most people think P.T. Barnum said, "There's
a sucker born every minute," this famous entrepreneur
actually never said, wrote, and probably never even
thought that line. He was too smart a businessman
to treat people with disrespect.
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born on July 5, 1810 in
He was America's second millionaire. He was incomparably
famous. A letter mailed from New Zealand to "Mr.
Barnum, America" made it without a hitch. General
Grant said everywhere he went around the globe, people
knew of Barnum. President Garfield called him "the
Kris Kringle of America."
Barnum knew every important person of his time, from
presidents and queens to celebrities and inventors.
He went buffalo hunting with General Custer. He was
friends with Mark Twain and Abe Lincoln. He took unknowns
and made them international stars. He built the most
unusual mansion in the country, watched it burn to
the ground, and built yet another. A total of five
huge fires wiped him out---temporarily. Yet he got
back on his feet almost instantly. He was a famous
speaker, a bestselling author, a politician, a showman,
an investor, an entrepreneur, and a marketing genius.
He was also the father of advertising.
1853 he started New York's first illustrated newspaper
and helped it achieve a circulation of 500,000. He
was a deeply religious man who was imprisoned for
writing about his beliefs, and at the same time got
his first taste of publicity. He was once in partnership
with the tycoon Commodore Vanderbilt, acted as a bank
president, and ran for Connecticut legislature, fighting
to free slaves. He was on intimate terms with several
U.S. Presidents, was named as a possible Presidential
candidate in 1888, and was Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
He made a fortune, lost it with a bad investment at
the age of forty-six, and then succeeded in creating
a still larger fortune before his death at the age
of eighty in 1891.
His lively autobiography, titled Struggles and
Triumphs, reveals the power of the man's entrepreneurial
mind. This classic book was first published in 1854
and revised and enlarged numerous times. Barnum sold
over a million copies of his famous autobiography,
further evidence of this amazing man's marketing skills.
In the book, Barnum tells of discovering a tiny four-year-old
boy by the name of Charles Stratton, how he named
him Tom Thumb, taught him to sing and dance, gave
him status by calling him "General," and
promoted him to the world by personally introducing
"General Tom Thumb" to editors of major
newspapers in New York City.
Barnum also writes of discovering and presenting
Joice Heth, a black slave said to be over 160 years
old (Barnum said she looked much older) and alleged
to have been George Washington's nurse. Other famous
Barnum successes include his American Museum (the
Disneyworld of the 1800s), his promotion of the famous
Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, his infamous promotion
of the bizarre (as Barnum spelled it) "Fejee
mermaid," his creation of America's first superstar,
and of course his still thriving "Greatest Show
on Earth," the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which
formed as a result of Barnum running into a businessman
just as shrewd as himself.
"Every man's occupation should be beneficial
to his fellow-man as well as profitable to himself.
All else is vanity and folly."
- P.T. Barnum, The Humbugs of the World, 1866
"Engage in one kind of business only, and stick
to it faithfully until you succeed, or until you conclude
to abandon it. A constant hammering on one nail will
generally drive it home at last, so that it can be
clinched." - P.T. Barnum, 1852
"The Mermaid, Woolly Horse, Ploughing Elephants,
etc., were merely used by me as skyrockets or advertisements,
to attract attention and give notoriety to the Museum
and such other really valuable attractions as I provided
for the public. I believe hugely in advertising and
blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums,
etc., to attract attention to a show; but I never
believed that any amount of advertising or energy
would make a spurious article permanently successful.
-- P.T. Barnum, private letter, 1860
"We cannot all see alike, but we can all do
good." - P.T. Barnum
"I think it is conceded that I generally do
pretty big things as a manager, am audacious in my
outlays and risks, give much for little money, and
make my shows worthy the support of the moral and
refined classes." - P.T. Barnum, letter to Mark
Entrepreneurship at an early age
In his youth he sold lottery tickets and ran
a newspaper. In later years he became one of the world's
first prohibitionists and spent much of his time lecturing
about the evils of alcohol. He invented the beauty
and baby contests. He made a large fortune in real
estate, inventing a clever method of selling alternate
lots, financing the purchasers so they could build
homes, and then collecting profit from the enhanced
value of the lots in between. He donated land to his
favorite city and watched his own stock in land rise
as a result.
Key thoughts for entrepreneurs
Barnum's Success Methods
According to Joe Vitale, in "There's a Customer
Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum's Secrets to Business
Success" (AMACOM, 1998), the only book to
reveal Barnum's entrepreneurial genius, Barnum practiced
ten basic principles to success:
1. He believed there was a customer born every
minute. This man did not think small. His American
Museum, one of the three great passions of Barnum's
life, was so popular over fourty million people visited
it during his lifetime---when the population of the
entire country was about forty million. At twenty-five
cents a head (children half price), Barnum made a
tidy sum of money. But Barnum did not aim for a tiny
segment of the market. He went for the world. And
he captured it. He took Tom Thumb to Europe several
times. He brought Jenny Lind from Europe to America.
He didn't limit his target to his local neighborhood
or even to the city where he lived. He aimed for the
2. He believed in using skyrockets. Barnum
strove to capture people's attention in whatever audacious
ways he could devise. At one point he had an elephant
plowing the field on his property. Why? Because the
field was near the railroad tracks that took passengers
into New York City. While most people saw a bunch
of people riding a train, Barnum saw a herd of potential
customers. Barnum knew an elephant would grab their
attention and act as an unforgettable publicity stunt.
It worked. Barnum received so much nationwide publicity
that agricultural societies wrote to him for advice
on how to get elephants to do farming. "Newspaper
reporters came from far and near, and wrote glowing
accounts of the elephantine performances," Barnum
wrote. "The six acres were plowed over at least
sixty times before I thought the advertisement sufficiently
3. He believed in giving people more than their
money's worth. Barnum worked hard to find something
people would enjoy. He wanted people to feel good
spending money with him. He traveled the world in
search of performers and products that had appeal.
Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind, Siamese twins, questionable
artifacts, all of these items were curiosities to
the public, and vastly engaging. The public wanted
what Barnum had to offer: unusual entertainment. Barnum
used outlandish stunts and curiosities to call attention
to his show, but once he had people in his door, he
satisfied them. He recreated the sleazy circus and
dime museums of his day into popular enterprises people
felt great attending.
4. He fearlessly believed in the power of "printer's
ink." Barnum was unusually creative at generating
publicity. But he also knew you had to tell the media
of your events. Known worldwide as a showman, lecturer,
politician, author, philanthropist, and marketing
genius, Barnum became globally famous and incredibly
wealthy by knowing how to befriend the media. In his
last known letter, written five days before he died
in 1891, he wrote, "I am indebted to the press
of the United States for almost every dollar which
5. He believed in persistently advertising.
While Barnum believed in free publicity, he never
overlooked paid advertising. He used posters, display
ads, classified ads, window signs, and booklets to
broadcast what he had for sale. Barnum believed with
an almost evangelical zest in the power of advertising.
People called him the "Shakespeare of Advertising."
6. He believed in people helping people to get
results. While 'networking' lives as a buzzword
in today's business world, Barnum practiced it more
than one hundred years ago. When he was unknown in
Europe and wanted to see the Queen, he got a letter
of introduction from a distinguished statesman. He
got that letter from the famous newspaperman, Horace
Greeley. That's networking. When he wanted publicity,
he asked for favors from everyone from local influentials
to even the President of the United States. Barnum
knew people liked to help people with a good cause.
He was a charming fellow and most people liked him.
Barnum treated people fairly, making asking for favors
7. He believed in negotiating creatively, treating
employees and performers with respect. His terms
were fair. His staff loved him. He paid good wages,
shared profits, and made many of his performers---Jenny
Lind, Tom Thumb, Commodore Nutt, the Siamese Twins---rich.
When Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese Twins, agreed
to show themselves after the Civil War wiped out their
fortune, Barnum again split all profits equally, allowing
the twins to have wealth where they certainly otherwise
would have had poverty. When Brigham Young jokingly
asked Barnum what he would pay to show Young and all
of his wives, Barnum said one-half of all ticket sales,
an expected $200,000. Barnum negotiated fairly.
8. He believed all was well. Mark Twain suffered
business failures, personal bankruptcy, and family
tragedy, and those experiences scarred him for the
rest of his life, turning him into a brooding cynic
with a pen "warmed up in hell." Barnum suffered
the same events, and even many more, yet was not destroyed
by the losses. His American Museum, which he so passionately
loved, burned down twice. His Iranistan home, one
of the first, biggest and most unusual palaces in
America, burned to the ground. He also lost his wife,
and two children. Yet Barnum never seemed to bat an
eye. He quickly recovered, made new arrangements for
new homes, new museums, and even remarried a woman
forty years younger than himself. His inner strength
came from an unshakable faith that everything happened
for a good reason. The simple marker over his grave
says, "Not my will, but thine, be done."
His faith helped him survive and prosper in business.
9. He believed in the power of the written word.
Barnum's second great love was his autobiography,
which he updated right up to his death---and then
had his wife complete by writing a chapter about his
funeral. Barnum began writing when he was twenty-two
years old, editing a religious newspaper and being
arrested for it. He saw the power of the written word
as a force to influence and mold public opinion.
10. He believed in the power of speaking.
Barnum was not afraid to address a crowd, whether
to convince them to stop drinking, to get them to
free slaves, or to persuade them that his shows were
moral, cultural, and safe for children and animals.
He knew the spoken word could move mountains. He held
his own with the best speakers of his day. He was
a lecturer when Mark Twain and Charles Dickens were
popular, and he drew just as much praise as his colleagues.
Speaking led to more publicity and more business.
Even his running for political office, while an opportunity
to do good for his third great passion (the city of
Bridgeport), was also a chance to conduct what he
called "Profitable Philanthropy." He knew
being public made him famous and brought further attention
to his enterprises.
Hall of Fame induction copy by Joe Vitale, firstname.lastname@example.org,
author, "There's a Customer Born Every Minute:
P.T. Barnum's Secrets to Business Success" (AMACOM,
Other P.T.Barnum books:
Barnum's Own Story : The Autobiography of P.T. Barnum,
combined & Condensed from the Various Editions Published
During His Lifetime by Phinea T. Barnum.
The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself by
Terence Whalen, Phineas T. Barnum