Improv Is The Best Conditioning For Startup Life

Editor’s note: Fayez Mohamood is a co-founder and CEO of Bluecore.

Every New Year, I pick a new hobby – yoga, sailing, something I don’t know how to do – and in 2011, I chose improv comedy. I was absolutely terrified. On day one, I stood onstage and talked with a stranger about hiking for 10 minutes. At the end, 10 strangers critiqued every little thing I did. They told me quirks about my posture, tone and body language that my best friends wouldn’t dare to say. Within a year, I was performing weekly in amateur improv shows.

I began to realize that improv for entrepreneurs was akin to weight lifting for professional football players, minus most of the grunting. It is a training regimen that transforms people into their most powerful and effective selves in a startup environment. It can take a shy software engineer who’s never talked to a client and turn him into the company’s best salesperson.

In 2013, Mahmoud Arram and I co-founded Bluecore, a marketing technology company where every single employee is required to complete an improv 101 class within the first four months on the job. In terms of importance, this ranks right up there with required reading and sales training. But why?

Improv is unconventional “training” designed to build a team that can own the ambiguity, frenetic pace, interpersonal challenges and harsh feedback of startup life. There are five parallels between startups and improv that make these classes so effective at building up employees and company culture:

  1. Startups are about jumping into the unknown – head first. There is no better way to get into that mindset than jumping onstage in front of 500 people, without knowing what you’re going to say. We want our employees to embrace the unknown. In improv, there’s no authority figure telling you what to do. You’re the director, writer and actor. So for people coming from super structured Fortune 500 companies, where it takes five people to screw in one lightbulb, ambiguity is scary. In startups, you don’t ask for permission to solve problems or follow guidelines – you just do it, and if you fail, half the time you’re the only one that notices. Improv conditions people to be calm and confident in front of the unknown.
  1. Startups demand introspection and openness to feedback. Improv opens up a feedback loop in which people critique you about things your best friends wouldn’t dare mention. If you’re trying to be really ‘cool’ in each scene, someone’s going to point out the inauthenticity, along with all your other idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and bad habits. You develop an eagerness for this critique because it empowers you to become a better stage partner. In a startup, we want employees who aren’t skittish about giving tough feedback and taking it. When employees have conditioned for critique, your team achieves far better communication and self-awareness.
  1. Startups are all about trust and teamwork. Unlike standup comedy, which is a solo act developed on paper, improv requires live collaboration. Each performance has at least two people, and it’s not about being funny. The purpose is to create a story together. You’re quickly generating ideas and trying to help each other succeed. That’s why “Yes, and…” is a tenet of improv. It’s a way to communicate and collaborate without shutting down the conversation or making a stage partner feel defensive. In business, “Yes, and…” becomes a means of continuing dialogue and working through the pros and cons of an idea until there is a joint decision that all parties can live with.
  1. Startups are all about listening. Improv makes you a better listener. You have to be 100 percent present and listening to take cues from your teammates. If you want to see how big of a difference this training makes, take an engineer who’s terrible at talking with customers, and throw him or her into improv. This engineer is going to blow your mind. We see this every day in our team of forward deployed engineers. Instead of having account managers field technical questions they can’t actually solve, these engineers are the front line. The role eliminates all the email forwarding and phone tagging that creates lag time between receiving and fixing a complaint. You could leave all your engineers in a dark basement staring at code…or through improv, you can condition them to be both amazing listeners and problem solvers.
  1. Startups have a central story, but it’s susceptible to tunnel vision. The story is not just a marketing buzzword. The startup story has a beginning, characters, a plot, climaxes and twists. Your team has to come together around that story because it explains why they are waking up every morning to endure all the strain of entrepreneurship. The plot turns ugly when a startup loses sight of that central story and enters tunnel vision. If your goal is to build SaaS technology for marketers, for example, you can’t get lost in a technical wonderland. The changes that are mind-blowing and exciting to an engineer might be completely invisible and unimportant to the customer. Improv teaches you to stick to the central story – you may pursue a few subplots, but you always come back to the big picture.

Improv has taught to me to view entrepreneurship not merely as something we do, but rather as a skill that needs to be conditioned outside the office. Whether your culture is thriving or struggling, I challenge you to sign up your team for a six-week improv class. I dare you to push your comfort zone and see what happens.