Houdini – more than just a magician, but a commercially savvy innovator
15 October 2014
MaryLou Costa, Content Director
Houdini to me was just one of those names that has been woven into our cultural and historical tapestry – a brand name, if you will, synonymous with not just magic but the art of the impossible escape. Houdini is to the performance industry what Google is to search or what Hoover is to household cleaning – a name so powerful that it becomes an overarching default.
But ultimately, apart from magic aficionados, there aren’t many people really who know much about him or why he was so successful. Yet if you think you can’t learn anything from Channel 4, the mini series they aired last month that chronicled the life and times of the world’s most famous magician, made me understand just how this self-made man was the consummate entrepreneur, innovator, businessman and brand guardian, long before the likes of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg were even a glimmer in their mother’s eye. And I think any self-respecting business leader could do with taking a leaf or two – or six, in fact – out of Houdini’s book:
You can’t be all things to all people – Houdini recognised this early on when he looked around and realised he was pulling rabbits out of hats and pulling dimes from behind people’s ears just like every other magician in town. He didn’t have a USP, competitive edge, or brand value – everything a fledgling entrepreneur needs to stay the distance.
So he did his homework, surveyed the market and identified where he could specialise. He practised holding his breath and picking locks. And lo, the escape artist as we know him was born, and the way he was able to thrill, terrify and most importantly, surprise, audiences kept him in the money.
Hire top talent
Like you can’t be all things to people, you can’t be the sole contributor to what your business needs to make it successful, as much as it may be your natural instinct to take charge of everything.
While Houdini certainly had the creativity, ambition, drive and intelligence to be the best in the business, he needed an engineer to devise the technically advanced contraptions that would enable his act to continue to evolve, and continue to draw crowds. Enter Jim Collins, a mechanic with the technical ability to create complex new ways for Houdini to escape and impress.
Now, if you are a Houdini-phile, you’ll know that Jim’s influence is often debated, but the Channel 4 mini-series paints him as the man behind the Chinese Water Torture Cell, arguably Houdini’s most famous escape.
No matter how you look at it, the message is clear – hire the best talent you can afford to take your business to the next level, and look after them.
Court the right kind of publicity
Houdini’s creative mind extended beyond constantly thinking about how to make his act bigger and better – he also continued to come up with ways for how to self-generate the column inches needed to keep the crowds coming. In the mini-series, he suspended himself upside down from a crane while in a straitjacket, and in front of a gobsmacked audience, dislocated his shoulder and wrangled his way out – conveniently, in front of the office of a prominent newspaper, who had no choice but to write about it. PR genius that many have struggled to emulate.
Don’t sit still – keep moving
Houdini was painfully aware that he was only as good as his last trick. Laurel-resting was not an option. He would lie awake at night coming up with ideas for new acts.
He also had the sense to move with the times. When audience numbers started to fall due to the introduction of the movies, he created videos of his stunts that were seeded as trailers to get them interested again. And it worked.
Keep important people close to you
Houdini’s wife and mum were never far (perhaps to their own chagrin, but we’ll never know). Whether he took their criticism is another matter but the fact that a helping hand and shoulder to cry on – or just someone to talk things through when the road gets rough – can never be underestimated.
But – and there is a but – don’t be cocky or take things for granted. This could lead to your downfall. Houdini died at the less than ripe old age of 52 from a ruptured appendix, said to be because of all the times he let complete strangers strike a punch at his abdomen, which he believed was as hard as steel.
Disclaimer – I do not claim to be an expert on Houdini and all my knowledge about the man is from the TV mini-series .
What do you think? Are you a fan of any other famous names from history that shook things up and invented the rules long before the book was printed?