(801) 980-5300

the greatest showman movie the greatest startup story

Is “The Greatest Showman” the Greatest Startup Movie?

Aside from great entertainment, “The Greatest Showman” contains important lessons for entrepreneurs


Aaron Johnstun – Utah Startup Attorney


The story of P.T. Barnum is an authentic American startup story. Like most moviegoers, I enjoyed The Greatest Showman. Typically I’m not a musical and dance fan, but as they say the exception confirms the rule. As a startups lawyer, in addition to the talented performers, I couldn’t help but appreciate a deeper entrepreneurial message.

The story begins with a young and poor P.T. Barnum who has an unshakeable entrepreneurial dream. Undeterred by his lack of means and social standing, Barnum manages to open an animal museum to the scorn of the masses. Barnum uses this original failure to formulate a more original idea and new partnership resulting in unprecedented success. The P.T. Barnum story in The Greatest Showman has unmistakable parallels to numerous other successful entrepreneurial stories. Valuable startup principles are found within Barnum’s personal story for those with a dream.


Stop dreaming, start starting™

No great idea ever became a reality without massive action. Once the muse has touched your mind with a great idea, the clock starts ticking. Every day of inaction is a day closer to someone else bringing your great idea to market first. The DNA common to all entrepreneurs is to boldly get stuff done (“GSD” as I’ve come call it). Startup entrepreneurs are a special breed. They understand that massive action means formulating a detailed plan, executing, and adapting the plan as circumstances change. From a legal perspective, massive action means incorporating the business, founder contracts, funding, trademarks, and other IP protection. If you’re not a natural starter, the good news is you can become a type-A self-starter through conscious awareness.


Not taking action is the greatest risk

Startup entrepreneurs understand this one great principle; not taking action is the greatest risk of all. The rewards are great for those few who understand that persistence will ultimately conquer any obstacle. A second principle startup entrepreneurs understand is that no failure is ever permanent. Literally every successful entrepreneur–think Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Thomas Edison here–experiences significant failures before hitting it big. A third principle successful entrepreneurs understand is that failures are valuable lessons that lead to great success.


Throw the dyno

This is a rock-climbing term with special application to startup entrepreneurs. At some point in an ascent, a rock climber reaches a point requiring a potential freefall leap between secure holds.  For entrepreneurs, this is the point of absolute commitment to the startup. This goes hand-in-hand with taking massive action and embracing risk. More fundamentally, it represents the point of no return. In some cases, it is when the founders make the startup their full time job, in other instances it is funding the business and bringing on investors.


Be original

One fundamental point missed by many hopeful entrepreneurs is your idea must be original. The path to entrepreneurial success is littered with failed un-original ideas. True entrepreneurism is not repackaging an existing product or service as a different color or lower price. It is instead developing a new original idea or a radical improvement to an existing one. Barnum learned this lesson from his museum failure. The outcome was a completely new show that the people wanted.

Before leaping into an entrepreneurial venture, you should ask very objectively how your idea is distinctly unique to other existing products or services. This question should be posed to trusted prospective partners, family members, mentors, and friends. Be objective with this question. If another product or service is on the market, make a list distinguishing how your idea is significantly different. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to easily come up with at least ten ways your idea is different or better than existing competitors. Once you’ve undertaken this process, go with your gut and don’t look back.


Get funded

There are a number of ways to fund your startup. Be creative (legal) as P.T. Barnum was. In the early stages, entrepreneurs typically fund their startup through a shoestring budget, reinvesting almost everything back into the business. At various stages, a startup’s growth can be accelerated through grants, crowd funding, seed funding, angel investing, venture capital, convertible debt, capital offerings, and IPOs.  The bottom line, how you plan to fund the startup should be part of an early strategy.


Hire based on capabilities

Sometimes startups fall into the trap of hiring based on relationships instead of capabilities. Relationship driven hiring can be good if it leads to the right partner or employee. When Barnum went out to select employees for his retooled startup, he didn’t select people based on popularity or that were safe choices. He was bold, picking what might be considered unpopular and unattractive people, but ultimately had the right capabilities in the right positions. If you want to be great, truly great, you must be disciplined in hiring employees based on the right capabilities for the right positions.


Expect adversity

P.T. Barnum’s first startup was unsuccessful. In fact, it was a failure prompting him to retool and reinvent. Early failure is a common story among the world’s greatest entrepreneurs — Bill Gates, Walt Disney, Andrew Carnegie, etc. Even Michael Jordan, yes #23 himself, was cut from his high school basketball team. After working with countless entrepreneurs, I’m convinced that 80% of success comes down to the right mental attitude, “whatever it takes” (“WIT”). Tattoo WIT on your mind, on your computer screen, wherever you need to fend off moments of doubt. Better yet, buy the song and make it your startup anthem.


Stay focused on a higher purpose

Barnum at the moments of his greatest success almost lost sight of his higher purpose. For Barnum, this was his family, relationships with his employees, and giving happiness to his customers. In the end, he came to realize that his entrepreneurial success was to serve these relationships, not the reverse. The highest achievement for entrepeneurs is to define their legacy through philanthropy and corporate stewardship.


Successful entrepreneurs know one basic secret in life; nothing worthwhile is easy, but it is worth it.


Aaron Johnstun is a Utah business attorney. His practice focuses on providing startups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs with the day-to-day legal services needed to succeed. For more information, or to contact Aaron, he may be reached by phone at 801-980-0625, or via contact form.

Not quite ready, but like this article? Subscribe to Johnstun Law’s email alerts for startup information, business updates, and relevant news.