John Sweeney Is an Expert in the Art of Improvisational Theatre. He Uses His Expertise to Bring out the Entrepreneurial Mindset of His Clients and Audience.
John Sweeney and his wife, Jenni Lilledahl are the owners of The Brave New Workshop (BNW), America’s oldest running improvisational theatre. Located in Minneapolis, BNW is a great American success story. Founded by Dudley Riggs, a former Ringling Brothers Circus aerialist in 1958, BNW was a pioneering institution in satirical comedy. In 1997, John and Jenni bought BNW and have been driving its success since.
The theatre boasts famous alumni that started their careers on its stages including US Senator and former Saturday Night Live (SNL) Comedy Writer, Al Franken, Tom Davis, another original SNL comedy writer, Comedian Louis Anderson and others. It has a wonderful heritage of world class “improv” and continues to thrive to this day. It was John’s unique talent that bridged the art of improvisational theatre to business innovation.
I was fortunate to meet John in 2005. While at Yahoo, I was tasked with running a significant client event and was in the market for a speaker. Through some of our research, we came across John and The Brave New Workshop. We took a chance and hired him and his team to come run a seminar on leveraging improvisational techniques to drive business innovation.
Needless to say, John and his team crushed it! After earning a TON of referral business from the event, John has since gone on to deliver over 2500 corporate talks and seminars for companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Target.
To this day, I’m honored to call John a friend and to witness the great success he has driven for himself and The Brave New Workshop.
I connected with John recently and asked him to share his unique perspective on entrepreneurship…
Tell me about the Brave New Workshop and how you are doing these days?
Answer: Things are great! We have finally stabilized the company and made it sustainable for the future, it only took 17 years! We now have 105 employees and 5 balanced revenue streams (ticket sales, event center rentals, food and beverages, our school, and our corporate speaking and training). That portfolio mix and the fact that we now own the real-estate for both of our locations have finally put us in a great place. It was worth it!
What ignited the spark in you to leave a corporate real estate job and go into improvisational theatre?
Answer: A couple of things. First I had watched my schoolmate Chris Farley find success on Saturday Night Live which opened me up to the notion of making a career in comedy. But more importantly Improvisation had shown me that there was a place (on stage) for me to be my true self and that really drove me to find a way to build a career that I was passionate about. I guess I had an epiphany that I could live a life in which my job was not just a way to make money and that my career and my passions could be woven together in a way that built a life worth living well.
Other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?
Answer: I think the thing that has served me best is my ability to turn down the volume of the non-supportive voices around me. I am pretty good at understanding my gut and then following it. I certainly have made my share of bad decisions, but for the most part, if I listened to the nay-sayers, we never would have been able to grow as fast as we have and have helped as many people.
What habits helped make you successful?
Answer: I have a few daily mantra’s that have now become habitual, almost every day, I pause and write down or say out loud a few simple phrases:
- Change is fuel!
- Mistakes are the map to success
- What can we create, who can we help
- Let’s take what we have, make it bigger, make it better and give it to those who need it
- There is no finish line so just keep going
What was the ONE, single biggest challenge you faced as an entrepreneur? How did you weather that?
Answer: Undercapitalization, caused by growth, resulting in cash flow struggles. I overcame it by not getting paid much in the early days, finding great employees who were willing to work for below market because of their belief in our mission and the future (the wait was worth it for them) and generous parents who helped out.
What is the ONE takeaway piece of advice you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Answer: Try to find a service mindset as early as you can. When I realized how much our products and services help people and that serving our customers was really our mission, something clicked. Today I wake up and try to lead our company in a way that helps as many people as we can each day. By framing our business that way, the growth and profitability are simply byproducts of living a good life!
Interested in learning more about John Sweeney’s coveted techniques? Click this link to get his FREE White Paper: From Fear to Discovery and learn more!