Brad Axelrod | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Brad Axelrod

Background:  

Treehouse Comedy Productions, based in Hamden, has been bringing big-time and up-and-coming comedians to Connecticut for 33 years. Henny Youngman was Treehouse’s first nationally famous act to be brought to the Connecticut stage. Others that followed include Rodney Dangerfield, Jay Leno, Rosie O’Donnell, Paula Poundstone and Jerry Seinfeld. Treehouse started as a club in Westport, the town that founder Brad Axelrod, a Philadelphia native, visited during summers beginning at age 16 and where he helped manage his uncle’s restaurant. Treehouse has had multiple establishments and produced hundreds of shows throughout Connecticut, from Mystic to Danbury as well as in New York. Today, Treehouse organizes comedy shows at clubs owned by others, doing 70 to 80 percent of its business in Connecticut.

The Mistake:

Trying to be a soup-to-nuts club owner.

Bigger is not always better. We used to operate full-service facilities. That’s a lot of work. We had a big staff of 85 employees and all those expenses – rent, insurance, other things. The food and beverage piece takes up so much time. And food is very important but you can’t focus on that and leave the rest.

The talent piece is what people really come for. Eventually, we decided that talent is what we are best at and that’s what our business really is.

Being involved with big-time acts doesn’t guarantee business.

The Lesson:

Making things smaller gave us the opportunity to grow easier and gave us the ability to expand throughout all of Connecticut. We no longer have the brick and mortar hanging around our necks. We’re more of a service business now, providing satellite comedy clubs. Our staff is less than 10 people. We have simpler plans and they’re easier to execute.

Now we’re able to be open in multiple venues and spread our brand. When we go someplace, we use their staff, their hardware, their facilities. We have a smaller staff but we’re in more locations and our expenses are manageable.

We’ve found some wonderful partners doing things this way. We had a great five-year run with Mohegan Sun. What an outstanding partner they are; expert in so many things. Our connection with Twin River Casino in Rhode Island is going very well.

When you’re looked at as a small portion of their business with the potential for a nice return then that goes a long way toward getting their buy-in. But that’s also a challenge. You have to get them to notice you. Being around 30 years and being involved with big-time acts doesn’t guarantee business. We still have to compete for the spotlight.

Follow Treehouse Comedy Productions on Twitter at @treehousecomedy.

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