A new hobby that’s making me a better founder

“Things you wouldn’t do in a shared cab!” — yells out an audience member who also happens to be an actor. Santosh, does his best Drew Carey impression and signals that we must go on. As I signal to Saurabh to come and help me with the scene, there’s a chuckle he hides while he walks toward the stage to act as my co-passenger. He knows that things are going to get nasty. All filters have been deactivated. No one knows what I’m about to do. Not even Saurabh. I turn towards him and, while singing the good old 90s jingle for Britannia Cream Treat, lick his face. The audience loses it and erupts into laughter. That’s just one of the hundreds of scenes that make up a chunk of my weekends these days. More on that in a minute.

I’m not a first-time founder. Technically, I ran a services company before I started Eventosaur but the learnings from there only helped me become a better sales and Ops guy. However, that very valley-esque mentality of learning from everything around one and applying it to one’s startup is new to me. So, bear with me and if there’s one thing you take away from this post, let it be that you can learn something useful and cool from almost anything and anyone.

It’s been over a year since we bought the Eventosaur dot com domain and almost everything I do outside the company teaches me how to run it better. Around the time we started up, I started working out and the discipline from that habit has shaped how we function. That’s a story for another day though. Also, working out isn’t a hobby. It’s a lifestyle change. I eat better, sleep better and lift heavy pieces of metal off the ground to make sure I like what I see in the mirror and continue to feel the same way for several years to come. Hobbies are what we had as kids. The list of things we wrote in our friends’ slam books. Those were hobbies. Those competitions we participated in during school fests were hobbies. Like most of you reading this post, to me growing up meant lesser time for hobbies.

Like every kid from the 90s who had access to cable TV, I grew up watching Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Drew Carey, Wayne Brady and several others make an entire generation laugh via their show ‘Whose line is it anyway?’

A few months I got to attend an improv performance with one of my co-founders and after a long day at work, we found it to be an amazing stressbuster. To cut a long story short, I’d ‘like’d their Facebook page and got notified when they were conducting auditions. Now, those of you who know me IRL have been treated to at least one penis joke or a pun that made you go “Govinda.” However, I haven’t been on stage as an actor in over a decade and I wasn’t really sure if I would be up for it. I missed acting though and had even posted a photo on Facebook recently from my teenage years.

Me as Srinivasa Nayaka (Purandara Dasa)

I was pretty nervous about auditioning because I’d never done comedy on-stage except during serious sessions that revolved around tech or design. Clearly, I wasn’t as bad as I thought I’d be and am now part of the team. Virtual Hi5 to all of you. The group is called IamProwise and you can follow us here. There will be timely updates about the shows we have and occasionally some funny videos as well.

Now, for the main part of the post. Yes, everything you read so far was fluff. Although I have only begun experimenting with Improv, there are a handful of lessons it has already taught me.

Yes, and…

One of the most basic rules of improv is “Yes, and…” Like all great things, improv is a team game. To be good at it, the team on stage has to function like one unit. The easiest way to that is by following this rule. Essentially, it states that when a co-actor acts out a scenario or says a line, your first instinct must be to agree with it and add to it. It sounds simple enough, but is extremely hard to follow unless one makes a conscious effort. Whether you’re on stage with your co-actors or in a standing meeting with your team, it is extremely easy to disagree with people. The harder yet better approach is to listen, observe, understand, agree and then contribute to the thoughts shared by those around you.

Entertain yourself first

As a performer and a founder, the obvious goals are to keep the audience and users (respectively) happy. However, quite often we forget what we’re in it for. I do improv because I enjoy it. I like making myself chuckle. I run a company because I enjoy getting to choose who I work with. I enjoy being a part of hundreds of stories. Amidst all the pressure to please others, it is easy to forget to entertain yourself. Never stop doing the things that make you chuckle, pump a fist in the air, or laugh like Monica Geller.

Trust your team unconditionally

One of the exercises we start our improv practice sessions is simple yet enlightening. All of us walk around the room in random direction while we count to 20. There is no predetermined order in which we yell out numbers. Anyone can start and anyone else can say the next number. If 2 or more of us count out loud together, we restart the exercise. What does this achieve, you ask? It teaches us to pay attention to our teammates. It teaches us to trust that someone else will count even if you don’t and that the game will go on. It teaches us to be comfortable amidst silence. Most importantly, it teaches us to develop a strong bond that helps us truly “get” each other. Improv is all about chemistry between the actors. A startup too benefits greatly from chemistry. Setu and I still come up with the exact same ideas every time we have a conference call. TJ and I routinely complete each other’s sentences. This has even led to the infamous #Tjois tag among his circles. Trust your team. You’re all bound by the same goal and all of you have skin in the game. Chemistry makes everything magical.

Be a great listener and observer

If I don’t pay heed to what my co-actors are doing or saying on-stage there is no way what I follow up with will make sense or be funny. Being in a hurry to opine can lead to misinformed/flawed ideas and even damaged chemistry. Being a patient listener and an observant spectator has helped me greatly on-stage, in meeting rooms and during design sprints alike. I have a long way to go before I can call myself a good listener but Improv is certainly helping me get better at it.

Be dependable

The biggest and most important lesson Improv can teach people is to be dependable. As a performer, I need to give my co-actors a reason to trust me. My presence on stage ought to give them a feeling of security above all else. The same holds good at work. An early lesson I learnt in my career is that being dependable is what makes people invaluable. Show up when people need you and do what is expected of you.

It may sound like an exaggeration, but I truly do think Improv has made me a better founder and person. Who knew knowing how to turn any thought into a dick joke and not having a fear of large crowds would lead to this,eh?

My first show is coming up soon. We’re performing on the 19th of June, 2016 at Tippler — on the roof. You can find out more about the event here and book tickets here. I’d love to see you folks there and make you laugh. Do come by and say hi.