered can make it or break it to your audience. The delivery of the product gives its users the sentimental value of appreciation. And that is what you ultimately sell. Stand-up comics don’t sell a few laughs in their shows, they sell happiness. Facebook doesn’t sell a social networking app, they sell the feeling of being connected with the whole world. This emotional touch and the abstraction of how your product touches its users is what makes a brilliant product. Few questions that you must always ask before designing your product are —
1. Who is going to laugh at my joke? Research and research well on the target audience.
2. How is my joke going to make them feel? The expected reaction from the users should be predictable.
3. Is my delivery enhancing the joke? Even the best jokes can go dead with the wrong body language and delivery.
4. Would people pay to hear my jokes? Do your jokes make me feel special enough that I would pay to hear them? Would I share your jokes with my friends later at a party?
These can be summarized as the four pillars of product development — market, sentiment, execution, and opportunity.
I like to think Uber is a great product in this regard. Anyone who commutes to work falls in their market. The hassle of getting a cab or sitting in crowded bus/train is replaced by the relief of hailing a cab directly at your doorstep. The app makes it so easy to find a cab and make payments cashless. Groggy people going to work every morning have one less thing to worry about, so definitely, they’ll pay for it. This gives Uber and other cab-hailing apps considerable pricing power.
So, why did the chicken cross the road?
Products that are performing well are able to attract better talent and gain their fair share of attention from financial backers looking to cash in on the opportunity. Just like when you go viral on Youtube with a comedy sketch that you made in your bedroom, you can find it easier to get someone to finance your first stage appearance — the products that you make can also attract some serious cash. Demonstration of a winning capacity is what people look for when they invest their time and money on.
Performing at your local comedy club may give you enough data to validate if you have what it takes to become a good comedian, but it will not make you the next Louis CK. For that you’ll need financial backing to scale up your performance and get widespread attention.
If you have a product/market fit, expanding your market also expands your horizons.
Why comedians though?
Funny you should ask that.
Well, you can choose as many performing arts as you want to make a guiding analogue for your product development ideology but I find the behavior of standup comics the best. Why? Because their main intention is to sell you laughter and they each have to differentiate really well from their competition to survive.
I don’t honestly believe in products that barely scratch an itch. They are replaceable and I might never develop feelings of loyalty for such a product. The holistic feeling of having your product appreciated by your users is what should always drive your business. Career comedians have a strong need to become famous otherwise they can never make enough money to support their families or satiate the artist within them. Growing is the end-game of every good product. And we all know that growth is never an accident.
It’s show business.
To conclude, I’d like to thank you for reading this post. Do you agree with my points? I’d love to talk more and learn what you think about this idea. You can always ping me here.
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