Not long ago comedian Louis CK created a significant hullabaloo online when he bucked years of established entertainment industry convention by self-recording and distributing a comedy special.  The long established method of distribution had been a production company records and edits the special, distributing it via DVD for up to $19.95 (no streaming) with archaic DRM protection.  Louis (Mr. CK?) recorded the special on his own, edited it on his Macbook, and made the special available for download from his website for $5 with no DRM.  He publically shared that he made more than a million dollars, and his experiment was followed far and wide by both conventional and vertical specific media.

After slaying the archaic digital distribution model for digital media he turned his sights next to how the industry sells tickets to entertainment events.  As anyone who has ever purchased tickets for an event knows this is an industry ripe for change, with inflated pricing and fees at every turn.  In the end, both the consumer and the performer lose out, with the consumer paying substantially more and the performer losing a substantial chunk of revenue to them. Louis CK cut out the middleman and sold tickets from his website, at substantially lower prices than the ticket brokers charge.

After much of the coverage for Louis’s groundbreaking moves that threatened to disrupt not one, but two industries (and as entertainers such as Jim Gaffigan and others piled on and did the same) I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about Louis CK that enabled him to make these, well, kind of brilliant moves.  I mean, the technology has been around for years—high end recording equipment costs a few thousand dollars at most, and consumer level computers have been powerful enough to edit video for years now.  The ability to sell tickets from a website has likewise also been around for years.  So it’s not that the technology only recently became available and he was the first to jump on it and apply it to his particular industry.  In fact, we could surely argue that his two applications of technology to the two problems he faced in the entertainment industry likely (mentally) occurred to other members of the entertainment industry facing the same problem but they dismissed it, whereas he pounced on it and, in doing so, likely changed the dynamics of the industry for good.

What is it about Louis CK that enabled him to soar where others didn’t even make it off the couch?

Missing the Fear of Failure Gene

The answer to the question came in the form of a lengthy interview (salty language warning) he did with   This is probably a good time to interject that I’m not a particular fan of Louis CK’s comedy.  I don’t watch his FX show and I’ve watched only a bit of his comedy routine in slices on Youtube—both tend to be a bit too raunchy for my taste.

However, I have watched with interest as he took two industries to their knees, making powerful executives quake in fear as he single handedly took significant steps towards making their industries obsolete.  A careful read of the interview reveals an individual whose off-the-charts intelligence is couched by an external veneer of salty language and a seeming obsession talking about what goes on in the bedroom in his stand-up routines (at least for me both factors initially obscured his clearly evolved level of thinking).

Take the way he describes his success with his TV show, and notice his awareness that success can be fleeting and his seeming deep-appreciation for what he has been able to achieve:

The show has been a massive thing. That’s been huge. The show has definitely not been, “Yeah, sure, of course I’m getting this.” The show has been a precious thing to me, and it’s been something I’m horribly grateful for. It’s just such a big deal to me that I’m getting to do this. I’m aware of how fleeting it is. I’m aware that, at best, it’ll go eight years, and that a year after those eight years are over, it’ll feel like a distant memory. I’m aware of that. 

Or his decision not to raise ticket prices, simply because he felt like he had already earned enough from the people who attend his shows:

And the thing that was a little painful to me was that I was trying to bring down my ticket prices in the last couple years. Because I guess, the tour before this last one, I made enough. I started making enough money about two years ago on shows. I mean literally making enough. I reached a point where I felt like, “I don’t need to earn more than this doing stand-up comedy. It’s enough. That’s loads of money.” 

These are all admirable traits and describe a person who, somehow, has avoided many of the “give me more” pitfalls that seem to trip up those who achieve big success in their fields.

But if we were to distill down into one concept, the trait of his that answers our question ‘what made him succeed here where it seems like others did not even try?’ it’s that it seems like he does not possess the gene that makes most people fear failure.

Here he is describing how he came to the two decisions we’ve described above:

AVC: How did both those things come about, putting up the special by yourself, and also handling the tickets for this tour? 

LCK: Yeah, well, I like to try stuff. I like to try to see if something can work. It’s really satisfying to figure out, “What if we try it this way? What if we made it way more pleasurable and cheaper to come see me? Or to watch my show online? And if we do this right, how much benefit were we getting from the giant companies?”

Notice how he talks about ‘trying stuff’ without a hint of fear of the outcome (rare to begin with), and then, in putting his money where his mouth is, he goes off and executes on that plan (even rarer still).

And, here he is elaborating on his response to a request for a quid pro quo promotion from local radio stations: (a lengthy excerpt but I thought it was neat to read his thought process in telling radio stations to jump in a lake):

The first time I ever toured in theaters—the first time I toured, really. You do comedy clubs, it’s just working clubs, but the first time I went on a tour in theaters—they were like 500-to-700-seat theaters, my agent asked me some blanket questions, like, “Here’s what’s going to come up,” and he said, “What is your radio tolerance?” That’s what he asked me. He said, “What presence are you willing to let radio people have at your shows?” and I said, “Give me an example.” And he goes, “Well, here’s all the things they will ask for in every city: Thing one is that the radio personality gets to come onstage and introduce the show. And the second thing they’re going to want is a van outside, broadcasting from the show. Then they’re going to want a banner onstage, with the name of the radio on it. Then they’re going to want a table out in the lobby with bumper stickers.”

He just made a list of, “Here’s the things that they will want.” Another one was meet-and-greets. They get to give away tickets, and the DJ introduces you to the contest winners who won the meet-and-greets. Ten minutes with you alone in a room where you take pictures and stuff. So they said, “What of these things are you willing to do?” And I said, “Let’s say no to all of this.” [Laughs.] One hundred percent of it. As a professional courtesy, if a radio DJ wants free tickets, he can come to the show. He can’t come backstage. He certainly can’t come onstage. They may not have their logo on any of the shit on the stage, anywhere near it. I want people to come to the theater and feel like they’re just coming to see this; they’re not being promoted to. I don’t think there’s anything more obnoxious than when someone has paid to be somewhere, to be promoting to them. That they’re paying to be advertised to is really annoying to me.

I said to him, “Let’s do none of it.” And he said, “Well, here’s the thing: If you let them do these things, then they talk about your show all the time. They talk about your show on the air, and you get more free promotion from radio stations. If they get to say, ‘I’m going to be there,’ they’ll get more into it.” And I said, “Well, first of all, I don’t want people at my shows that are there to see the DJ. I just don’t want them to come.”

I want to call out this next part of his response that encapsulates his no-fear of failure approach that enabled the decisions we cite above:

And I said to my agent, “Let’s find out if this is a huge mistake. Let’s find out. I’m willing to sacrifice my first theater tour and have the places empty and identify that it’s because I wouldn’t let the radio people participate. But we also might find out that it didn’t make a difference and that I never have to do it.” [Laughs.] Because you can’t roll that stuff back once you’ve started.

I don’t think much more needs to be said.  The takeaway for us is considering how often great ideas are killed before they even make their way out of our head because of our fear of failure.

I’ll close with this observation from Digg founder and serial entrepreneur Kevin Rose:


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