But even though millions of people have watched him perform, Louis C.K. said (in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”) he’s never earned very much money from his televised comedy specials. Usually a comedian records a special, gets paid upfront by the cable network that’s going to broadcast it, but then most of the remaining profits go to the cable network.
Instead of relying on a cable network to be the middleman to produce, sell and distribute his comedy special (and keep most of the money for themselves), Louis C.K. decided to do something different. He filmed his own comedy special, a 1-hour show called “Louis C.K. Live at the Beacon Theater,” and sold it on his own website for $5.
That’s right – only $5. Usually when people buy a comedy special, they have to pay $20 for a DVD.
Louis C.K. sold the comedy special online and processed the payments via PayPal, and he made it easy for people to download the movie (and burn it onto a DVD of their own) or stream the video online. He also made it easy for buyers to opt out of his e-mail list.
As of Dec. 18, 200,000 people had bought Louis’ special online, and Louis C.K. had made $750,000 of profit on the sales of his special. This is much more than he’s ever made from any other standup comedy special, and it all belongs to him – no middleman, no corporation profiting off of his work.
In this small but significant way, Louis C.K. is changing the rules of how comedy shows and other entertainment can be distributed and sold. What does this mean to small businesses and entrepreneurs?
Here are a few lessons that small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from Louis C.K.:
- The Internet eliminates traditional gatekeepers and “middlemen.” Just like Louis C.K. was able to bypass the traditional structure of cable networks to put his comedy show online, any small business has the power to create a website and go right to the customers. You don’t need to work for a big company to be successful. You can make a good living as a small business or a solo entrepreneur as long as you can keep connecting with customers and making your customers happy.
- The Internet is an equalizing force. As Louis C.K. said in an interview with the New York Times, “On the Web, both NBC.com and LouisCK.com have the same amount of bandwidth. We are equals and there are things you can do with that.” With all the tools and resources available online, it’s possible for a small company to create a website or online tool or application that is just as useful and popular as something created by a big company. Often, free or low-cost online tools work just as well as the business-grade options. This means that the costs of starting a business today, in many ways, are lower than ever before. And in the future, I think we’ll see more “moonpreneurs” and people who start leaving good jobs at big companies in order to start a business – because in the age of the Internet, you don’t need to be part of a big company with big expensive processes and lots of overhead. You can be profitable by staying small.
- Building your own audience is more important (and more possible) than ever. In the old days of marketing, companies had to buy expensive advertising to be able to compete – you needed lots of money to buy TV time and magazine ads to get your message in front of lots of eyeballs. In the age of social media, you don’t have to “buy” people’s attention anymore. Instead, you earn people’s attention by talking with them on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube and other channels. Today, every small business, like Louis C.K., has the ability to build its own unique audience of fans and followers. These are the people who love your products, who care about your business, who will keep coming back to buy from you again and again (and recommend you to their friends).
Sure, Louis C.K.’s a big star – most people don’t have that kind of audience. But his success in finding a new way to make money from his own creative work is yet another example of how the traditional “gatekeepers” and middlemen don’t have to hold you back anymore if you want to start a business.
Now more than ever, it is possible for entrepreneurs to deliver their own unique creative content – whether it’s a comedy special, an eBook, a blog, or a new product idea – directly to your audience. You don’t need a big marketing campaign, you don’t need a publishing company, and you don’t need a boss in an expensive suit telling you how to do what you do.
The Internet is demolishing those old barriers and leveling the playing field. Just like Louis C.K., when you start a business today, you can take an idea, starting from nothing, and build it into something profitable. And that’s no joke.