Innovation and enterprise blog

26 May 2016

Be business savvy like Shakespeare

Poet, playwright, producer; what we know of Shakespeare’s life proves one thing – it’s possible to be creative and commercial. The starving, tortured life of the artist is a later romantic idea but Shakespeare was of course a renaissance man through and through, and so should every contemporary creative be. He didn’t consider himself too big to collaborate, to find inspiration in other work, nor to share rewards among his fellow actors. We know that his company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were the first in English history to have actors as shareholders and to receive a profit in their performances. Here is a fine, early example of employee incentivising!

Not only did Shakespeare earn good money over the course of his lifetime, at the end of his career he enjoyed the fruits of his labour living out his days back home in Stratford-upon-Avon, in what is thought to have been the second biggest house in the village. Not bad for a mere ‘player’.

How did he do it? Here’s what every creative entrepreneur, especially those writers and artists in the performing arts, should know about living off your work. All inspired by the life and work of our greatest bard (and sometime businessman).


Image taken from page 61 of 'An inquiry into the history, authenticity, and characteristics of the Shakespeare Portraits, etc. (A supplement.)'


1. “When we mean to build, we first survey the plot, then draw the model” Henry IV Part II

First things first: before embarking on any endeavour it sure helps to know where you’re going. This is especially true for starting a business. ‘Surveying the plot’ might as well be surveying the market; who are your competitors, what is the opportunity, will there be demand for your product or service? And as for drawing up a model, working out your business model is a must do. It’s essential to work out your sources of revenue as well as factoring in operating expenses too. Shakespeare knew all of this; he knew what his audience liked, what they’d pay, where the opportunities to perform were and what costs needed covering. Each performance had to pull a profit.

We know Shakespeare also invested a lot in his acting company which meant he was receiving earnings every time the company performed, whether or not he was there. Here is a perfect example of passive income and one to build into any business model.

In 1605 it’s thought that Shakespeare purchased real estate near Stratford that doubled in value and earned him money every year. Today we call that diversifying your revenue streams (another aspect of a business model). Shakespeare probably would call it plain old common sense. It meant he could keep writing and the world is better off because of it.

You can find out more about on to plan your business with links to some helpful guides here.

2. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be” Hamlet

Shakespeare’s character in Hamlet, Polonius, gets it right. Be smart with your resources. Many business owners believe getting into debt is the only option for starting a venture and seek finance from any lender that will provide the funds. While sometimes this is unavoidable, the level of debt should be considered very carefully.

One option is for entrepreneurs to seek funding from friends and family. While it’s a ‘safer’ way of finding finance, is the friendship worth ruining if it all goes wrong? And will wasted money cause family resentment? It all could all get very Shakespearean very quickly and your business dream could turn to tragedy.

Many businesses these days are taking a lean start-up approach to minimise risk and get validation for their idea from customers as quickly as possible. You can join in on our free webinar Introducing Lean Start-up and find out more to help minimise your risk. It’s what Polonius would advise. 


Image taken from page 835 of 'The Works of Shakspeare; from the text of Johnson, Steevens, and Reed. With a biographical memoir, and a variety of interesting matter, illustrative of his life and writings. By W. Harvey'


3. “Let every man be master of his time” Macbeth

Taking any advice from Macbeth might be foolhardy but this little aphorism was when he was far less of a megalomaniac. It’s worth living by because you can lose and regain money but you can never regain time. It’s your most precious (and scarce) resource.  A successful entrepreneur makes every minute count and time should pay for itself; it’s the resource you need to achieve goals for the business. But it’s the hardest thing to manage. It’s very common for business owners to become distracted by events or new opportunities and advance two steps in eight directions rather than eight steps in one. If you feel like you aren’t using time well, quickly do something about it, before you lose more! Time is very malleable and using it is the finest art. So respect it, allow flexibility with it and use it to look after your personal needs too and you will be a master of you and your business. Macbeth got one thing right at least.

Image taken from page 262 of 'Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker'


4. “And do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily but eat and drink as friends” The Taming of the Shrew

Never under estimate the power of networking. In Shakespeare’s time as today who you know will make the difference between making it and getting nowhere.

Running a business can be lonely and frustrating, so having a support and skills network to draw upon is a business must. None of us are gifted at everything; we all need help from someone else at some point. Pulling together different skill sets such as finance, marketing and technical knowhow will greatly increase the chance of your business surviving.

You should also know and respect your competition. They may be adversaries but its good to ‘eat and drink as friends’ because you can learn from them, find out what made their success and learn from their mistakes too. You can find out more on researching your competitors here.

Another good way to network is to joining a trade association for your industry. And if you feel this is an area you’d like to work on, you can ‘eat and drink as friends’ at our event, Networking for Success.


5. “The Fashion wears out more apparel than the man” Much Ado About Nothing

In other words, find the trend and milk it! If you’re going against the general tide of opinion, fashion (or demand) you will surely struggle. Your idea may be the most worthy, most needed for humanity or most creative but if no one ‘buys it’, it won’t make you money or be a business. End of story. Shakespeare worked in the mass entertainment of his time and he was acutely aware of the trends in theatre. The theatres themselves were designed to maximise revenue, with a popular groundlings area at an affordable price to higher paying seats for those who could afford more comfort. He and his contemporaries knew what people wanted and were prepared to pay to be entertained.

‘Fashion wears out more apparel’ could not be truer lesson for any budding entrepreneur regardless of their sector. People don’t buy clothes they buy a look, they don’t by a product, they buy convenience, they don’t pay to see a show, they pay for an experience or to escape from reality. Work out what really motivates people and serve their needs. Do this and you have the beginnings of a real business. Don’t and you risk it all.

You can minimise risk by doing effective market research. Our guides can help with this important process.

Image taken from page 21 of '[Cook's Handbook for London. With two maps.]


6. “Sweet are the uses of adversity” As You Like It

The ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ will be firing your way when you run a business. It’s what you’re able to do with it that will secure your survival (or not). A lesson from Shakespeare’s life is helpful here. His theatre company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men owned their own theatre in Shoreditch (smart) but didn’t own the land (a risk).  So when the lease on the land expired, the landlord claimed ownership of the theatre. That was certainly an arrow of outrageous fortune! The company though turned adversity into the sweetness of victory and decided to ‘liberate’ the theatre. Over the Christmas break, while the landlord was away celebrating, the company came and unpacked the whole theatre and transported it across the river to Southwark. It worked out even better for them longer term, because the locale was now outside the jurisdiction of the City, and therefore less likely to be closed down and they had longer term control of the playhouse. Adversity was turned into opportunity. It’s something that all business owners may have to face, especially today when how goods and services are being delivered is changing so rapidly.


Image taken from page 381 of 'Edith the Captive; or, the Robbers of Epping Forest. By the author of “Jane Brightwell,” [i.e. J. M. Rymer.] etc'


7. “The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief” Othello

During Shakespeare’s life his plays would often be copied down and sold by bootleggers but there was very little he could do about it. Even though he couldn’t benefit from his intellectual property in the same way that he’d be able to do today, his work undoubtedly had an intellectual value at the time. The upside was that knowledge of his work did spread and enhance his reputation even if he couldn’t directly profit from it.

There’s no doubt if Shakespeare were writing today, he’d make sure all of his work would be copyright enforced and royalties taken.

Every business needs to think about its intellectual property and where they create value through innovation and it could be something as simple as their logo being trade marked.

Thankfully today we have laws that protect the interests of the innovator. Every business, whether it be technically based or creative needs to look carefully at its IP. You can find out more about how intellectual property affects you and your business and make sure you’ve got recourse when a thief tries to steal your IP!

Image taken from page 422 of '[The book of the Thames.]'


It can be lonely and uncertain being your own boss, but if you sign up for a reader pass at the British Library and use our Business & IP Centre where you’ll be able to do your market research, learn new skills and meet lots of other people just like you.

The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.


Jeremy O’Hare is a Relationship Manager for the British Library’s Innovating for Growth programme, which provides £10,000 of fully-funded and tailored advice for businesses looking to grow. Since joining the British Library in 2005 he has worked with countless businesses, facilitating advice and research as well as providing workshops and information advice for start-ups and established businesses.