Giving up a six-figure salary for a startup in comedy

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“I had an ultimate understanding that the money wasn’t making me happy. What was I gonna do with the money? Go and buy another Xbox? Go and buy another TV? What was it doing for me? I couldn’t keep the happiness going with the money that I had.”

Louis Zezeran

Louis Zezeran has a Masters in Computer Science and was working in IT consulting earning a six figure salary, when he decided to give it all up six years ago to start the comedy agency he calls a startup, Comedy Estonia. There are three guys in the team working primarily in Estonia, but also in Latvia, Lithuania and Finland; they’ve had top names such as Jimmy Carr, Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey as their guests. He believes one of the keys to a successful startup is living the frugal lifestyle and speaks to Hybe about his decision to quit his job in IT, adjusting to the lower income and what he’s learned along the way.

How did you feel when you first started, after leaving the security of a career?

When something like this starts, you don’t think it’s a source of income, you don’t think, ‘oh yeah this is going to be my job.’ I have a lot of passion, like, ‘yeah, I really wanna do this,’ maybe I’ve just got some big dreams, but it certainly took some time for me to migrate my income over to being entertainment based, so I was trying to do less consulting work.

In any startup the money’s not rolling in straight away, founders still need to work out where they’re getting their money from and so forth, there was a balance where I tried to bring down the consulting work — and I still miss that wage, oh my God how I do!

We all know that we need to focus on our core business if we’re ever gonna get somewhere, so there is that leap of faith. I’m happy that these days I can say that we’re certainly not rich, but ok, we live, and I’m just happy that we live, that we live from what we love doing, and to me that’s amazing right? We live, we get by, we do what we love, and we’re just totally happy about that right now.

Have you considered venture capital or crowdfunding?

Crowdfunders want something tangible, someone comes along with, like, an amazing new cup, ‘I have this amazing new type of cup, who wants this cup,’ the crowd are like, ‘wow we love it, we want that cup, go build that cup for us.’ This doesn’t really work for what we do.

We’ve never taken any money, we’ve never taken culture money [from the government], we’ve certainly not taken any venture capital. Comedy Estonia is a very independent organisation, so it’s probably more likely that if we were to look for funding, it would be culture money, but it’s in our DNA as a company that we’re quite independent.

What’s your business model?

Our business model is to push through for the next five years, trying to make one of our guys national stars; in which case our business model pays off. It’s not an exciting business model, we’re a culturally motivated business, I love what I’m doing and I think we’re making a difference, I humbly hope that we’re making a difference.

We have our open mic shows, about four of them around the country. They used to be free, but now what we do is we say it’s by donation. To us this is not begging, to us this is saying, ‘Hey guys we just gave you a free show, we hope you appreciate that, if you’d like to give us a couple of coins…’

We talk about why we’re using the money, we’re not boozing up with it, we’re buying buses and dorm beds and all sorts of stuff to help us get around the country a bit more, helping the guys so they can keep on doing the shows.

Are you afraid to admit you’re a business?

I think a lot about American culture vs. European culture, and in American culture it’s all money, it’s all ‘bling bling’, there are comedians in America who are superstars, they just show off: here’s my mansion, here’s my f***ing Ferrari, like, ‘you’re a comedian, you’re supposed to be the voice of the people,’ but that’s acceptable in American culture right? They’re ok with that. In Europe, we don’t think of these guys as rich or having money; we don’t tend to focus on the money in Europe — in the culture world — and it gets weird.

We use a donation system to cut down costs on door staff and security, and also then more people come and we’re getting almost the same amount [of profit] as we would if we charged.

What does the startup lifestyle mean to you?

For me it’s about keeping the bigger picture, having this goal for where you want to be, not living lavishly in your everyday life. I finally got 5 days in Barcelona in January after a couple of years without having a holiday away, but it’s ok because that’s what I’m dreaming of.

I wanna do this. What’s the other option? Go back to your IT job, and you’re gonna sit there and hate yourself for the rest of your life? Or are you gonna define yourself? When you know you wanna do this, it doesn’t seem as hard anymore.

Is startup lifestyle all BMWs, iPhones and expensive beers?

*Laughs* Absolutely not! It comes back to the idea about flashing money around, it’s not a good thing to do, I mean the guys from TransferWise, to look at those blokes, you wouldn’t know that they’ve got millions upon millions sitting in the bank right?

Startups are known for working hard, long hours, not knowing what’s around the corner, who wants to work for a guy who then rolls up to work in an M5 BMW, how is that motivating to see the boss getting all those spoils? These venture funded guys, they’re smart to not start flashing it around. I wouldn’t wanna flash it around, driving around in a Range Rover, it’s a bit old school style.

I don’t want my lifestyle to be lavish, my apartment’s not bad, like it’s alright, but also that was a factor of my life at the time. I was thirty when I started Comedy Estonia, and I still had a few IT dollars in my pocket, I had to live somewhere halfway decent, otherwise it would be so demotivating for me being a thirty year old and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I gave up my secure IT job for this!’

Louis Zezeran, Comedy Estonia. Photo: Marion Uuspõld

Do you miss the money?

I miss the money, but it’s so outweighed by the lifestyle I have now. I was travelling around a lot, I used to do IT training so I was on the road a lot. I got really lonely, but it’s very exciting to travel Europe and get to go to all these different places. I’m worrying much more about money now, yeah for sure, but just being happy and having friends and seeing all these happy people in the crowd — that could be partly to do with the startup lifestyle as well, it’s a social lifestyle.

Do you hang around with the startup crowd?

I do mix in these startup circles, I know most of them; they probably know me through the comedy shows and we do events with them. It can be very useful as well, because you get motivation from each other and maybe I need a bit more of that. It’s actually helpful for me to talk to someone who has a different sort of business and say, ‘Oh wait, you guys are struggling too, now I feel a bit better,’ we’re all in this together.

What advice do you have for someone thinking of ditching the high paid job for the startup world?

I had no mortgage, no wife, no children and zero other responsibilities. It was just me, a place to sleep and some food on my plate; that made my job much, much easier. In that respect I almost had nothing to lose, because if it didn’t work out I’d just go back to IT.

How have your skills from your career in IT helped to build Comedy Estonia?

A general technical aptitude helps; so all the website stuff, all the online stuff. I can pretty much work out very quickly how to run ads on Google or Facebook, all this stuff just makes sense to me. Experience with logic, reasoning and problem solving means I can go and work with sound and light systems, for me this comes pretty easily too. Originally I did a year of producing theatre shows in Sydney, and producing was basically just project management of the theatre, artistic people were stressing about ‘feelings’ and I’d just say, ‘get in there and do your performance, mate.’ So yeah, the project management has helped me a lot. I’ve worked in [on contract] IT startups, my first boss was Rob Castenetta (Customware/Service Rocket), so now I often think in certain situations, ‘What would Rob do?’

What was the final push for you?

I kept going back to IT jobs, the mental programming was so strong, but I kept flaking out of these jobs after six months. It’s super hard to get out of that treadmill, even though I had zero commitments I still had to get over that. I guess what helped me more was that my father quit his job when he was about 50 something, and when he did that I thought, maybe I can do it with mine too, just quit it. If you don’t like a job or a lifestyle just quit it and try something else for a while. My parents were ok with that because they knew I had this university education that was always gonna be there, at least I’d done that.

So what advice would you give to a new startup team or someone thinking of leaving a high paid job?

Put away as much money as you can, don’t think about your lavish lifestyle, just live as frugally as possible. I think it’s hard for young people, with pressure to look good, go to the clubs and afford rent these days. I had an ultimate understanding that the money wasn’t making me happy. What was I gonna do with the money? Go and buy another Xbox? Go and buy another TV? What was it doing for me? I couldn’t keep the happiness going with the money that I had, knowing I have to get up at 9am every morning and work till late at night.

Live frugally and keep that goal in mind. What is that goal? Goals need to keep adjusting, that’s important as well, over time you’re discovering more and more what you really want to be.

Pictures: Argo Ingver, Marion Uuspõld