Business Advice from P.T. Barnum



Phineas Taylor Barnum, commonly known as PT Barnum, is one of the most colorful and controversial figures of American history.  His life spanned most of the 1800’s, and his career was long and legendary.  He is thought by many to have been a crook, and by many to have been a genius.  The obvious truth is that he was sometimes both.

A few years ago, I read Barnum’s autobiography (which was published around 1850).  His story was amazing.  He gives great descriptions of American life back then.  As a traveling showman, he had an unusually good vantage point for observing people and places of that time.  His story of rags-to-riches and obscurity-to-prestige was fascinating too–including befriending Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace.

One thing that cannot be disputed about Barnum is that he was a great salesman and a master of marketing.  Besides being highly innovative and bold, he possessed a deep understanding of human nature and what was required for people to feel excited, trusting, and gladly willing to give up their coin.  Barnum’s marketing prowess was legendary in his time and has had a lasting impact on American culture.

In his writing, Barnum admits to some of his less-than-scrupulous endeavors.  He comes across as candid, accessible and self-aware.  But best of all, he gives very sound advice to the would-be entrepreneurs of the world.  These words of advice struck a chord with me, and it’s interesting how relevant they still are today.  Some of the advice seems ironic (considering who it’s coming from), but appears to be sincerely intended to benefit the reader for their success.  I hope you don’t mind, but I underlined a few statements that were most powerful to me.  Enjoy.

Barnum’s Rules for Success in Business:

  • Select the kind of business that suits your natural inclinations and temperament.
  • Let your pledged word ever be sacred.
  • Whatever you do, do it with all your might. Work at it if necessary early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well get done today.   Many a man acquires a fortune by doing his business thoroughly, while his neighbor remains poor for life because he only half  does his business. 
  • Let hope predominate, but be not too visionary
  • Do not scatter your powers. 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.  When a man’s undivided attention is centered on one object, his mind will constantly be suggesting improvements of value, which would escape him if his brain were occupied by a dozen different subjects at once.
  • Advertise your business. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.  Advertise it thoroughly and efficiently, in some shape or other, that will arrest public attention.  Advertising doesn’t pay when it is done sparingly and grudgingly.  Homeopathic doses of advertising will not pay perhaps – it is like half a potion of physic, making the patient sick, but effecting nothing.  Administer liberally, and the cure will be sure and permanent.  Some say “they can not afford to advertise”… they mistake – they cannot afford not to advertise.
  • Put on the appearance of business and generally the reality will follow. The farmer plants his seed, and while he is sleeping, his corn and potatoes are growing.  So with advertising.  It needs nerve and faith.
  • A person who does business by rule, having a time and place for everything, doing his work promptly, will accomplish twice as much and with half the trouble of him who does it carelessly and slipshod.
  • If a man has a genuine article, there is no way in which he can reap more advantageously than by “sowing” to the public in this way. He must, of course, have a really good article, and one which will please his customers; anything spurious will not succeed permanently because the public is wiser than many imagine.  Men and women are selfish, and we all prefer purchasing where we can get the most for our money and we try to find out where we can most surely do so.
  • Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business.

Here are a few other good statements that came from the book:

  • All we need to insure success is “notoriety.”
  • I usually jump at conclusions, and almost invariably find that my first impressions are most correct.
  • Money is, in some respects, like fire; it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master.
  • You must have both the caution and the boldness to insure success.
  • (On the importance of advertising continuously) A French writer says that “The reader of a newspaper does not see the first mention of an ordinary advertisement; the second insertion he sees, but does not read; the third insertion he reads; the fourth insertion, he looks at the price; the fifth insertion, he speaks of it to his wife; the sixth insertion, he is ready to purchase, and the seventh insertion, he purchases.

I hope you enjoyed this article.  If so, please share it with your friends.  Thank you.

Barry Abraham,

Brickway Marketing

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Barry Abraham is the author of "The Internet Marketing Strategy Book."  This is a 10-chapter book that gives an easy-to-understand overview of current Internet marketing opportunities.

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