Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price met with The Bolder Company’s founding partners, Ellen Feldman Ornato and Jenny Drescher, to discuss their startup journey and how they encourage others to be bolder.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. Have either of you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
ELLEN FELDMAN ORNATO: Yes. My father owned the Milt’s Army Navy Store in Bloomfield, CT when I was growing up and I worked there from the time I was 12 through high school.
Prior to launching my first company, I had corporate jobs in municipal government/planning, economic development, and retail marketing. Then, in 1997, I started my own business doing public relations, event marketing, sponsorship sales, and special events.
NAN: Jenny, how about you? Do you want to talk about your entrepreneurial experience?
JENNY DRESCHER: I do have entrepreneurial experience prior to this, but not nearly as many years as Ellen. I spent more time in different corporate arenas doing operations, sales, and accounting. I didn’t break free of Corporate America until 2013.
I always wanted to do things differently, which got me in trouble in most corporate settings. Becoming an entrepreneur was a natural fit for me because entrepreneurship is about creating the rules that work best for you, even if they’re unusual.
NAN: That’s very entrepreneurial.
JENNY: It wasn’t until I started studying entrepreneurship that I understood that! I do have a strong entrepreneurial drive, it’s just that it never had expression and I didn’t have a model for it. I think it’s cool that Ellen grew up with her dad as an entrepreneur, so she’s had that role model.
NAN: How did you to come together?
ELLEN: We met in 2003 and came together around an entrepreneurial venture. It was a multi-level marketing business. We became best friends almost immediately.
JENNY: We’re fond of saying we ditched the business and kept each other. We both opted out of multi-level marketing and stayed friends.
Ellen had been doing facilitation and training for several years. I’m a certified life coach and I coached part time for years even before I left corporate America. I also did a lot of freelance training and facilitation before we started the company.
Ellen and I started taking theatrical comedy improvisation classes together through Sea Tea Improv in Hartford and then from Happier Valley Comedy in Hatfield, MA. We’ve learned from all different people from all around the world, which is great.
Improvisation has a wonderful diversity of thought leaders and teachers. I began applying improvisation to coaching and designing personal development programs that include improvisation to help move people forward in their learning.
In 2014, Ellen agreed to go with me to the Applied Improvisational Network conference in Austin, TX. It was our first AI world conference. We looked at each other and said: Why are we not doing this together?!
NAN: Soon after you launched ConnectAnd Improv. Tell us about that.
JENNY: We started designing and delivering programs as soon as we came back from Texas. We delivered our first workshop that was fully co-created under the ConnectAnd Improv brand on April 18, 2015.
ELLEN: We’ve blended improvisational exercises with some more traditional facilitation to create an experience where people are always up and moving. It pulls from the best of Jenny’s coaching philosophy and the best of what I’ve learned about facilitation and makes the learning experience become joyful.
We developed our first class, ConnectAnd Stand Out!, because we were both individual entrepreneurs trying to find clientele for our respective businesses by going to networking events.
ConnectAnd Stand Out! was designed to teach people how to show up with better presence in networking environments. The need for additional workshops grew from that. People wanted help with public speaking, so we developed a nine-week curriculum.
NAN: You developed clientele from ConnectAnd Improv. How are you marketing?
ELLEN: We’re still a growing enterprise that doesn’t want to be cashed-strapped. We keep our overhead in check and don’t really spend money on collateral. We create as we need it. Almost 100% of our work has come from showing up at networking events, being the keynote speakers at an event, or contributing to a panel. Our work comes from people who tell people. We’ve gotten pretty skilled at figuring out where to show up and then following up.
JENNY: I would say that has definitely been the path that has gotten us where we are. Now that we’ve hit a certain threshold of success, we’re noticing places where some of that is shifting. We started to go into more companies with samples than to run public things, which is more strategic, more cost-effective, and more efficient.
NAN: What were the biggest challenges you faced as you were starting out?
JENNY: The first hurdle we had to overcome was the fact that we were best friends starting a business together. We quickly recognized that we had something dynamic and unique to bring to the marketplace. We were going places and it was going to grow fast. We saw that and, in its own way, that scared us because we didn’t want to lose each other. Our friendship was the most important thing to us. We decided it will always come first no matter what happens, even if the business imploded.
ELLEN: I remember early on we did a business planning retreat in Vermont. The whole first day was around strategies: What are your assets? What are my assets? What are we going to? Where are our areas of expertise? What are our shortfalls? We just dumped everything out. Then we both separately wrote down our biggest fear. We had the exact same thing: Fear of losing each other as friends.
That became one of our core values: Have fun and be playful. Make your partner look great. And listen from a place of curiosity. If those are our values with everyone we’re teaching, to be in integrity with that we must practice those values with each other.
JENNY: Part of our evolution has been through this understanding of growing a business by doing the things you say you’re going to do, which sounds so simple. We all know what it is we need to do. But when do we behave that way? What does it really mean to “be the change?”
ELLEN: Another challenge has been knowing when to say no and knowing when to get support. We hired coaches all along the way—everything from a strategic business coach to someone who worked in the applied improvisation world to help us get to the next level and then we worked with someone who is helping us with sales and marketing.
NAN: You’re four years into the company. How have you evolved and what have you learned along the way?
ELLEN: Within the last eight or so months we finally said: I’m really great at this and you’re really great at this. We don’t both need to be doing everything together.
We decided I was going to own a bigger piece of the business development, marketing, and PR and Jenny would own a bigger piece of design and development. It doesn’t mean we don’t work with each other and collaborate on those things. Sometimes we’re codesigning sessions because one of us brings the expertise the other doesn’t. The bottom line is we are just getting more efficient with how we use our time. And we hired someone.
JENNY: I would say all of that is true. Another thing that’s pertinent about our progress is, we’ve learned how to narrow our focus. I think this happens for a lot of entrepreneurs—there are so many people we can serve. It’s a very common argument in a lot of entrepreneurial pursuits: We think everybody needs what we have.
Narrowing our focus in terms of who we choose to serve has been a journey. That willingness to give up serving everybody you might be able to serve is not necessarily an easy thing to do. We’ve been able to make some of those distinctions by giving ourselves permission to say: I really don’t want to do X or Y.
ELLEN: We’ve also been able to say: I think we should lean into this vertical, see what else is available to us, and start marketing more deeply. So, we’ve been tapping into the healthcare and tech companies as new verticals and, more recently, the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.
NAN: You’ve also collaborated with other organizations. You started off co-working at reSET.
JENNY: We’ve been through a couple of different coworking spaces, we’re still members at reSET. We love the folks over there. They were our first home in coworking a couple of years ago when we started to really grow.
We’ve found that collaborating with organizations like reSET has helped us because they now view us as a resource. So, we’ll coach startups in their business accelerator program, which supports them and us.
Relationships like that are a win-win. I would say that’s across the board with a lot of organizations where we do training: the Connecticut Small Business Development Center, the University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center, and the Construction Institute.
NAN: Tell us about your collaboration with West-Hartford marketing firm Fathom.
JENNY: With our friends here at Fathom, our collaboration is more in depth. They are a strategic partner and their work is very aligned with the work we do. We dovetail. They work with companies to envision, form, and strategize what that company is trying to do, where that organization is potentially going to go, and what their future could be.
As a client organization of Fathom’s, we fit into that landscape because we then offer the active learning programs to build the behaviors that can help an organization move toward that defined future. Things like: How do the members of the organization listen? How do they collaborate? How do they behave with each other on a one-to-one level that’s going to get them to that future Fathom is helping them to create? I think that’s a big chunk of why the synergy is so powerful between Bolder and Fathom.
ELLEN: I met Brent Robertson, who is a Partner at Fathom, when we were invited to speak at the same conference in upstate New York in 2017. We decided to meet for coffee beforehand. By the end of our conversation, he said: I want you to work with our staff! And I said: Well, we need new branding!
We talked about how our companies could mutually benefit each other. And they helped us understand that we had to choose a different name, because ConnectAnd Improv wasn’t a global brand. It was very tied to improvisation, which is one of the methodologies we use, but it doesn’t talk about the outcomes that we help individuals and organizations create.
The entire Fathom team has supported our rebrand to The Bolder Company earlier this year. Through brainstorming we realized that, by working with us, people just become bolder. I remember one of the Fathom partners, Dave Louden, said, “Everybody wants to be bolder.” We agree.