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“What do tech bros and stand-ups have in common? Both stay up late cracking things. One cracks code, and the other cracks jokes!”
I’m not a popular comedian or a successful founder, so excuse the dad joke. As a therapist working with both types of high-achievers, however, it’s remarkable how much these professionals have in common.
Today, I’ll share with you how tech founders can learn from stand-up comedians to level up their leadership across their venture’s lifecycle and secure more lucrative exits. It boils down to borrowing a strategy that psychology has identified as the central marker of comedians at the top of their game: the Comedians’ Edge.
The Inner Dragon: The Undeniable Overlap of Stand-Ups and Founders
One of my friends is a retired founder with a surprising new pursuit: selling out shows as a headlining stand-up comedian. Before you laugh (wait for his show!), I’ll show you why his dream isn’t so far-fetched.
The qualities needed for outrageous success in comedy and startups are similar. First, working with creative elites and founders has taught me that they don’t quit. I fondly nickname my clients’ ferocious drive the Inner Dragon, and if you’re close to a founder or comedian you probably know exactly what I mean.
Second, as innovative disruptors of the status quo, both professional profiles display a high level of openness to new experiences, a prerequisite for creativity (Freiberg & Matz, 2023; Irwing, Cook, Pollet & Hughes, 2020). Finally, both comedians and founders must develop the inner fortitude to remain composed and focused under trying conditions.
My friend’s thick skin and exceptional willpower wouldn’t be enough to command the crowd, though. Comedians have a particular psychological trick up their sleeve that founders are not organically encouraged to develop, but that would benefit them — and the rest of us with big ambitions — if they did.
The Comedian’s Edge is Learnable
Think about the last time you watched a stand-up comedian, whether in a club or on television. When they’re performing a really good bit, we perceive them as having an innate, unnamable X factor, as if they were born to be onstage. What we’re actually seeing, however, is a painstakingly sharpened set of skills I call the Comedian’s Edge.
When we examine this skillset, we see it isn’t inborn magic. The Comedian’s Edge is the ability to up- and down-regulate personality traits to fit an ideal stage persona. A 2020 exploratory study of over 200 comedians pinpointed the importance of this skillset (Irwing, Cook, Pollet & Hughes). In this study, psychologists from the University of Manchester and Northumbria University in the UK assessed amateur and professional comedians’ performances and had them fill out a personality assessment.
Irwing and colleagues found that professional comedians were better than amateurs at adapting their on-stage personas to appear more extraverted and agreeable than in regular life (Irwing et al.). For example, while many comedians were more impulsive offstage, such as when writing their material, the successful ones became closer to the “ideal onstage comedian personality” of lower impulsiveness.
After measuring numerous psychological factors, the authors identified this personality adjustment lever as the defining psychological characteristic that distinguished pros from the wanna-be’s. In other words: quantified evidence of the Comedian’s Edge.
Investors Reward Different Personas in Different Stages
Not only is the Comedian’s Edge critical for professional success in comedy, but new research indicates this skill is eminently relevant to founders, too. This is because with founders, we also see distinct ideal personas at different stages of the startup lifecycle.
In a fascinating study on the personality traits of founders of 8-12 year-old startups, Brandon Freiberg and Sandra C. Matz from Columbia University analyzed tens of thousands of Twitter posts to see if there were any patterns showing a relationship between common personality traits and the startups’ financial success (2023). They found that during the initial fund-raising stage, founders with higher levels of conscientiousness correlated with securing about $170,000 more in initial funding from fewer investors. This shouldn’t be surprising; investors following traditional wisdom would prefer leaders who seem responsible and dialed into business plan details.
In the exit stage, however, the results were startlingly counter-intuitive. As ventures matured, the opposite personality tendency saw financial rewards (Freiberg & Matz, 2023). Founders showing lower levels of conscientiousness had a higher likelihood of exiting. (The precise data showed that founders with higher conscientiousness were 15% less likely to exit than those with lower levels of this trait.) The authors hypothesized that redirecting focus from long-term goals to short-term financial gain leads to higher buyouts. In short, the exit stage isn’t the time for conscientiousness.
Indeed, this has played out with my own clients. I work with many exceptionally responsible and self-disciplined individuals. Before finding me, several had their conscientiousness exploited in their exits and cashed out on less favorable terms than their co-founders. Although high conscientiousness had been critical to their early success, the evidence shows that exiting founders need to be chameleons on this very trait.
Flexibility Matters More Than Inborn Traits
These new studies on comedians and tech founders shed light on the dynamic nature of personality and the importance of flexibility. Comedians demonstrate that personality isn’t fixed. In fact, it’s more like a set of adjustable levers. Tech founders can adopt the Comedian’s Edge and cultivate or minimize their conscientiousness as needed for their venture’s stage. Seeking funding? Up the conscientiousness. Trying to exit? Conscientiousness down.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur or simply curious about the comparison, these findings confirm you don’t need to perfectly fit the personality profile of a certain profession to succeed. More important is nurturing the flexibility of the Comedian’s Edge.
As for my founder friend, he’s a long way from headlining but he’s already signed up for his next open-mic night. I’ll be cheering him on from my seat in the audience as he sharpens that edge in this new field. Stay tuned — you might see him on your television screen in a few years!