A Lean Startup Lesson from the Chicago Theatre Scene

Consider two self-produced theatre productions:

Ann wants to write and produce her own solo show. She's never done this before, but chooses to take the "Just do it!" approach. Over the course of two years, she takes a few playwriting classes, reads a handful of examples, and starts writing a biopic about a celebrity. (Because, surely, people will want to see a show about a celebrity, right?) She has no idea what she's doing, or if she's even on the right track, so each week she sends drafts of her play to everyone and anyone willing to offer feedback, whether they're her target audience or not. She assumes her play is interesting, and that all feedback is created equal.

Once the play has been written, she needs money to finance the production, so she launches an Indiegogo campaign. Her artist friends don't have much money, but some donate. Most donations, however, come from friends of her parents, who will never even see the show and are just trying to be nice. Eventually, as often happens, she runs out of donors, and since the general public isn't exactly thrilled about producing solo shows they know nothing about, written by someone they couldn't care less about, Ann is forced to finance the rest herself. She gets a part-time job to cover expenses and hopes to break even at the box office.

To promote her show, Ann relies heavily on social media, but so is everyone else. And in Chicago, where everyone and their mother has a show they're trying to get you to see, her promos get lost in the noise. She tries hitting up tourism offices, hotels & concierge desks, and airport information centers to stir up organic interest while having the show promoted on a few theatre websites, but when the show starts, it's mostly friends and family in the audience. A single critic shows up and gives a glowing review, but it isn't enough to pack the house. Sadly, box office "profits" aren't even enough to pay the sound and lighting guy - forget covering any other expenses, which Ann ends up putting on her credit card. And just like that, the show ends and fades from memory, as if it never happened. Ann is told by friends that her show must have built some momentum for her career, but that never materializes either.

Then there's Owen, who has a new concept for a solo show, but has no idea if it will work. There are no classes for what he's envisioned, so he decides to teach himself over the course of two years, using the vaudeville circuit to get his material in front of audiences immediately. "It's risky, but efficient," he tells himself. "And at least I'll know early on if this is even worth pursuing."

Each week, he writes a small piece of what will eventually become his show, thinking of each bit as an MVP (minimum viable product) of sorts. He then tests those bits in front of paying audiences around town during variety hours and vaudeville nights. On any given weekend, he participates in two to three of these shows. First, he works on five minute bits, then ten minute ones, and then finally, fifteen minute sketches. He keeps stretching his pieces to see what works and what doesn't. Based on audience reactions, he adjusts his sketches throughout the week. Once he's confident that the bit will work within the context of an hour-long show, he moves on to the next bit, and then the next.

While Owen is busy testing his material bit by bit, word of mouth marketing is already taking place around the city. He knows that audiences at vaudeville shows are a perfect fit for what he's envisioned, so he's prepared to take their feedback to heart. As audiences continue to express love for his character and concept, Owen feels a surge of confidence just as he starts preparing for his official hour-long show.

Knowing that he already has "asses in the seats" (theatre term), Owen knows exactly how much he has to charge for tickets in order to break even with his expenses. And before he even opens the show (or gets write ups from critics), tickets sell out almost immediately for the first week of performances. He doesn't have to rely on social media to promote it because his fans are already doing that organically. And since the show has been publicly fine-tuned for two years, he has no problem selling tickets for the rest of the run. As a result, Owen is able to cover his expenses and even turn a small profit.

It seems that most startups take a "Just Do It" approach, like Ann, and hope that their idea is good enough to become successful with minimal effort or testing. Oftentimes, they wind up with similar results. But Owen, whether he knows it or not, is taking The Lean Startup approach, and as a result, he ensures his own success by starting small, relying heavily on "customer" feedback, and building a show that he knows audiences will love - all with less risk, expense, and anxiety.

If you were working on a project, or even a business, which method would you choose?