Julia Pistell, Co-Founding Member and Managing Director at Sea Tea Improv, spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about the challenges and rewards of launching a startup—and the importance of having a good laugh.
NAN PRICE: How did you go from being a group of people performing comedy to launching a startup?
JULIA PISTELL: We started organically. The seven founding members were taking improv classes at Hartford Stage. And like other entrepreneurs, we saw a gap. We realized there was no place in the Hartford area for aspiring or advancing comedians to get a lot of stage time. We all just wanted to do more comedy. It was that simple.
We did a couple of shows through Hartford Stage and gradually started doing monthly shows at City Steam. After a few years, we had grown a large audience, so we opened up teaching studios.
The mission of Sea Tea Improv has always been to “build, train, and lead a dedicated community of improvisers,” so opening our studios really helped us find that community.
After we opened those studios, we continued to grow our audience and started to really foster the talent and paths of other local comedians. We decided to open a theater once we had enough comedians that we knew we could create a good enough product for the city of Hartford.
We launched a Kickstarter for an improv theater in Hartford back in April 2015, which very quickly became the most successful improv Kickstarter of all time—isn’t that cool? We immediately negotiated our lease and began the buildout, and just opened our doors in August 2016.
NP: Let’s talk about developing the business concept.
JP: Sea Tea Improv officially became a company in April 2009. We worked on a business plan right away, which I think is the reason we’re still here today. We immediately treated it as something very serious—and something where we would have to simultaneously grow our audience and our talent.
At the time, most people in Connecticut had a little familiarity with improv, but they didn’t really know what it was. So we had to create awareness, get people to come to our shows, and become talented enough to maintain that audience. We were thinking: We’ll get good enough to do this professionally, if you’ll come and see our shows.
It was a big, bold leap of faith. That’s one of our principles: Make bold choices.
Our business plan was centered on growing the community around our product. We were always questioning: How can we be inclusive? How can we make people in the audience feel comfortable? How can we grow the love of the art form in the audience and the community? That’s how we grew organically. And it worked!
NP: Can we talk about funding?
JP: Sure. A lot of people think we are a nonprofit because we’re an arts organization, but we’re not. We’re an LLC.
Our costs are very low. We don’t have lights, sets, costumes, or any of the normal theater stuff. We essentially just pay our people, our rent, and related expenses. Right now our costs are now mostly covered by our ticket sales, class sales, and training, which is great.
In the past we’ve gotten some grants at times where we needed a big leap. And we currently have a loan for the build out of our space.
Also, we did a Kickstarter when we were planning on opening the space. It became the most successful improv-related Kickstarter in Kickstarter history.
We had this hugely successful Kickstarter, but it doesn’t cover the cost of the space. No way! So you have to communicate with your audience that just because we raised what looks like a tremendous amount of money doesn’t mean we are rolling dough. Things are expensive.
I come from nonprofits, where donors and customers often treat “overhead” as a dirty word. People don’t want to think of their money as going to electric bills, toilet paper, and even payroll—but these are the costs of running a space. Just like any arts organization, we have the costs of running and staffing our spaces (in this case, the theater and the eight rooms we rent as teaching studios). It adds up. I encourage anyone who’s thinking of running a business to include every single thing you can think of in your budget—you’ll use it!
NP: How are you marketing and building a customer base?
JP: The main way we build everything is through collaboration. In the beginning, not having a physical space was a huge advantage. The group would perform at the Wadsworth Atheneum, The Mark Twain House, City Steam, and the Funny Bone in Manchester. Because of that, we were tapping into all of those places’ audiences. And then we developed a following as a group.
It was great because it took a lot of the marketing pressure off of us in certain ways. Plus we didn’t have the financial burden or time suck involved with running our own space. We were just going out—essentially like a band—seeing where we could book ourselves and then growing from there.
I think most business owners get excited about having their own office, studio, or performance space—but I would highly recommend seeing how far you can get without them. It’s a much lower-risk way to test the waters and see if you can develop an audience.
NP: So now that that’s changed. You have your own space and you do have that “time suck.”
JP: It’s changed a lot. It’s a lot harder having a space, because there are so many other things you have to learn stay on top of it. It’s different, but we’ve never been afraid to grow.
That being said, I absolutely love it and the theater is my second home. Probably my first home, if we’re measuring how much time I spend in it!
NP: Are you still “touring the band?”
JP: Yes. We still perform at City Steam every month. It builds our audience and it’s completely different to be in City Steam versus being in our own space, which is more like a theater.
Our touring company started with just seven people. Only four of those are still in the touring company, but we now have a total of 30 people.
NP: Regarding your journey as an entrepreneur, what have you learned along the way?
JP: You have to become an expert in everything from the top to the bottom. There’s no part of the job you can skip. Programs, marketing, finance, hiring, artistic work, education, community relations, sales... I’ve touched all of these parts of our company. I’m better for it, but it was and still is a huge learning curve. However, you can delegate.
Another thing I’ve learned is the importance of having a team that’s oriented to our mission. It’s easy to say: I like this person’s marketing or accounting skills. But with a startup, if they are not into your mission there’s going to be this drag. So when we bring people on, we look for them to really get what we’re doing and be on board in every way.
We’d rather train someone who loves comedy and loves Hartford than bring someone in and try and convince them of the worthiness of our mission.
NP: Speaking of loving Hartford, let’s talk about the importance of community and your role as Managing Director and Manager of the Touring Company. You’ve put together workshops and shows for the homeless, Alzheimer’s caregivers, teenagers, corporate executives, and artists.
JP: We love serving the Greater Hartford community. And we are very Hartford proud because there’s so much opportunity here. I’ve lived in other places and I think that’s a lot more unusual than people realize.
Our theater space on Pratt Street in Hartford is a great example. It was empty for almost 20 years. So we were not only able to have the space for ourselves but we were also able to fill a space for Hartford.
Regarding those programs you mentioned, we started those because we were approached by various companies: Travelers Insurance, Hebrew Health Care, Adobe, and Neighborhood Studios, as a few examples. Dozens—maybe hundreds, I’ll have to count—of companies have come to us asking what improv can offer them. It’s always so much fun to put together a customized program for them, because every group is different and every workshop is a new challenge.
But doing programs like that has turned into my personal favorite aspect of our company because it shows how our product can help people and connect to the community. Now that those programs have gone successfully, we’ve been asked to do them nationally.
In the past few months we’ve been flown out to Indianapolis to discuss improv for dementia caretakers and Baltimore to present improv for political organizations.
NP: We talked about some of the challenges to launching the startup. Is there anything you wish you could go back and change?
JP: Sure. For a start, things that seemed like a big deal in the beginning turned out not to be a big deal, which is just life in general. I wish I could go back and tell myself to enjoy it even more. It’s like watching a baby grow up—I miss those early days!
We’ve always struggled internally whenever we’re at a point of huge growth or about to take a big leap—like opening the space, or adding a lot of members. So I think having people move on from the company, letting leadership shift, or taking on new people has been challenging for us at times.
One of the great things for us is every single thing we do is different. So every time we make a mistake, the next day we have a chance to fix it. Our product is different every day. That’s what improv is.
A lot of our strength is how flexible we have been. In the beginning, there are things we could’ve negotiated better, like pricing. I think we undervalued ourselves at first. So yes, I would go back and tell ourselves to charge more.
NP: That’s a good tip. Experiencing failure and making mistakes is a huge part of the entrepreneurial endeavors journey—well, in anyone’s life.
JP: That’s true. For us, the most obvious failure we could have is no one shows up. And that applies to any business: No one buys your product. You create something awesome and no one wants it.
We’re dealing with that now. We’ve increased our number of shows so the audiences are smaller. A big challenge right now is making the experience still seem cool if there are only 10 or 15 people as opposed to 50 people in the room. So really controlling the audience experience.
NP: Improvisation and innovation seem to go hand in hand. How do you stay innovative?
JP: Innovation is literally our business—every single show and workshop we do is completely different and responsive to our audience. So we have a huge advantage there. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s still a regular business in that we have to sell our product to keep going. But doing improv teaches you listening and collaborating skills.
Our company is pretty flat. We have a lot people give us ideas. Our customers give us ideas all the time. And we just agree to them, which is how we stay innovative—listening to our audience and listening to the other improvisers who perform at our theater. For us, innovation is a habit.
NP: You’ve used the phrase “sell our product.” I usually ask other startups why someone needs their product or service. For me personally, I couldn’t live without comedy. I have to laugh every single day. So perhaps it’s an easy sell?
JP: Me too! I think people need comedy. When you go to an improv show, the audience is providing their ideas, suggestions, and information. Whatever is on their minds is being interpreted by a group of artists. That’s a great way to communicate with your city and communicate with local artists. So for performance, that’s the value.
We do a lot of classes and workshops and give back to the community. The value there is also huge because it gives people skills to listen to each other and speak in a way that doesn’t shut other people down. And everyone needs that.
We also do a lot of corporate training, which I like because we’re taking people’s habits and breaking them down. Then they realize that they’re not really listening to their employees or coworkers. So there’s a huge value there, too.
NP: Any advice for those other startups?
JP: I’m sure every startup says this, but whatever you think the costs are to open your business they are probably about a quarter of what they’re actually going to be. Being mentally prepared for that is very important.
People rush, but there’s no rush. If your business is going to last—if you want it to last—spend a while making sure you like it before you commit to a huge amount of debt whether it’s financial or time.
Also, don’t be afraid to grow slowly. I think with startup culture there’s an aggressive feeling that you have to do everything you can—burn yourself out, put in 100 hours a week, and grow big really fast. And that’s fine if it happens. However, there’s a lot of reward to growing slowly because you don’t fly too close to the sun and then totally fall apart.
We spent seven years building up to opening a space. And there’s no way we should’ve opened even one year earlier. We just weren’t ready. We wouldn’t have had an audience, we wouldn’t have had enough talented improvisers, and we wouldn’t have had the relationship with our neighbors and leaders in the city of Hartford to get a good lease and to work out great terms.
So my advice is to spend the first couple of years building relationships, because you’re going to have to cash in on every last one of them at some point!
At the end of the day, it’s all about the people. It’s human beings who are on your stage, in your audience, renting you your rooms, fixing your plumbing, and buying your products. Get to know them and treat them well, and you’ll be fine.