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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



  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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