Today’s guest is the founder of The Improv Effect, a company that gives their clients the competitive edge, through creativity, collaboration and effective communication.
My guest’s goal was to help businesses reach their full potential and she has successfully done this for global companies such as Groupon, Johnson & Johnson, The PGA Tour, Crayola, and many more.
With techniques that she learned on the job at Disney and Sesame Street, she leads teams and organizations to achieve teamwork, creative problem solving, presentation skills, and product development sessions.
In addition to this, my guest is a much sought-after speaker, as well as a speaking coach to leaders worldwide.
She also co-authored a book called CTRL Shift: The book for any day.
Now, let’s hack …
In this 30-minute episode Jessie Shternshus and I discuss:
- Why we are made to improvise every day (and how to relearn this skill)
- Letting your audience come up with ideas on their own
- How teaching local classes helped her business get off the ground
- Trusting her gut and following her instincts
- Why business should be treated like a game of chess
The Show Notes
- Improv Website
- CTRL Shift: The book for any day
- Improv Website
- Jessie on Twitter
- Improv Effect Facebook
- Jon on Twitter
How to Turn What You Know into a Business
Jonny Nastor: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at HacktheEntrepreneur.com/Rainmaker.
Voiceover: Welcome to Hack the Entrepreneur, the show which reveals the fears, habits, and inner battles behind big-name entrepreneurs and those on the way to joining them. Now, here is your host, Jon Nastor.
Jonny Nastor: Welcome back to Hack the Entrepreneur. I am so glad you decided to join me today. I am your host, Jon Nastor, but you can call me Jonny. Today’s guest is the founder of The Improv Effect, a company that gives their clients the competitive edge to creativity, collaboration, and effective communication.
Her goal was to help businesses reach their full potential, and my guest has successfully done this for global companies such as Groupon, The PGA Tour, Crayola, and many, many more. With techniques that she learned on the job at Disney and Sesame Street, she leads teams and organizations to achieve teamwork, creative problem solving, presentation skills, and product development sessions. She also is a much sought-after speaker and speaking coach to leaders worldwide. Most recently, my guest coauthored a book called CTRL Shift: The book for any day.
Now let’s hack Jessie Shternshus.
I want to take a minute to thank our awesome sponsor, FreshBooks, not just for being our amazing sponsor of the show, but also, their support is so damn good. I’m trying to get my year-ends down to my accountant, and I realized that my expenses from my bank account can be linked directly to my FreshBooks account. It’s all automatically done for me — amazing, right?
I have a software company, as I’ve said, but I’m not very technically savvy, so I was doing it completely wrong. But I instantly called them and got on the phone with a real, live person who walked me through it in two minutes. It was immediately done, and the report was sent off to my accountant.
I just need to thank them because I may have smashed my computer otherwise, and that would have been a very expensive mistake. Try it absolutely free today at Freshbooks.com/Hack, and join over 5 million users running their businesses hassle-free like I did today. Be sure to enter ‘Hack the Entrepreneur’ in the ‘How did you hear about us?’ section.
Welcome back to another episode of Hack the Entrepreneur. We have another brilliant entrepreneur with us today. Jessie, thank you for joining me.
Jessie Shternshus: Thank you for having me.
Jonny Nastor: It is my pleasure. Let’s jump straight into it, Jessie. As an entrepreneur, can you tell me what is the one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your successes so far?
Jessie Shternshus: Wow. I think the one thing is really using improv, which is good since that’s the whole basis for my business.
Jonny Nastor: That is good.
Jessie Shternshus: Yeah, thank God. Using improv really helps me build relationships. It helps me with setting goals. It really is what my whole foundation of my business is founded on and what I use day to day for myself.
Jonny Nastor: Using improv — is this totally just winging it, just making it up as you go? Is this what you mean, or is there something a little more to it?
Why We Are Made to Improvise Every Day (and How to Relearn This Skill)
Jessie Shternshus: No not at all. In fact, I think that’s a big myth. People, when they think about improv, think about comedy or people on the fly. But really, if you take a step back, it’s about knowing a goal, setting a goal for yourself and improvising to get there and collaborating with others to get there, so you know your team so well that you can get to the goal no matter what life throws at you.
Jonny Nastor: Oh wow, that sounds like … business.
Jessie Shternshus: Yes, exactly. That’s what I mean. When you asked me that question, I’m like, “Improv is life.”
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, it totally is, because you hope to have an end goal, but even that goal is going to be fluid. It’s probably not going to be the same a year from now as it is now because life happens. Everything happens around your business, around yourself, around your family, around everything while you’re trying to achieve this one goal.
Jessie Shternshus: Exactly, and I feel we as human being are made to improvise every day, so why not get better at it? That’s what I made my whole business based on, but if I didn’t follow that, it would be like I was some shifty, weird business owner that said one thing and did another.
Jonny Nastor: Oh yeah, there’s never been one of those before.
Jessie Shternshus: Never. Shh.
Jonny Nastor: Okay, Jessie, there is a time in every entrepreneur’s life when they realize one of two things: either they have a calling to make something bigger than themselves or they seriously just can’t work for somebody else. Can you tell me which two of these you are and when you learned that about yourself?
Jessie Shternshus: Sure. So I’m definitely the second. I used to work in television for a while, and I liked that, but I always saw things in a different way and never was in a position to be able to speak to my ideas. Then I decided to start teaching, and I did that for a while, and I got really frustrated by the school system.
I felt like the school system was making everybody into a bunch of robots and taking out the creativity and allowing people to just be who they were. There was one particular situation with a little boy that really upset me, where the principle had told me, “Oh you know, some kids just fall through the cracks,” and I was like, “Okay I’m out of here.”
Jonny Nastor: Wow.
Jessie Shternshus: I just couldn’t take it anymore and decided I would teach in my own way, which became starting my own business. ‘Training’ is really just another word for ‘teaching.’
Jonny Nastor: That’s true. So you worked in television and then went to teaching?
Jessie Shternshus: Yes. I know, I know.
Jonny Nastor: In the research I was doing, I just totally made the assumption that it went the other direction.
Jessie Shternshus: No. I moved up to New York, and I got a theatre degree. So that’s another thing — people are always like, “Oh you’re never going to make any money with a theatre degree, ha ha ha. Your life’s going to be a big old joke or something.” Ha ha, little do they know now. Ha ha ha ha. So I went and moved to New York and started working for Sesame Street. Actually, it was amazing. It was a great job.
Jonny Nastor: Oh, that’s awesome.
Jessie Shternshus: I loved it. However, I felt — like I said — it wasn’t as creative as I would have hoped, and I had a couple of other television jobs. I don’t know what I was imagining. It was pretty creative, but I still had more ideas that I wanted to share, and I wasn’t in a position to be able to do that.
Then I moved back home to Florida and went into teaching because I’ve loved working with people and being with them on their journey to get to wherever they need to be. It wasn’t that far-fetched, I guess, and what’s nice about being a teacher is you’re in your own classroom, doing your own thing, or so I thought. Ha ha ha was I wrong. So then I decided to do my own thing and start my own business.
Jonny Nastor: Nice, and then you quit being a teacher. I wish we could talk about Sesame Street all day.
Jessie Shternshus: So do I. I could tell you stories that are hilarious.
Jonny Nastor: Really? Like some awesome ones?
Jessie Shternshus: Oh my God. We would spent the whole day deciding whether or not our new Muppet should have legs or not.
Jonny Nastor: Oh, wow.
Jessie Shternshus: Just really interesting, yeah. Hilarious. If you were to walk in the room, you would be like, “Really?”
Jonny Nastor: “This is what happens here?”
Jessie Shternshus: Yes, and it was very serious.
Jonny Nastor: Wow. Were there Muppets at the these meetings? I just imagine that all the cast gets to sit in on these.
Jessie Shternshus: Yes. They would bring Muppets. Sometimes we would go to Jim Henson, and they would show us the Muppets in drawers from the 1980s, which was very damaging to my childhood experience — to see the Muppets I grew up with in a drawer.
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome, though.
Jessie Shternshus: Maybe that’s why I quit.
Jonny Nastor: That could be, actually.
Jessie Shternshus: Could be, I don’t know. I’m figuring it all out right now on a podcast.
Jonny Nastor: Sesame Street to teaching to, “I’m going to start my own business.” Now you’ve started a business unlike any I’ve ever heard of before, and you have a history of working with some amazingly large companies.
Did you create a market for this or is there competition within your market space? How do you present this, or how do you even get your foot in to present it to a large company?
How Teaching Local Classes Helped Her Business Get Off the Ground
Jessie Shternshus: Sure. So I’ll start with how I started. Honestly, I started teaching a class and improv class locally. I’d been doing improv my whole life. I started it when I was 10 and always knew that improv and the skills I was getting from those classes were applicable to things far beyond the stage.
I knew from being very great at doing interviews, from having great, deep relationships with people, from being okay with who I was, even if I was a little silly or different. All those things came from improv, and I wanted to validate whether people would understand what I understood about improv by just teaching a class.
Luckily they did. So I taught one class. The first class had three people in it, in my hometown, and three became five, and five became eight. Then people started saying, “Oh, well, I don’t want to be a performer, but we could really use this at work.”
Letting Your Audience Come Up with Ideas on Their Own
Jessie Shternshus: I was like, “Yes! Okay, they get it.” I didn’t force feed them the idea. They came with a bit on their own, and then they honestly marketed it for me. They said, “Okay, come and work for us. Do this training, but do it with a slant on business,” which is what I wanted to do all along. I just needed to prove that it would work because I’m not a really big risk-taker. So that’s what I did to begin with.
Jonny Nastor: Did you feel that that might happen?
Jessie Shternshus: I really didn’t know. I hoped that it would happen, and I didn’t say, “By the end of the year, I want to be in some big company.” I set the goal as, “In the next six months to a year, I want to see if people can validate what I know is true by saying that these skills can be applied to a work scenario,” and they did. It turns out — not that I planned this — that they’re your best salespeople, because they’ve then experienced it. They could talk to it, but they also speak their company’s language better than I could because they’re there every day, and I’m not.
I used that, and as I grew my business, I would look back on the data on my business: what is working, what isn’t. It turns out that giving people a small experience of what I do, whether it’s at a local class or speaking at conferences or doing a workshop, turned out to be my best marketing tool ever because what I do is so experiential. It’s hard for people to understand it unless they’ve actually done it.
Jonny Nastor: Was the first, say, three-person classes that you held called The Improv Effect at this point?
Jessie Shternshus: It was not, no. It was just improv classes. Probably nine months into it, I figured I needed to make a name for myself, so and I decided to make it into a business rather than a just a little part-time hobby thing to keep me occupied. It really grew from one thing to the next and the next.
Like I said before, the best marketing tool for me to get into those big businesses, like you asked, was to get the opportunity to speak or to do some experiential talk or workshop at a conference. Then, I’m seen as an expert in front of hundreds and thousands of people who’ve all got a taste of something. Then, they can all go back to their business — either they are the decision-maker or they know the decision-maker — and they can talk to what things they got out of it, the value.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah. It’s like Content Marketing 101. It’s awesome, but it’s taken offline from the online world of what we would call a ‘blog’ or ‘video blogging.’ The person experiences you before they get to it, and then they can hopefully take it to their company and sell it to them themselves and then come back and hire you as the expert.
Jessie Shternshus: Exactly. I feel like that’s the best way that people learn in general. That’s why I teach the way that I do. I feel like the way things stick, the way you remember somebody’s message, the way you remember to do something, is by actually having gotten up and gone through it rather than being pitched at or lectured to.
That just makes it much easier. Those people could speak about what was their experience? What did they personally get out of it? How does this apply to their strategy and goals for their business for the year?
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, that’s excellent. So nine months after your first class, you decided you needed a name.
Jessie Shternshus: Yes.
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome. When did this become full time for you as a business?
Jessie Shternshus: Probably my second year. I didn’t make a whole lot of money in my second year, but in teaching, you also don’t make a lot of money, so my goals weren’t set very high. So I was like, “Yes! This is great.”
Jonny Nastor: That’s a good area to come from, then.
Jessie Shternshus: Right. So thank God my standards were low! Honestly, by probably year three, it just took off. By year four, I had other people that were training for me. I had my husband running all the logistics and running the accounting because I didn’t have any time to do that anymore.
It’s just gotten busier and busier because, at this point, a lot of it happens by word of mouth, where I’m working with a company over and over again. Or they’ve gone on to work at another company, and so they’ve brought me to their next company or their third company at this point.
It really worked out nicely, and like I said, I have goals that I set for myself. Sometimes it’s even based on places I want to go. I’m like, “Oh, I’d really like love to go to Prague this year. How can I get there?”
Jonny Nastor: Did you get to Prague?
Jessie Shternshus: Yes, I’ve gone to Prague, and I’m going again. I’m so excited.
Jonny Nastor: Oh, that’s amazing.
Jessie Shternshus: I love Prague. So it’s like reverse engineering: “Oh I’d like to go see this place,” or “I’d like to work with this company. How do I do that?” and being flexible on making sure that that happens.
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome. I love that. That’s like lifestyle design, being in business. It’s amazing.
Jessie Shternshus: Pretty much.
Jonny Nastor: That’s brilliant.
Jessie Shternshus: I feel like I’ve seen the world that way.
Jonny Nastor: By getting to do business at the same time.
Jessie Shternshus: Yeah, and business that I love. I really, honestly love every moment that I’m with a person, a team, a company. It’s fun. I created something that I love, and then I get to go to a place that I love to or haven’t seen. It’s pretty awesome.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, that is. So from this trajectory to year four of it completely taking off from you getting started with three people, it sounds like everything has gone perfectly the whole time. My guess is that it hasn’t.
So, as entrepreneurs and as humans in general, one of our greatest struggles is the fear of being wrong. When you’re creating a business and you are making decisions and you make mistakes and you fail, it’s hard sometimes to get through. Could you, Jessie, walk us through how to be wrong?
Jessie Shternshus: Yeah, actually, it’s a big tenet of improv. I know I sound like I’m some preacher or something, but I’m not.
Jonny Nastor: It’s okay.
Jessie Shternshus: Hallelujah! I should put on my Southern accent.
Anyway, being wrong or making mistakes is a tenet of improv. As improvisers, we learn to fail quick and learn from it and that mistakes are opportunities for seeing things from a different perspective.
Honestly, when I look back at my business, there are things that I tried that have worked, and there are things that I tried that haven’t worked. Because they haven’t worked quickly, I can figure out how to move on quickly, also. I try really hard to be self-aware and take in what’s working and what’s not and figure out which direction to push forward in.
Trusting Her Gut and Following Her Instincts
Jonny Nastor: Do you follow your gut, would you say, in that?
Jessie Shternshus: I do. I follow my gut. I don’t play chess, but I imagine if I did play chess, I think of every opportunity from three steps ahead in every direction I could possibly think of. Even if it seems like it would benefit me in the now, it might not benefit me in the long run.
I check my gut and say, “Okay, even though it feels good today, it could wind up going down the wrong path, so let’s not do it,” because I don’t have a business background or anything. I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. I didn’t even know how to spell ‘entrepreneur’ when I started.
Jonny Nastor: I still have trouble spelling it myself.
Jessie Shternshus: Exactly. Don’t ask me how to spell it, because I will give you a gibberish word right now.
I had to trust my gut and my instinct and stick to who I am. I don’t want to take any job where I feel like it changed who I am at its core. If it changed me from being somebody that I believe in to somebody who has terrible relationships with people, then I don’t want to be in business anymore. I don’t want to be that person.
Why Business Should Be Treated Like a Game of Chess
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, beautifully said. Just to go back, the chess analogy is awesome.
Jessie Shternshus: Oh.
Jonny Nastor: You should play one game of chess just so you can be like, “Yes, I play chess, and this is how I think of it,” rather than “I didn’t play chess.”
Jessie Shternshus: “So I’m amazing at chess. I played one time in my whole entire life.”
Jonny Nastor: Because it works well, though — it’s true, and that’s smart. You’re not taking the short-term ‘make money here’ to in the long run not have feel right that you’ve done it, and that’s smart.
Jessie Shternshus: Right, which would be like what you were saying in the beginning: “Is improvising winging it?” And it’s not. It’s saying, “This is the goal. What are the millions of ways we could go to get there, and which is the one that makes the most sense?”
Jonny Nastor: Exactly. You say that mistakes are opportunities and that you’ve learned to figure when things haven’t worked quickly and to change direction. Have you ever had something not work quickly, but your gut tells you that it’s going to work, and you just push though and push through and push through?
Jessie Shternshus: Honestly, not yet, so I will let you know when that happens because I’m sure it will. So far those mistakes — like I’ve said — I’ve learned from them. It might be because I’m not this huge risk taker.
My business is based on people training other people, so I don’t have a huge investment and overhead. I don’t have this million-dollar product I needed to invest in, so it’s really about being strategic with people.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah. Okay, so let’s move to, say, projects — which, projects can mean anything you do within your business, any new direction you take, any new service you provide. I see by looking that you teach speaking now. You do classes within corporations as you have since the beginning: the presentation skills, product development ideation sessions, all kinds of different things.
How do you determine now, Jessie, at this point in The Improv Effect, that there is a new project or a new idea and you guys should head in that direction also, or else not do this one anymore and move into another direction, without spreading yourself too thin and with feeling that you’re making the right move?
Jessie Shternshus: Wow, that’s a fantastic question. I would say a couple of things. First of all, we might get the opportunity for a job that falls under either the umbrella of communication or innovation, like you said, but that’s a lot of stuff. So for me, what I might do is, if I get a job that specifically was sales skills, and I also have a job that’s specifically with developers and innovation, I might choose to go in the innovation level, and I might put a different one of my trainers who really loves to do sales on that.
I picked people to work with me in my organization who have that improv and training background but have diverse joy in how to do it because like we said before, improv is everything we do in life, so it encompasses so many things it’s easy to spread yourself thin.
That’s the first thing. People have asked me to do courses online — where there’s no visual at all — and teach all this stuff, and I know that it makes more sense for our business to be in person as much as we can, or with video conferencing, if we’re going to teach, because so much is about that body language and eye contact and the dynamic happening between people in the room. So if they want me to do something else, I usually decline.
Jonny Nastor: Wow. Just because you won’t be able to provide the service that you want, or the value, I guess?
Jessie Shternshus: I think it doesn’t provide the value in the same way as either being on a video conference or being in person. That’s a hard decision to make because obviously the scalability of doing some something, a six-week course online, when there’s no visuals at all, would be very scalable, but I still feel like it doesn’t get to the essence of what The Improv Effect is really all about.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah. Excellent. So let’s end off with success and, let’s say, your career. There’s this thing that happens called the ‘entrepreneurial gap,’ which is apparently this phenomenon where entrepreneurs get so busy building our businesses and looking to the future that for every goal that we do accomplish, we just are instantly looking to the next five goals.
Jessie Shternshus: Oh my God. Did you read my diary?
Jonny Nastor: There’s this thing where we’re supposed to, as entrepreneurs, stop and turn around and look at what it is we have accomplished to date and ignore what is ahead of us for this very moment, just to appreciate where we’ve come and have accomplished, and I don’t think enough of us do it.
Jessie Shternshus: I think I’m breaking out in hives right now.
Jonny Nastor: Jessie, if we were to do this right now and you were to turn around, would you be happy with what you have accomplished to date as an entrepreneur — just right now and with the work you’ve put into it?
Jessie Shternshus: I would have to say yes. Like you said, I have a very hard time not moving on to the next thing after I’ve achieved something, but I would.
I feel like I have worked with a lot of people and a lot of companies. I’ve been able to employ other people and have helped an enormous amount of people on their journey to be more confident, to work better with each other, to have a better understanding of one another and why working with a diverse group of people is so important to both a team dynamic, their own individual goals, and even their creativity. I feel like I’ve been able to do that, and I hope to be able to continue to do that as long as I have my business. It’s just such a joy.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, excellent. I think you should be very proud of yourself, too, with what you have accomplished and what you are going to accomplish.
Jessie Shternshus: Thank you.
Jonny Nastor: So, Jessie, we’ve talked in passing about your business. Can you specifically tell the listeners where they can go find more about you and The Improv Effect, please?
Jessie Shternshus: Sure. You can go on TheImprovEffect.com on our website and find out more about us. We’re also on Twitter, @TheImprovEffect, and on Facebook, The Improv Effect. Go out and find out all about what we do. We would love to talk to you.
Jonny Nastor: Excellent. I will link to Twitter, Facebook, and ImprovEffect.com on the show notes so it’s easy for everyone to find. Jessie, please keep doing what you’re doing because it’s awesome to watch it. It’s inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to stop by.
Jessie Shternshus: Thank you so much.
Jonny Nastor: Jessie, thank you so much for that conversation. That was a lot of fun, and I should have expected that, I suppose. You do own a company called The Improv Effect. You do teach people about improvisation in interpersonal and presentation skills, so I should have just assumed that you’d knock it out of the park in an interview setting. I didn’t expect you to be that good.
It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it, and I love the feeling when I feel like I’ve made a friend in the half hour that I spent with you. That was really cool.
Jessie said a lot of smart things, didn’t she? She did. She said a lot of smart things, but she said one thing. Did you get it? Did you hear it? Let’s do it. Let’s find the hack.
Jessie Shternshus: Every opportunity, I look at it from three steps ahead in every direction I could possibly think of. And even if it seems like it would benefit me in the now, it might not benefit me in the long run. So I check my gut and say, “Okay, even though it feels good today, it could wind up going down the wrong path, so let’s not do it.”
Jonny Nastor: That’s the hack.
Yes, Jessie, exactly. I love the whole mindset like you’re playing chess in your business, always thinking three steps ahead, not just, “What is happening right now?” but, “What will happen three steps from the action that I’m going to take today?” Obviously, being successful and doing successful things is not expecting this one thing I do right now to pay off and be the big entrepreneurial lottery where I win and this is how it works.
It’s like, “No, you’ve got to think longer term, you’ve got to see a vision of where you want to be,” and then on the flip side, as Jessie said, check your gut. If something seems like it could potentially make you some money now, think about if it’s good for you, good for your customer, good for whoever it is that you are serving — if it’s good for them, too.
If it’s not good for them as well in the next three steps, then don’t do it, because it won’t serve the purpose. It won’t serve you and your business, and it won’t help your business grow and you to be successful three steps down the road. Think beyond today, always. It’s good to obviously live within today and live in the now to be able to celebrate what it is we do. Think long-term. Think three steps down the line.
Thank you so much for that Jessie. I really do appreciate that.
All right, guys, this has been a lot of fun. As always, thank you so much for stopping by. I have a huge favor to ask: HacktheEntrepreneur.com/iTunes — two minutes, maybe two minutes and twelve seconds, it’ll take you.
I need a review and a rating, five stars if you’re up for giving it to me. That’ll be amazing. An honest review — please leave it for me in iTunes. It helps the show so much to get more exposure and to get, obviously, more listeners, which therefore brings me more amazing guests like Jessie.
Please, if you are not on an iPhone, you can go to Stitcher.com and find me there and ‘Hack the Entrepreneur’ to search, or you can go to HacktheEntrepreneur.com/stitcher. I guess that’ll work too. Thank you so much. I do truly appreciate you stopping by and taking the half hour to hang out with Jessie and I. It has been a lot of fun.
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Thank you so much, guys. This has been a lot of fun, and until next time, please keep hacking the entrepreneur.