[title of site]: Nine Lessons a Broadway Musical Can Teach Internet Startups


The scrappy Broadway musical [title of show] chronicles two guys writing a show about themselves writing the show they’re in. Working within this ouroborosly simple framework, the four performers (the creative team and their friends) and single musician on keyboard create a lush environment and motivation for anyone trying to create something — writing a novel or a blog post, researching a cure for cancer, or developing an internet startup. Jennifer and I watched [title of show] in July and it has been resonating in my brain (and repeating on my iPhone) since. I see parallels between this Broadway production and an internet startup and believe the show has a lot to teach us.

A brief history of [title of show]: two unknown guys, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, decide to create an original musical in three and a half weeks just in time for the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival. The show stars Hunter and Jeff and their two friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, all of whom play themselves. In 2006, the show opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. Finally, in July, 2008, [title of show] opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. Not only was this the fruition of life-long dreams of the creative team, it is also an incredibly difficult achievement as there are less than 40 Broadway theatres, 15 of which house shows that opened more than a year ago. The small number of available venues is only one of the many obstacles a Broadway-bound show must overcome. [title of show], a Broadway startup, has succeeded against great odds. Here are nine things I’ve learned about creating a successful internet startup from [title of show].

Be Nine People’s Favorite Thing

The 11 o’clock number from [title of show] comes right before the end of the show, but the message is so important that it comes first in this article.

“I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing
than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing”

This simple statement embodies wisdom that has implications for all creators. Is it possible to create something that appeals to everyone? Is that a good goal? Is drowning a user in as many features as possible a way to please everyone? What does it take to make something that can be someone’s favorite thing?

While not readily quantified, I believe the value of one “that’s my favorite thing” user of a site (or show) is substantially greater than that of nine or maybe nine hundred causal users. Some may argue that the value of different types of users can be quantified through tracking mechanisms to determine their revenue contributions, but the effects of the phrase “this is my favorite thing” typed or spoken to friends cannot be measured. Not trying to appeal to everyone unchains the creativity and allows a “less is more” approach, one of my favorite personal philosophies. Spend quality time trying to understand your user, what motivates them and what would make them love your site, then spend more quality time making them love you.

Get Creative People

Startups begin as a small group of friends who have a crazy idea, all of the passion and some of the talents to actualize the idea. They work hard in the early days to gestate the idea, develop a plan, and start prototyping. In [title of show], the two main creatives (Jeff and Hunter) decide to create a musical for a festival in three and a half weeks. Their crazy time frame for producing something which can take years is in line with the drive of startups to warp speed their ideas into actuality before someone else does.

The writers of [title of show] also star in the musical just like startup team members play many roles, often those they aren’t accustomed to. The creatives involved in a project are its heart. And skeleton. And pancreas — yes, the pancreas is icky, but essential to life. Many roles are required, but few are glamorous and fun. The desire to succeed makes them venture into uncomfortable territories. What the creative team lacks in experience, they make up for in passion and drive — and in exploiting their talented friends.

Exploit Your Friends

Jeff and Hunter had sufficient “in” with the Broadway scene to find several big-name Broadway performers to record answering machine messages (turning down offers to perform in their musical) that were used in the show from its earliest performances. Hearing these messages causes significant audience reaction and immediately increases the seriousness and credibility of the production.

Endorsements from established people or companies provide a substantial boost to the image and authenticity of a show or website. Referral traffic from an established website is valuable not only in an exchange of valuable, virtual organic currency (i.e., search engine mojo), but also in sending new eyes to the site from a trusted source. Seek these endorsements. It may seem like shameless promotion (mostly because it is), but, to turn a phrase, there’s no such thing as bad promotion. When you hit it big, these early endorsements will be proven true and are a win for the endorser, too.

Learn from the Failures of Others

In the song “Monkeys and Playbills,” Jeff Bowen shares insight into his creative process as well as his love of obscure Broadway flops. Jeff collects playbills of Broadway shows that ran 50 or fewer times, a very specific passion, but one that he has turned into a clever creative outlet. The scene in the show integrates the titles of many failed musicals into the song, creating a clever number. In interviews, Jeff’s thorough knowledge of these musicals is apparent. Know a great deal about the failures of other projects related to what you are creating and, more importantly, wonder why they failed. Making a mistake is a powerful way to learn, but repeating someone else’s mistake is just sad.

[BTW: if my math is correct, [title of show] finished it’s 51th performance Saturday afternoon. Jeff, if you read this, congratulations that [title of show]’s Playbill isn’t a part of your collection!]

Dream Big

Opening on Broadway was the life-long dream of the creative team behind [title of show]. Running on Broadway is like playing in the majors or selling your website to Google. It is a substantial goal and few shows, particularly original works, make it that far. The story of [title of show] is an inspiration to nobodies in any city working on their dream. We live in an amazing time and today’s internet is a proving ground of wondrous ideas that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Don’t let the vampires of failure keep you from trying to dream big.

Fight Vampires

One of [title of show]’s big numbers is “Die Vampire, Die!” Not a song about killing the hemophagic undead, instead the [title of show] vampire is “any person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self expression.” Anyone who has created anything has experienced sources of external or, in the case of the dreaded “Vampire of Despair,” self-imposed doubt. Finding strategies to kick some vampire ass is essential to break writer’s, coders, painter’s, or pitcher’s block. I don’t know if pitchers experience creative blocks, but I can attest to the programmer’s Vampire of Fatal Errors. We all have vampires just as we all have the means to fight them.

Get Money

Broadway shows without money run about as well as websites without money. To succeed in either endeavor, you need users in seats, but the more users, the more seats. On Broadway this means bigger venues, on the web it means more and bigger servers. Both musicals and websites require work to be done (lighting design and choreography or database design and programming) before they can make any money. On Broadway, producers take the financial risk of supporting a show. The digital counterpart to producers are venture capitalists and, while their business is investing money in startups, they say no more than yes. Understand what VCs want to hear when you make your pitch and know what you are pitching better than anyone else on the planet.

Build in Stages

[title of show] followed a developmental path that few musicals do, starting small, gaining recognition (and producers), then adding onto their foundation. This is a time-tested approach to building web applications and services: start small, build market share, get money, improve and add-on, then repeat. [title of show] added almost half of its current songs between the festival performances and it’s Off-Broadway run. The result of this first round of producer investment produced a more substantial and polished show which led to a second round, this time on Broadway.

When building a website, don’t try to build everything from day one. Identify the core services without which there wouldn’t be a site and make these strong. This may be enough for users to test or use and will show the potential of your creation to investors.

Stay in Touch with Your Users

Without feedback, systems run “open-loop” or out of control, out of touch. Broadway artists are using the same internet-based social networking tools that web-savvy internet startup artists use to get feedback from users. After their Off-Broadway run, the [title of show] cast produced a series of YouTube-hosted video podcasts documenting their journey to Broadway. This series, titled “The [title of show] Show,” may have helped them realize their dream of playing on Broadway, but it definitely helped them stay in touch with and in the eyes of their hard-fought group of fans. Susan Blackwell recently sent frequent updates from backstage using the show’s Twitter account, a novel use for the service.

Broadway performers receive additional feedback through audience response during the show and at the curtain call. After a show, dedicated fans wait near the stage door to get cast autographs and pictures. After [title of show]’s first performance, so many fans surrounded the stage door that police had to divert traffic. This type of feedback isn’t possible via the web, so internet startups must work harder to hear their audience.

Conclusion

I believe that some of the most talented and creative people working today can be seen in or behind the scenes of Broadway musicals. There are many things we can learn from their successes, failures, creative spirits, and vampire-slaying skills. Those of you still reading but unsure about the whole Broadway thing, if you’re thinking about felines and phantoms, today’s Broadway has offerings that will blow your preconceptions as well as your mind.

Note to the [title of show] cast: since only seven people (including my mom) will read this, I’ll work on telling another two somehow. I did have a secret agenda while writing this article. David and I will be in NYC this November for the FOWD conference and I was hoping to convince him that he needed to see the show. With or without him, I’ll definitely see y’all again!

I forgot to say it originally, although I was totally implying it: buy tickets to [title of show] and you’ll thank me!

  • davak

    Great post and analogy.

    I’m sold. In fact, I think “our company” needs to buy our tickets since this show will actually make our startup better, right? I am just glad that you did not inform everybody that I am actually one of your vampires… sometimes anyway. ;)

  • shamanstears

    Great post!! Count me as one of the 9!

  • http://strike.tv brian rodda

    I was just talking about this very same thing last night, with my http://www.strike.tv family. I love [tos] and think what they are doing is REVOLUTIONARY.

    Nice article

  • http://blogs.tech-recipes.com/seamonkey420 seamonkey420

    NICE POST INDEED!!! i love the analogy!!

  • qmchenry

    Thanks for the comments, y’all! So there’s four.. just five more.

    @davak I have truly never considered you one of my vampires. Until now.

    @brian thanks for stopping by. I’m intruiged by strike.tv. Agree with you that [tos] is revolutionary. It’s great to see quality, original work, no matter what the medium.

    @seamonkey420 Thanks! This post combines two of my favorite things. Always love to find analogies in things like that.

  • http://www.izokon.com dış cephe kaplama

    Great post.Thanks.

  • AdamZ

    Wow. And after all that success [title of show] saw on Broadway, I really want to trust what is written in this post. I mean, I think they lost, like, what, 2 million in that endeavor? Hope your company follows their lead and does the same!

  • qmchenry

    @AdamZ sounds about right. Many internet startups don’t recoup their initial investments, just like shows. Very few sites or shows have runs like Phantom of the Opera (myspace, anyone?).

    The cautionary tale here is not for the creatives involved, more for the producers/investors. But from an audience/user perspective, do we want to live in a world where they don’t take those risks and we only see shows/use sites that are safe, money making tools?

    I’m just glad [tos] didn’t have the run that Glory Days did…

  • http://www.teomandogan.com/meme_kucultme_ameliyati.htm Meme

    For those of you thinking that if they implement this it will eliminate some of the waiting and lines…

  • http://www.teomandogan.com/burun_estetigi.htm Burun Estetigi

    Ok, I have an inkling (pun not intended) to modify that book image to the right to say “Schneier on Squid.”

    “The closest the squid industry has to a rock star.”

  • http://www.mccallumtheatre.com/ Charles Carlson

    Though I found this a little late to get tickets, I loved the post. Great connection between the theater and internet startups.

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