It’s an old truism that the smart money avoids investing in restaurants and the theater, but legendary Tony Award winner Ken Davenport has flipped conventional wisdom on its head. Davenport, a prolific Broadway producer, is behind some of the most iconic shows in theater, including Kinky Boots, Spring Awakening, and Once on This Island, proving the warnings of so many grizzled investors wrong again and again.
Not only did Davenport literally write the book on Broadway investing (out later this month), he’s raised $50 million from investors and his shows have grossed more than $500 million in 25 countries. How’s that for success?
And while Davenport would agree that investing in the theatre is high-risk, he is proof positive that it’s also high reward. Davenport believes that by understanding the risks involved, and discussing how to mitigate or diversify around them, any investor or entrepreneur can increase returns in a big way. While the theater industry average is that only one out of every five shows even breaks even, Ken has recouped on more than 45 percent of the shows he produced. In other words, he beats the average by more than double. So, how does he convince investors to trust him with their hard-earned dollars?
We sat down with Ken to hear his formula for success when fundraising, because if he can do it for Broadway, you should be able to do it for any other industry. His lessons are universal and essential for any entrepreneur.
Look for people who will invest in you.
Every successful entrepreneur has the support of people who believe in their mission and their product, but more importantly they need people who believe in them. Davenport said it’s essential to find the people who recognize the value of the entrepreneur themselves, rather than just see dollar signs when they look at an idea. Passion underpins everything, he said.
“One of the biggest lessons I ever got was when I was raising money for my first show. I was pitching very hard to a potential investor and he stopped me about halfway through and said, ‘I’m going to write you a check for $25,000, but I don’t think this show is going to work,'” Davenport recalled. “I remember wondering, then why are you doing this? And he said, ‘I don’t invest in projects, I invest in people.'”
While a good project and careful planning are important, building trusted relationships with people who will put their money behind you simply because they believe in your vision is absolutely essential, Davenport said.
To many observers, Davenport’s work ethic borders on obsession. He said he is driven by a passion for what he does and a voracious appetite to learn more every day.
“Anyone who works with me knows I have a rule about my desk at the end of the day: I have to have it cleaned off,” Davenport said. “People tell me I’m a workaholic because I’m here seven days a week, and I work late at night, but it doesn’t feel that way to me … I always want to learn new stuff, and I’m always looking for ways that I can do something different in the industry.”
Embracing new methods and technologies, he added, has helped him stand out in an industry that doesn’t always embrace change. That lead him to his final lesson.
Push the norms and break some rules.
Innovation is an absolute must, even if it tramples on the status quo.
“Zuckerberg, Jobs, Disney. They all had a tendency to question why things were being done … and then immediately charted a path to doing them differently,” Davenport said. “Our company tries to follow that mindset. A few years ago, we saw how crowdfunding was impacting the world of financing projects of all shapes and sizes and I wanted to see if we could apply the same idea to Broadway.”
While Davenport said working out the details took some extra time and attorneys’ fees, his company was able to pioneer a new way of funding Broadway musicals by 2011, lining up over 700 investors and shelling out just $1,000 each to revive “Godspell.”