Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe? It is a remarkable experience. The Fringe is the world’s largest annual Arts Festival. There are some 3000 different shows featuring comedy, theatre, music, dance, magic and improv. There is no selection committee (in their terms it is unjuried). Any type of performer with any type of act can participate. This means that it has become an experimental playground and launching pad for emerging talent. At the same time many well-established artists perform at the Fringe because they love being part of it. Something like 2 million tickets are sold for the shows over the 25 days of the festival but many shows are free. It runs every August and attracts visitors from all over the world. It has launched the careers of many who went on to become stars including various members of the Monty Python team, Derek Jacobi, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Steve Coogan and Emma Thompson.
The success of the Fringe can teach us some lessons about innovation and entrepreneurship because each show is like a small business start up. It may succeed or fail based on whether customers and critics like the idea and the performance. What precepts can be taken from the festival to the business world?
1. The Fringe provides a platform for experimentation. Edinburgh in August is a place where artists can try out new, dangerous, edgy material with relatively low cost and low risk. They are sure of some audiences and will get instant reaction and feedback. The basic infrastructure is in place – there are venues of all shapes and sizes, a computerized booking system and most importantly lots of visitors. The artist can focus on giving a great performance and leave the logistics to the organisers. Every start-up needs time, space and exposure.
2. It is a safe place to fail. Artists whose shows flop one year may return the next and try again with a different approach. They will get support and encouragement. They quickly learn what works for audiences and what does not.
3. Diversity stimulates innovation. Performers from different genres, backgrounds and nationalities rub shoulders and see each others’ works. New ideas and collaborations are spawned.
4. The Spotlight is the reward. Very few shows make serious profits at the Fringe. The main benefits for the successful are exposure and coverage. Many magazines and newspapers publish reviews of shows at the Fringe and there are a number of prestigious awards. (See the list of Comedy Award winners.) These accolades can lead to further bookings for the shows and the artists and put them on the road to stardom. Similarly many start up internet businesses crave viral exposure ahead of revenue.
If we want more entrepreneurs and more new businesses then the Edinburgh Fringe might be a useful model to follow. We need safe places for creative entrepreneurs to try out their great ideas.