VC and Startup How-To's

Founder Reflexes: Applying Lessons from Improv for Startup Success

One of the most powerful maxims of improv is ‘yes, and…’. Improvisation, or improv, is a genre of unscripted performance, and it is often created with a group of people. In comedy, improv troupes often interact with their audiences to produce a unique entertainment experience. Anything can happen – surprises are to be expected. Improv performers embody the ‘yes, and’ maxim to build colorful scenes together: when one improv performer announces their fellow performer is a flying squirrel, the performer responds with, “Yes! And you are my ex-wife flying squirrel’, or ‘Yes! And while we are falling through the stratosphere after being ejected from a Boeing 737, I am the only one who will survive!’. The content of what comes after ‘yes, and’ is immaterial – what makes a scene magically materialize is the confirmation of what a fellow improv artist suggests as well as a subsequent action. Hilarity often ensues, and the audience is taken for a wild ride that not even the performers themselves know how will end.

We Are All Flying Squirrels

What’s also remarkable about improv is its translation to running a startup. The scene is centered on a startup team, and the improv performers include fellow startup team members, customers, mentors, competitors, lawyers, investors, and all the stakeholders involved during the startup’s existence. As with improv, anything can happen – surprises are to be expected. But instead of the surprise being that your fellow improv performer has declared himself a flying squirrel, the surprise could be that your customer’s business head who is spearheading your contract just left the company (this happened to me), or a prospective investor commits to closing your round and suddenly informs you they will be out-of-pocket for the near future (also happened to me). Surprise!

What do you do in these situations? You confidently say, ‘Yes, and!!!’ Acknowledge what the improv performer - in this case, a VC – has presented to the scene. Do not deny it, or fantasize about how it could play out, or wait to respond – confirm the reality of the situation. And then, promptly act! “YES, you appear no longer interested in closing our round, AND I will be letting another VC who has expressed interest to close the round instead.” If a competitor comes out with a new product with a similar feature to yours, you can say, “YES, this competitor has either copied or updated their product to make a similar offering, AND we are always innovating to make our features better for our customers and therefore more competitive.”

The Founder Reflex

As with improv, the ensuing action plan is generated in real-time. This ‘yes, and’ mode of action becomes what I call the Founder Reflex. Even when your action following the acknowledgement of a situation is not optimal, founders with excellent Founder Reflexes are able to iterate again and again to converge to the best outcome in the shortest period of time: ’yes, and…yes, and…yes, and…Surprise!…yes, and…Success!’. Founder Reflexes are crucial to hone during the early stages of a startup due to the high risks and short runways. Faster improvisation yields faster results, so the performance of your startup will ultimately be fast-paced with many wins (and perhaps, even mildly entertaining) on the world’s stage.