P.T. Barnum

While 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 Bethel,Connecticut. 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.

In 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 Twain, 1878

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 planet itself.

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 circulated..."

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 I possess..."

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 easier.

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, joe@mrfire.com, author, "There's a Customer Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum's Secrets to Business Success" (AMACOM, 1998), http://www.mrfire.com

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