The traveling circus didn’t have to appeal to everyone. They rode into town with the elephants, the bearded lady and the Tasmanian Devil, and the people who came, came. Once the folks who wanted excitement were exhausted, the circus left.
The problem kicks in when the circus becomes permanent. When the company seeks to scale. When the public markets want the organization to move beyond novelty seekers and reach the masses.
Suddenly, the dancing that used to work is the very thing that is a problem.
Tesla launched the difficult-to-make and controversial Cybertruck years ago. It was a mammoth error for a public company, ceding the most popular segment of the car market to Rivian and Ford in precisely the moment they could have launched a boring, reliable electric truck that would have created significant and permanent market share. And the company’s overhyped FSD feature is now in wide recall, and half the large advertisers on Twitter are now gone. Public companies aren’t supposed to sacrifice mass for the for early adopters. They’re there to grow horizontally.
Dancing for the early adopters is a great strategy, if your scale is right. If you embrace your 1,000 true fans, if you organize and connect and challenge and interest a group of people who can’t wait for the caravan to return, you can build a successful practice.
Bob Dylan famously alienated his top 40 hits fans so he could go back to having his own circus. The Grateful Dead’s touring community was dismayed when they had their one and only hit, bringing a new wave of ticket buyers who weren’t part of the tribe. It takes guts to say, “no thank you” to the masses and to go back to having your circus.
On the other hand, most tech companies and fashion brands lose their mojo and their masses when they try to be the regular kind. They either make the product stale and dumb, or go back to having a circus, but this time filled with compromises.