The scrappy Broadway musical [title of show] chronicles two guys writing a show about themselves writing the show theyâ€™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 Iâ€™ve learned about creating a successful internet startup from [title of show].
Be Nine Peopleâ€™s Favorite Thing
The 11 oâ€™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.
â€œIâ€™d rather be nine peopleâ€™s favorite thing
than 100 peopleâ€™s ninth favorite thingâ€
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 someoneâ€™s favorite thing?
While not readily quantified, I believe the value of one â€œthatâ€™s my favorite thingâ€ 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 â€œthis is my favorite thingâ€ typed or spoken to friends cannot be measured. Not trying to appeal to everyone unchains the creativity and allows a â€œless is moreâ€ 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 arenâ€™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 â€œinâ€ 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, thereâ€™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 â€œMonkeys and Playbills,â€ 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, Jeffâ€™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 elseâ€™s mistake is just sad.
[BTW: if my math is correct, [title of show] finished itâ€™s 51th performance Saturday afternoon. Jeff, if you read this, congratulations that [title of show]â€™s Playbill isnâ€™t a part of your collection!]
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 todayâ€™s internet is a proving ground of wondrous ideas that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Donâ€™t let the vampires of failure keep you from trying to dream big.
One of [title of show]â€™s big numbers is â€œDie Vampire, Die!â€ Not a song about killing the hemophagic undead, instead the [title of show] vampire is â€œany person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self expression.â€ Anyone who has created anything has experienced sources of external or, in the case of the dreaded â€œVampire of Despair,â€ self-imposed doubt. Finding strategies to kick some vampire ass is essential to break writerâ€™s, coders, painterâ€™s, or pitcherâ€™s block. I donâ€™t know if pitchers experience creative blocks, but I can attest to the programmerâ€™s Vampire of Fatal Errors. We all have vampires just as we all have the means to fight them.
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 itâ€™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, donâ€™t try to build everything from day one. Identify the core services without which there wouldnâ€™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 â€œopen-loopâ€ 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 â€œThe [title of show] Show,â€ 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 showâ€™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]â€™s first performance, so many fans surrounded the stage door that police had to divert traffic. This type of feedback isnâ€™t possible via the web, so internet startups must work harder to hear their audience.
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 youâ€™re thinking about felines and phantoms, todayâ€™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, Iâ€™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, Iâ€™ll definitely see yâ€™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!