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Steven Strauss: The business of comedy

September 24, 2012

I am in the fast food business, which is a very competitive industry. I have tried all sorts of tricks to try and keep up with the competition but it is so very hard, and getting ahead of them seems practically impossible. What do other people do who are in businesses where the competition is tough?

I would venture to say that most of us think we are in competitive industries, but the truth is, some are more competitive than others.

Example: Just today I was recalling the story of how, when I first started my own law practice, a colleague down the hall kept giving me advice and referrals. I was grateful, but a bit confused. Finally, one day I blurted out, “Dave, aren’t you afraid I will take business from you?” “Steve,” he said to me, “there is more than enough work for all of us.”

That was an incredibly valuable lesson, and one I use still to this day, but that said, there are industries that are far more cut-throat than the genteel practice of law.

Take comedy for instance . . . please. (OK, sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

If there is a more competitive business out there than comedy these days, I don’t know what it is. Maybe MMA. Between network and cable television, satellite radio, comedy clubs, and the Internet, the business of comedy has exploded in recent years, and the thing is, there is little room for error or learning curves. If your act or show isn’t funny, people won’t laugh, they don’t tune in, they surf on. The feedback is immediate, and sometimes brutal.

So how does one succeed in such an instantaneous, and tough climate?

I was fortunate enough to recently get to speak with someone who has figured that out, who has mastered the tough business of comedy: Brian Volk-Weiss, the Senior Vice President of Talent Management, and Head of Production at the comedy powerhouse New Wave Entertainment. New Wave handles all aspect of comedy, from production to television specials to management and more, and so if anyone can give us some insight into what it takes to get ahead in a competitive industry, it is the smart and affable Volk-Weiss.

Like your business, and mine, comedy has been radically altered by technology and the Internet, making it tougher than ever before. As Brian explained to me, “there are more distribution options, more buyers, more risk, and less cost.” So, for example, whereas comedians used to need agents to get noticed, now what you need is YouTube. Just as Justin Bieber famously emerged from YouTube, the same is true for many comedians these days.

But what Volk-Weiss suggests is that instead of resisting or ignoring the technology trend (are you listening, my small business brothers? Are you tweeting yet?) the key is to embrace technology and use it to your advantage. As Volk-Weiss says, these days, “you have to up your game to stay in the game. You have to stay up on the trends. You need to master the ever-changing market.”

And so, for example, when comedian Stevie Ryan started getting millions of hits on YouTube, New Wave saw an opportunity, not a threat. Volk-Weiss is now overseeing production of the VH1 show they developed for her, Stevie TV.

I once heard a great piece of advice from a SCORE counselor: “Ask them what they want, then give them what they want.” This maxim is as valid, maybe more so, with a competitive business than almost any other. Certainly it is what has distinguished New Wave Entertainment. What is their bread-and-butter? Great talent. Great comedians. And so, as such, “We do everything possible to make our comedians happy,” Volk-Weiss told me. He stressed that they listen to the talent and pay “massive attention to detail. We are committed to making them comfortable and so make sure to listen closely to what our talent wants.”

So in the end, maybe the recipe for success in a tough industry is not all that surprising – it is what the rest of us must do, only more so: Listen to our customers, take great care of our most important people, embrace change, master technology, and continuously up our game.

And if you are not doing that, then, like George Costanza, you need to do the opposite.

Today’s tip: Are the self-employed a happy bunch? It looks that way. According to the MBO Partners’ second annual State of Independence in America workforce study, independent work continues to be a financially rewarding and personally fulfilling career choice for a growing number of Americans. Key findings include:
•    Since 2011, the independent workforce has grown from 16 million to more than 16.9 million and is expected to grow to 23 million strong within the next five years.
•    71% of respondents indicated having a high level of satisfaction with their independent lifestyle. And maybe most surprisingly,
•    39% feel more secure being independent, up 6% from 2011.

Steven D. Strauss is a lawyer, writer, and speaker, and is one of the country’s leading experts on small business as well as an international business speaker. The best-selling author of 17 books, his latest is the all-new 3rd ed. of The Small Business Bible. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success Powered by Greatland, here, visit his new website for the self-employed, TheSelfEmployed, here, Follow him on Twitter, here, and Like TheSelfEmployed on Facebook, here. You can e-mail Steve at: © Steven D. Strauss 

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