What is your full name, title, and business name?
Karen Hough, CEO of ImprovEdge
Give us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.
ImprovEdge provides business training with an improv twist. We combine the powerful behaviors of adaptability, flexibility, and think-on-your-feet success from improv with research in neuroscience and human behavior. Your leaders and teams walk out with real skills they can use immediately for better outcomes and knowledge that will help them grow for their entire career. With 50+ clients in the Fortune 500, and 500k people developed from around the globe, ImprovEdge is recognized as one of the top 1% of women-owned businesses in the U.S. We passionately believe #improvchangeseverything.
How did the idea for your business come about?
After graduating from Yale, I became a professional actor and improviser in Chicago training and performing with Second City and other improv troupes, doing theater, film and radio. After I got married, I was enjoying success as an actor in New York when I had the ridiculous opportunity to go into a tech startup. It was an Oops to Eureka! moment. Oops to Eureka! is an improv concept that demands we embrace the unexpected and find the discovery. In tech, I crammed and took classes every night and improvised during the day. Although I didn’t have the experience of many of the engineers, I could think on my feet in front of clients, come up with creative solutions, and roll with the unexpected. I kept getting promoted and ended up working in three different start-ups – one went public and one was acquired. It was crazy and difficult and I loved it. The Wharton School of Business agreed to let us test the idea of using improv as a behavioral learning tool in 1998 – we were the first training company in the world to integrate improv, back it up with research in neuroscience and psychology, and trademark our principles. I bought out my partners and incorporated in 2005. We now serve 50+ Fortune 500 companies, startups, and mid-level enterprises both in the U.S. and internationally.
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
I always knew it was special, even when other improvisers told me I was crazy. One day, I had the opportunity to work with Ologie, a marketing company in Columbus, Ohio. After engaging in just one workshop with us, leadership told me that they were so impressed and committed to the format of our work, they wanted to collaborate. Not only that, they wanted to create a brand that showed the power and efficacy of our work. As a struggling entrepreneur, I couldn’t have been more thrilled – they even let me trade workshop services for the price of my brand refresh. It was an updated version of the barter system! Having that validation from such a respected group meant a great deal to me. Their partnership and feedback helped me move to the next plane of delivery and development.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
Being an entrepreneur and business owner means having a responsibility to my employees, my community, and myself. This improv idea has grown beyond me and has impacted many people around the world – it’s important that I am true to our values and live by example of the things that we teach.
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
Columbus was the surprise ace in the hole! My business was still a side-hustle when I arrived. I had no idea what a great place this would turn out to be – so many client headquarters, so much local talent, affordable start-up costs, and a creative, entrepreneurial spirit.
Are you from Columbus? If not, please explain what brought you to here and ultimately what made you stay.
My husband, Todd Majidzadeh, was born and raised here in Columbus and came back to help manage his family’s engineering consulting firm. We love it so much that we have raised our kids and our businesses here.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
Don’t quit your day job right away! There are many ways to test your ideas, pilot your services, and get feedback before taking the plunge. It’s important to have not only a plan for your business, but a plan for your family, finances, and life.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
There are organizations and resources to help, and those keep getting better every day. I owe a great deal to NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners) and the companies that were my early clients. I also owe a thanks to Key Bank, for my first business loan, and the Key4Women program. It provided insight, connections, and allowed me to serve on the Board, and Key Bank was eventually a client.
What’s the most challenging part of your business (i.e, what keeps you up at night)?
It’s always “What’s next?” We’re in a state of continual innovation – how can we keep serving our clients in innovative and improvisational ways? How can we approach our market and our clients in a high-touch, yet efficient way? Always a question keeps me up!
Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?
I’m classified as a Visionary Thinker – I can see the future and see exactly what can grow and improve our business. The ability to build the plan to get there is not always my forte. Thank goodness for my amazing ensemble to whom I owe the greatest debt for their patience and capabilities!
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
There is plenty of research out there about the difficulties facing small businesses. I do know that I’ve had drive, perseverance, and an extremely strong work ethic my entire life. I got it from my parents and grandparents, and it has pulled me through even the darkest moments in building ImprovEdge. I’ve also failed a lot, but failure doesn’t scare me.
What was your biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
We hit a really rough patch almost five years ago – I kept accessing debt to fill the gaps and making excuses for people who I cared about, but who weren’t equipped to make the business successful. I waited way too long to make some tough decisions and it almost cost me the business. Tough decisions are part of my job description and I won’t shirk that again.
What tool has helped you the most for your business (invoicing, accounting, shipping, plugin for website, etc.)?
Zoom! It’s a fantastic, simple video conferencing platform. It’s part of our initiative to serve our international clients.
When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?
I’ve always had an ensemble of contractors. I hired my first employee when I realized we would get stuck if I kept doing all the day-to-day work.
What is something that you did that was a game changer for your business?
I started hiring my most talented contractors on a full-time basis. Now we all wear several hats because we deeply understand the business and are all owning the future.
What was an idea that you spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference in your business that didn’t pan out?
We spent way too much time and money pursuing trade associations in a certain industry. Although associations in other industries have been wonderful partners, we should have cut bait on this vertical much earlier.
What is something that your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?
My ensemble! We try to pay well, make sure they have comfortable travel, get professional development, and flexible work arrangements. They are everything!
What is something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
We’re developing really exciting content around culture and inclusion. We’ve been working in this space for many years and it’s so exciting to see the world responding to the need for more inclusive and aware workplaces. I feel we are at the front of that effort.
What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
Word of mouth – our amazing clients are our best billboards and I’m so grateful to them!
Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?
My husband and also my amazing network of other female entrepreneurs. They really understand and often have fantastic advice.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
We’ll be serving clients in ways we can’t even imagine now. We now provide the best development experience you’ve ever had – in the future it will be on all sorts of new live and virtual platforms. Our talent development and management will be the model for employee development.
What is your revenue range?
$1mm – $5mm
When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?
I shut off all technology, speak to people in a live setting, spend time with my family, hike, do yoga and swimming, and get to the spa every now and then!
What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?
It’s absolutely the hardest work you will ever do. We’ve had a few hires that didn’t work out – they seemed like a fit and said they understood it would be hard work. I don’t think they realized just how complex, demanding, and time-consuming it is to be part of a small enterprise. You really have to love it!
What’s your end goal with the business? Is this something you want to pass down to your kids or would you like to eventually sell?
All options are on the table right now. We’ve had interest from buyers, but I also see a future where my employees might buy out the business and do great things with it!
How would your business fare if the economy hit a nasty downturn like it did in 2008? Have you prepared for this?
Strangely enough, that downturn was a boost to business. When suddenly everyone was faced with terrible, unexpected issues, our message of flexibility and adaptability was resonant. In improv we have no script, no big set, and no budget. We have to rely on the team to make it all work. That adaptability and flexibility was exactly what the U.S. business world needed. How have I prepared for this? Improvisers are the most over-prepared people in the performance industry. It’s in our blood at ImprovEdge. We prepare for everything because we never know what great, unexpected thing could happen.
What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?
Other women entrepreneurs around the world. I get to know them when I can and watch their ascent from the wings, applauding, when they’re far away!
If you had to tell a visitor one thing to do/see/eat in Columbus, what would it be?
Visit our metro parks. We’re lucky to have such beautiful spaces and I’m an avid visitor, no matter what the weather!