Q&A with Karen Hough, Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge

When COVID hit, Karen Hough found business down by a whopping 90 percent. But she leveraged her skills in improvisation, adaptability, and flexibility to pivot her business training to the virtual world.

In June 2020, Karen was one of the grand prize winners of the WBENCPitch Pivot tournament. This blog is part of a series highlighting the women entrepreneurs who pivoted their businesses and stepped outside of the box to create or offer products, services, and solutions that fill supply chain gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic. WBENC is proud to tell the stories of these incredible women business owners and showcase their resilience and innovation.

Read our Q&A with Karen Hough on how she pivoted her business, what’s next for ImprovEdge, and some great tips for how to deliver a successful business pitch.

How was your business impacted by COVID-19?

Things were pretty scary for a while because within a matter of a few days, our business was down by a whopping 90%. However, one of our clients asked us to reconfigure about 300K of in-person training to virtual training, and deliver it in less than two weeks. Prior to COVID-19, only about 5% of our business was virtual so we worked day and night to pivot this training so it was as impactful virtually as it would have been in-person. In addition, our ensemble had to deliver this training at 4 AM our time because this client was overseas. Our clients said we exceeded their expectations for interactivity and efficacy in virtual experiences!

How did you pivot your business to survive and thrive through this crisis?

We pivoted our business in four major ways. First, we redesigned our programs. Previously only 5% of our programs were delivered virtually and we had to redesign most of our business from in-person to virtual. Second, we realigned business development strategy by reaching out to clients simply to connect with empathy, check in on them personally to see if they needed anything, not to make sales. Third, we created a new consulting category. Having delivered training virtually for seven years, our clients asked for our help in selecting the right virtual platforms for their needs, training them on how to leverage the platforms, and how to show up virtually. Showing up virtually as a leader has different challenges than showing up in person. Lastly, we made web site updates and increased PR efforts so we can remain relevant and share our learning with people who need it right now.

What have you learned about yourself and your leadership style throughout this process?

Change and the unexpected is our stock in trade as improvisors. The ImprovEdge ensemble has been virtual for all 22 years of our existence and that experience, coupled with the fact that are improvisors, really helped us to think on our feet and adapt quickly.

When all of these massive changes came around, we stopped and listened to our clients, pivoted our business, and as a result, our pipeline is almost as strong as it was pre-COVID-19.

At the same time, I also learned that I had to be really honest and clear about our challenges and that I didn’t have a crystal ball. I learned that we all will work until we almost break, and it’s my responsibility as a leader to make sure we don’t burn out. We’re still improvising, figuring out the next surprise, and grateful to be here.

What’s next for your business?

We are so grateful to be one of the Grand Prize Winners of the WBENCPitch Pivot. We intend to use the grant to upgrade our technology and equipment so our ensemble can continue to deliver the best virtual training experience as possible for our clients.

In addition, our pipeline is strong and we will continue to deliver business skills training with an improv twist around the world virtually for now and in-person when it’s safe to do so. In fact, our diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings continue to be in-demand given that companies are seeking highly interactive ways to train their people so they can practice new skills in real-time and have immediate and practical take-aways. In addition, we have been so fortunate to receive media attention due to our response to COVID-19 and enjoy sharing valuable information as much as we can. On top of sharing information with the media, we are currently creating new white papers and infographics so our message and tips are easily and instantly shareable across social media platforms.

Our plan to scale and grow our business is working, though this has been a serious bump. We continue to explore how we can transform to serve our clients, our ensemble and our communities.

What piece of advice would you give to other women business owners or aspiring business owners on how to best navigate a crisis?

Improvise by embracing the core improvisation philosophy of “Yes, and.” That is what we do as improvisors! We say, “yes,” to acknowledge the realities of what we are facing in any situation, then follow it up with, “and,” which allows us to be creative, see opportunities amidst the crisis, and create a successful path forward.

What do you think makes for a successful business pitch?

We were so inspired after the WBENCPitch Pivot program that we wrote a blog post with a few tips about pitching. These are also some of the tips we cover when we train on Presentation Skills and are in Karen Hough’s (our CEO) book called Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes, and Win Them Over.

  1. Bookends: Start and end with a bang. Not only should the opening hook be fabulous, the closing has to wow as well. A story, statistic, prop, or quote are good options. The idea here is you need to give your audience a reason to be receptive to your pitch at the beginning and remember it once it’s over.
  2. Practice: It’s amazing how often people don’t stand up and work their pitch out loud or blow their chances because they didn’t take the timing seriously. You absolutely must rehearse! Stand up, say it out loud, and time yourself. Keep your pitch as short as possible by working out your talking points and removing redundancies.
  3. Vocal Warm-up: Your voice is a persuasive tool. Without warming-up your voice, your tone can be scratchy or monotone, or you stumble over your words. You may feel funny doing a vocal warm up, yet the energy you bring to your pitch through the tone of your voice and even your body language will either convey confidence or not. For starters, simply stand up straight and hum as low and high as you can. Then roll your shoulders and shake out the jitters. A few jumping jacks never hurt anyone, either!

How has being a WBENC-Certified WBE helped during this crisis?

We have been reminded of the many, many resources the WBENC provides businesses to help them thrive. It’s like having a cheerleader for your business, and we are thankful for the connections and support.

ImprovEdge provides business training with an improv twist. The powerful behaviors of adaptability, flexibility from improv are combined with research in neuroscience and human behavior.
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Karen Hough
Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge

Karen Hough, Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, is a #1 Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post, recipient of the Silver Stevie International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year, the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business and the Outstanding Women award from the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. Board member, Yale graduate, avid hiker, wife and mother of three, she lives in Ohio.