I admit it: I went to see “The Greatest Showman,” a movie musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Early reviews had been, well, let’s just say meh. But in the weeks since its release, both the movie and its soundtrack are turning into hits, with box office $138 million, and the album, now going gold. The Oscar-nominated “This Is Me,” sung by Keala Settle as the bearded lady, is in the Billboard Hot 100.
So, what about this movie is connecting with audiences and turning it into a sleeper hit?
For one, it turns out that for company founders and startup entrepreneurs, the allure of magic, circus and performance has some surprising connections.
My first job was as a magician. Not card tricks and such; my show had five doves, a rabbit, and a somewhat daunting illusion that cut a person in half. BlackStar productions, as it was known traveled, and toured, and played every Elks club and public library that would have me.
My patter was in many ways not that different from pitching a room of venture capitalists. And it was the start of something that grew over time. I spent weeks at the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris, Maine, and then launched a summer touring company, The I Don’t Believe It Players (T.I.D.B.I.P.) that, if I say so myself, dazzled Maine summer camps with magic, juggling, and puppetry.
I had a summer at the legendary Tannen’s Magic Camp, and a charter membership to the Society of American Magician’s. A Salon For Engagement Magic evolved into improvisational theatre, where I spent much of my high school career touring with the Young People's Theatre, an improv group in Brunswick, Maine.
For me, performance was a form of expression and a community. If you’ve seen “The Greatest Showman,” you’re starting to see the theme here.
If you’ve ever been to a magic show and thought “that’s impossible” — well, that’s what entrepreneurs set out to do: to make the impossible possible.
When you start talking magic within the startup community, young magicians come out of the woodwork.
My friend Tony Hsieh is an amazing leader of Zappos. But, abracadabra, his first job wasn’t in shoes. Hsieh says he started a mail-order magic trick business in high school. And what did he learn? He says he priced a trick featuring a disappearing coin too high at $10. Total orders received: one. But that lesson served him well.
Another friend, Jay Alan Samit, author of “Disrupt You!” and multiple startup company CEO — among them SocialVibe and ooVoo — was making a living as a magician 28 years ago, long before he began his journey of writing books and running companies.
Cesar Kuriyama, the driving force behind the video software app 1 Second Everyday, says he grew up spending his afternoons at the magic shop learning tricks. Spend just five minutes with his app, and you’ll know you’re experiencing magic.
And those are just the people I know. I found quotes from other entrepreneurs about their experiences with magic. Aaron Levie, the co-founder of Box, said he worked as a professional magician in middle and high school. Daniel Lubetzky, The CEO of KIND Snacks, said he still treasures his time performing as a teenage magician in Paris. Evernote founder Phil Libin described himself as a magic geek. And the CEO of tech incubator 1871 Howard Tullman said he's been a magician since he was nine years old.
Which brings me back to P.T. Barnum, and the movie “The Greatest Showman.” Sitting in the darkened theatre watching the story of Barnum and his troupe of talented, passionate misfits, I found myself thinking about the message of difference, and the extraordinary power of accepting, even embracing, people for who they are.
The movie is a hit because it’s entertaining. But it’s more than that. It is having powerful resonance in this moment of division, name-calling and browbeating in this country. We are united in our uniqueness, in our difference.
I’m a kid who started out wanted to emulate Harry Houdini, who found tremendous joy entertaining his audience with a sense of wonder and amazement. As an entrepreneur who built five companies, each time I faced a cavalcade of skepticism and a steady stream of rejections.
But entrepreneurs see past the obstacles, and ahead to the magical future, they strive to conjure out of thin air.
“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” — Apple Computer, 1997.