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Everything I needed to know about business, I learned at the circus

(Business News) Did you know that the circus offers some truly inspiring business lessons? That’s what a former Ringling Brothers exec says – read on.

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Lessons learned from the circus

We’ve all been to the circus before, but did you know that there are business lessons that can be learned if you were one of the insiders running the show? There sure are.

You may already know Bill Sussman, President and CEO of Collective Bias, a shopper social media company that drives sales for brands and retailers by working with a community of expert bloggers who create social content consumers actively seek out and trust.

Sussman has previously held leadership positions at Nickelodeon, Walmart, Triad Retail Media and Ringling Bros and holds an MBA from Columbia University and a B.S. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

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Sussman offers insight from his time at the circus in his own words below:

What can you learn from clowns and tigers?

As CEO of the five-year-old new media startup company, Collective Bias, I recognize that today’s marketplace can be a tumultuous balancing act. I look back at my time spent as VP of Marketing for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for inspiration.

As a shopper social media company representing some of the world’s biggest brands, we must constantly evolve to remain relevant. My days at the circus instilled in me core business lessons that I still apply to managing and motivating teams and advancing my company.

So, what can you learn from clowns, acrobats, elephants, and tigers? Here are the five lessons they taught me.

Lesson #1. Support Your Marquee

Sprawling an image of a ferocious tiger across a billboard or clipping the antics of a clown into a commercial were reliable marketing tactics to draw attention and attract crowds. But bringing the audience into the arenas was only the beginning of true success. To be completely captivating, the tigers had to be controlled by strong discipline, deliver an exciting performance and also be supported by other engaging acts.

A properly enchanted audience supported long-term success by returning in the future, spreading word-of-mouth advertising and buying add-on product.

No matter what type of act you create – from orchestrating a circus performance powered by live animals to creating a marketing campaign driven by online influencers – each department plays a unique role in the success of the overall production. It is essential to identify and maintain the right balance between each department.

In today’s high-tech environment, it is relatively easy to lure customers with flashy technology solutions and lofty promises. But no product stands alone. Not only must the technology function seamlessly, every department in the company has to serve in a supporting role. At Collective Bias, our community team ensures the right influencers are selected for programs. Client service teams work to ensure the program meets client objectives. Analytics assesses the impact and provide measurable results to prove ROI. A successful delivery means a loyal customer base and a means to grow sales year after year.

Lesson #2: The Key to Success is Individual Excellence

Each circus act operates independently, striving for personal excellence. Hours of discipline and practice lead to a solid performance. They are motivated by individual contracts with the show and negotiate what they need to lead to success. The clowns may request support from make-up and props and the trapeze artists need practice facilities and safe equipment. Each one knows how they are expected to contribute to the final show when the lights go down.

Members of business teams are motivated by ongoing professional development and constructive feedback along their career tracks. While they are dedicated to the success of the business and need clearly defined roles, they are also motivated by their own personal career goals. As a leader, I can’t expect top performance without giving every team member an environment in which to thrive.

We must not only reinforce the work we value but also provide actionable direction and plans for improvement when necessary. For example, my Sales teams need to know that there is something in it for them with every incremental dollar they bring into the company. Contributing to hitting overall company goals isn’t enough. I make sure to provide that extra motivation.

Lesson #3: Every Business Needs a Cast of Characters

One of the most appealing aspects of the circus is the fact that it brings together a mash up of diverse acts under one tent, for one night. Similarly, a well-run business leverages unique qualities as assets and nurtures individual personalities to make a stronger whole. Who needs an entire company full of people with the same personality?

Whether it is Play-Doh on the conference table or a lap dog in the office, our employees are allowed a certain freedom of movement. I love that our business development team consists of some “tightrope walkers” who thrive on calculated risk and enjoy operating without a net.

That said, I don’t want that same personality type in my CFO. That role is better served for a “juggler.” And we must never underestimate the need for the clown. Working with some of the world’s leading brands is serious business, but after a ten or twelve-hour day, we all need some comic relief to lighten the mood.

Lesson #4: Know Where Your Net Is and Don’t Be Afraid to Jump

This may seem like an oxymoron in the startup industry. Are you wondering, “Where is my net?” as you embark on the biggest endeavor of your lifetime? Our trapeze artists would spend hours before practice testing the net and setting up safety lines. Then further hours throwing themselves wildly through the air honing their act. And, in those practices, they missed frequently.

You need a net. You will fall. One sewn together from your values, your morals, your family and your friends will give you the courage to jump. If you have maintained your own personal net, no matter where business takes you, it will always prevent you from falling too low.

The concept of Collective Bias was created on the back of a cocktail napkin. One of our founders, Amy Callahan, raised in the area where our corporate HQ is located, surrounded by family, friends and business contacts, took the idea, jumped and found a receptive audience. Five years, and a few bruising falls later, we are all very glad that she did.

Lesson #5: Treat Every Day like Opening Night

One of the biggest challenges at the circus was creating the same level of excitement week after week. For each new city, the show coming to town was a huge event! But for the marketing team, that luster easily wore off. I needed to find a way to bring out the same enthusiasm from our team and performers at week 50 of the tour as we did on opening night.

All teams need motivation, especially in an industry that is built around the evolution of social media. The circus quickly taught me to use this inherent change as a company advantage. Collective Bias is in the business of shopper social media – a space that can be difficult to define and is constantly shifting. I use this to inspire our teams to push the envelope every single day.

How does Google’s latest algorithm change the online campaign your team is working on? Will Pinterest’s new sponsored posts affect a new business deck being presented tomorrow? Keeping up with social media as it evolves is our business and by using that as a motivating factor, we continue to evolve as a company.

Ultimately, every day brings a new business opportunity or chance to perform, and that is incredibly exciting. Whether it’s entertaining a new audience or powering a new online shopping campaign, we must approach every situation like opening night: with a fresh perspective and with our very best performance.

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. bcalvillo

    July 29, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Tigers are NOT products to be marketed. Capturing or breeding animals to perform is shameful and does not belong in modern society. Marketing to a crowd ignorant of what happens to the animals is unethical. It’s obvious that Collective Bias will continue exploiting others as they’ve done in the past.

  2. Clownron

    July 29, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    bcalvillo, I have to say that YOU are the one who is ignorant of what happens to animals in the circus. I spent years there and the cats were well taken care of. You should not assume all of the Animal Rights bunk is gospel. It is not true at all. The circus is subjected to animal health inspections and they have not been found to be abusive. This is a lie that has been spread by a very strong marketing campaign that has been active for over 40 years. Yet the show still goes on, even with all of the pathetic protestors lined up, yelling all kinds of vile things at families and kids.

  3. Pingback: Ringling Bros circus shuts tent flaps forever - time to cry or celebrate? - The American Genius

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Hobby Lobby increases minimum wage, but how much is just to save face?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Are their efforts to raise their minimum wage to $17/hour sincere, or more about saving face after bungling pandemic concerns?

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Hobby Lobby storefront

The arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby announced this week that they will be raising their minimum full-time wage to $17/hour starting October 1st. This decision makes them the latest big retailer to raise wages during the pandemic (Target raised their minimum wage to $15/hour about three months ago, and Walmart and Amazon have temporarily raised wages). The current minimum wage for Hobby Lobby employees is $15/hour, which was implemented in 2014.

While a $17 minimum wage is a big statement for the company (even a $15 minimum wage cannot be agreed upon on the federal level) – and it is no doubt a coveted wage for the majority of the working class – it’s difficult to not see this move as an attempt to regain public support of the company.

When the pandemic first began, Hobby Lobby – with more than 900 stores and 43,000 employees nationwide – refused to close their stores despite being deemed a nonessential business (subsequently, a Dallas judge accused the company of endangering public health).

In April, Hobby Lobby furloughed almost all store employees and the majority of corporate and distribution employees without notice. They also ended emergency leave pay and suspended the use of company-provided paid time off benefits for employees during the furloughs – a decision that was widely criticized by the public, although the company claims the reason for this was so that employees would be able to take full advantage of government handouts during their furlough.

However, the furloughs are not Hobby Lobby’s first moment under fire. The Oklahoma-based Christian company won a 2014 Supreme Court case – the same year they initially raised their minimum wage – that granted them the right to deny their female employees insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Also, Hobby Lobby settled a federal complaint in 2017 that accused them of purchasing upwards of 5,000 looted ancient Iraqi artifacts, smuggled through the United Arab Emirates and Israel – which is simultaneously strange, exploitative, and highly controversial.

Why does this all matter? While raising their minimum wage to $17 should be regarded as a step in the right direction regarding the overall treatment of employees (and, hopefully, $17 becomes the new standard), Hobby Lobby is not without reason to seek favorable public opinion, especially during a pandemic. Yes, we should be quick to condone the action of increasing minimum wage, but perhaps be a little skeptical when deeming a company “good” or “bad”.

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RIP office culture: How work from home is destroying the economy

(BUSINESS NEWS) It’s not just your empty office left behind: Work from home is drastically changing cities’ economies in more ways than you think.

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An empty meeting room, unfilled by work from home employees.

It’s been almost six months since the U.S. went into lockdown due to COVID-19 and the CDC’s subsequent safety guidelines were issued – it’s safe to say that it is not business as usual. Everyone from restaurant waitstaff to start-up executives have been affected by the shift to work-from-home. Even as restrictions slowly begin to lift, it seems as though the office workspace – regarded as the vital venue for the U.S. economy – will never truly be the same.

Though economists have been focusing largely on small businesses and start-ups, we are only just beginning to understand the impact that not going back into the white-collar office will have on the economy.

The industries that support white-collar office culture in major cities have become increasingly emaciated. The coffee shops, food trucks, and food delivery companies that catered to the white-collar workforce before, during, and after their workday, are no longer in high demand (Starbucks reported a loss of $2 billion this year, which they attribute to Zoomification). Airlines have also been affected as business travel typically accounts for 60%-70% of all air travel.

Also included are high-end hotels, which accommodate the traveling business class. Pharmacies, florists, and gyms located in business districts have become ghost towns. Office supplies companies, such as Xerox, have suffered. Workwear brands such as J. Crew and Brooks Brothers have filed for bankruptcy, as there is no longer a need to dress for the office.

In Manhattan – arguably the country’s most notorious white-collar business mecca – at least 1,200 restaurants have been permanently lost. It is also is predicted that the one-third of all small businesses will close.

Additionally, the borough is facing twice as many apartment vacancies as this time last year, due to the flight of workers no longer tied to midtown offices. Workers have realized their freedom to seek more affordable and spacious residence outside the city. As companies decentralize from cities and rent prices drop, it isn’t all bad news. There is promise that particular urban white-collar neighborhoods will start to become accessible to the working class once again.

Some companies, like Pinterest and REI, are reporting that their shift to work from home is in fact permanent. The long-term effects of deserted office buildings are yet to make themselves evident. What we do know is that the decline of the white-collar office will force us to reimagine the great American cities – with so much lost due to the coronavirus, what can now be gained?

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2020 Black Friday shopping may break the mold

(BUSINESS NEWS) Home Depot states their new plan for deals and discounts over two months, in place of a 1-day Black Friday event.

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Men shopping in an empty aisle, Black Friday to come?

Humans change and adapt – that’s just in our nature. Retail stores have struggled to maintain their sales goals for years as more and more people move to ordering online. Online prices still seem to be within customer expectations and often come with free shipping. Additionally, people that may have preferred to shop in an actual brick-and-mortar store have changed their shopping habits dramatically in 2020; it’s hard to social distance and be safe in crowded stores or in small aisles. Black Friday may be next to change.

Amazon and other big box store’s online ordering platforms have simplified getting what you need delivered right to your front door. According to Statista, “Amazon was responsible for 45% of US e-commerce spending in 2019 – a figure which is expected to rise to 47% in 2020.”

Retailers count on the holiday season, specifically Black Friday deals (the day after Thanksgiving), to bring in up to 20% of their annual revenue. It’s hard to just remove that option completely. But considering the times of social distancing, wearing masks in public, and especially avoiding large crowds, the tradition of Black Friday will need to look different this year.

It will also be interesting to see what supply chain disruptions from early 2020 will have the most effect this shopping season. We saw predictions in March that said the United States would see the biggest disruptions in about six months. Black Friday falls right on that timeline.

Home Depot has announced their plans to go ahead and give the deals over a two month span, starting in early November through December (both online and in stores with the possibility of adding some special deals around the actual Black Friday date) to help encourage a more steady stream of shoppers versus so many packing in on the same day.

The home improvement chain has actually seen a great sales year. This is likely due to people working from home and being interested in doing more home projects (and possibly having a bit more time to do them as well). As of May 2020, “The Home Depot®, the world’s largest home improvement retailer, today reported sales of $28.3 billion for the first quarter of fiscal 2020, a 7.1 percent increase from the first quarter of fiscal 2019. Comparable sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2020 were positive 6.4 percent, and comparable sales in the U.S. were positive 7.5 percent.”

Home Depot, along with many other retailers like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have confirmed that they will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, which may not be new for all of them but has always signaled the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

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