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Dann Sytsma & Brian Lam

What is your official title?

Dann: Chancellor? Deputy? I don’t know, we didn’t spend a lot of time on titles. I think on my LinkedIn it’s Co-founder and Trainer at Improv Effects. I’ve been thinking about changing it, but any time you make a change on LinkedIn, it’s like ‘Guess what! Dann has a new title!’ We’ll say I’m Founder and Co-owner and he’s Owner and Co-founder. It’s an equal stake, but we share responsibilities.

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Brian: Dann does the bills.

Dann: It feels like a marriage; a little too much sometimes.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

Dann: We can talk about a day that we focus on Improv Effects. Each of us does a couple of different things, so we’ll talk about what we do together. A typical day is looking for leads and prospecting clients for our workshops in this community or anywhere to find a good potential fit.

Brian: Yeah, to find potential clients that would be a good fit for our workshops. We usually meet at Biggby; it’s kind of become our office.

Dann: We meet at least once a week, oftentimes multiple times a week to talk either about a workshop that we have coming up or strategic planning, or the website, you know, all of those little minute details.

Brian: Next week we are meeting about the website to discuss its new look, so that’s a new site, new printed materials; basically an image meeting to get all of those things in order.


What is Improv Effects?

Dann: We teach Tae Bo. It’s like P90X, but it’s only 75 minutes.

Brian: We use improv exercises to show how you can apply improvisation into a work setting. We teach these exercises that we would use ourselves on stage to help businesses make improvements in a variety of areas.


Can you tell us about the history of Improv Effects?

Brian: I had a dream. Just kidding. It’s hard to say when it really started. If you go way, way back, Dann’s been coaching and teaching improv for over 15 years. So, he’s been instructing in one form or another for a long time. I was in sales back in the day, and we had to do a lot of team building stuff, retreats, trainings, all that kind of stuff. I moved to Chicago for a job, and started taking classes at Second City. Some of the classes I was taking I was like, man, this makes more sense, this is more applicable than a lot of the sales training I’ve done. I think both of us had thought about doing something like this.

Dann: Crawlspace had done some things like it in the past, but it wasn’t met as well. I didn’t have the background or anyone else on the team that had a good business background that could show up to a team building or professional development workshop and feel like we could offer a robust program. And then I met Brian, who had a very diverse and successful sales background, along with an improv background, and it started making sense, but we didn’t necessarily see it then. It took someone coming to us, saying hey, is there anything you can do for our company to help with team building?

Brian: They were going to have a speech and communication coach come in, and he was a fan of improv and asked us if we did something similar. It wasn’t this new crazy thing; I had thought about it, Dann had done it, and it just came at the right time. We wanted to position ourselves as consultants and bring in the application of improv to a business setting. It’s not just half a day to have some laughs, even though there are a lot of laughs. The goal is that it’s a workshop that has genuine takeaways that improve or impact what you do in a professional setting. We were nervous about how it would all come together, so we put together a pilot group that was really great. We’ve come so far since then. In one respect, it’s a completely different workshop; there’s a flow to it, and it feels like an actual program, but in its purest form, we’re doing a lot of the same things we did in that first class. And that was a year and a half ago.

Dann: That particular workshop was so vital to see how things should progress in the workshop, what works to get people comfortable in the beginning, how do we step them up to different exercises. Even when we take a break, we learned that people need water!


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

Dann: We’ve had a lot of great luck with service engineers for a company, Perkin Elmer; they manufacture lab equipment, but also do a lot of service, and they’re focusing a lot on making their service teams more robust and more engaged with their clients because that helps them sell other products. We help them open up and expand, engage with the client to build better relationships and to be in a much better place to say, ‘you’ve mentioned this need you have, why don’t you try this’. They were all very shy about doing that. They didn’t want sales training because instantly everybody became anxious and resistant, and it just was not effective. They wanted something that helped build better relationships with their clients, and that wasn’t scary; that was about making conversation. They revamped their program, and it was a big win; it opened our eyes to some other avenues we could go down with our client base.

Brian: We’ve been working with a lot of sales and customer service groups, but recently it’s been non-profits. The last two have been non-profits.

Dann: And it’s a fun sector to get into. They are eager and excited about doing great stuff.

Brian: Banks and financial institutions have also been a big hit since it’s all about the customer/client relationship. We have our third or fourth bank job coming up. Another bank job.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

Brian: The mild winters.

Dann: Kalamazoo has been my playground for 11 years with Crawlspace. It’s been so supportive and interested, and sometimes overflowingly enthusiastic about the work I’ve been doing with improv; it’s been so nurturing through the years. It’s in large part what fueled my belief that this program could work. People’s response to improv has opened my eyes to their enthusiasm for that art form. With starting Improv Effects, it’s also been great getting to know the entrepreneurial spirit that’s here. People looking at the long view of things and giving something like Improv Effects a chance and saying, hey that’s a really interesting approach to teaching communication, let’s try that. I’ve been really overwhelmed by the support we’ve been given. Of course we want to expand, but we’ll always have the Kalamazoo connection to thank for the ability to expand because we’ve been able to get the support of this community which is allowing us to go further.

Brian: I just love that it’s a little big town. It’s a big enough town that you can find your own way and do your own thing. it’s big enough that a business like ours can do well here, but you see a lot of familiar faces. It’s like that everywhere, we always see someone we know, whether it’s at Biggby, or anywhere downtown you’re going to run into somebody. Which is cool, but it’s still big enough that you don’t feel like it’s a small, restrictive town.


What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

Brian: We learn a little bit every time we give a workshop; there’s always something you can take away from it. Finding our price point had it’s ups and downs. We were way too low and then way too high, and I think now we’ve found our market value. There were some losses where we felt like we lost that because we asked too much, and then there were times that we went too low and felt undervalued; it’s about how you’re perceived. It’s learning how to position ourselves. When we are here, we can sometimes get the local boy label. When we travel, we’re seen as the consultants flying in; you’re the pros, the experts.

Dann: It’s human nature. If you’re overly familiar with someone in a certain context, it’s hard to view them in a different one. We’re learning how to work with that both locally and now nationally. Another thing is that we’ve had some people have a very emotional response to the work we do. With improv, you get people out of their comfort zones, and it can really have a profound effect on your personal relationships with family and friends outside of business. The techniques are very useful, and sometimes the people we work with make some very personal realizations in the workshops. We’ve learned to go with the flow and help people take those moments and embrace them. Our learning moment is their learning moment.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

Dann: Children’s Disney Pandora station. My son, Max, is three, and daughter, Lucy, is 10-months.

Brian: My daughter, Sienna, who’s four and a half, loves to dance, so we listen to a lot of dance pop. You know that song ‘I Love It’. She loves it.

Dann: I’ve getting back into the Chili Peppers; I’m excited to see what they do at the Super Bowl. They’re just so good, I’ve playing them on Pandora.

Brian: The song I’ve been listening to on repeat is ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues‘; it’s a great song, and I picked it up and learned it on my guitar.


How do you take your coffee…or do you?

Brian: I drink it by the pot. Although, I will say since New Years, Dann has helped me see the light, and I’ve been drinking a lot more tea.

Dann: I’m a tea guy.

Brian: I keep coming back to it though; I still drink a cup a day. I take my coffee with sugar.

Dann: The one bad thing about drinking tea is that you always have to use the word teabag, but in a serious context.

Brian: I think that’s one of the positive things about it.

Dann: Saying to the barista, ‘I need to do something with my teabag’ is always uncomfortable, I just don’t like that experience. You find yourself in the position to have to do that. It’s the only negative. It’s not the tea’s fault.


What is your favorite app to use?

Brian: What’s my favorite nap? Any! Oh, app. It’s just called FIFA; I follow English League Soccer, which nobody else does. People will sit and talk about American football all day long, so I have to internalize my love for soccer. It’s never on TV, so I got the app to track scores and all that good stuff. Chelsea is my team.

Dann: I just found this one I haven’t tried yet, but I like the sound of it. It’s called Spin-A-Story, and you start a story, and other people can pile on it and add their own “spin” to it. I haven’t gotten into it, but I’m excited to try it out.

Brian: I also really like Shazam and Spotify.

Dann: I like my new Sunrise app. Brian hates how into calendars I am. Our calendars are synced, so if someone asks us to meet it’s easy to know if we’re both available. I geek out about it, and Brian reluctantly goes along with it.

Brian: I like the flip calendars with firefighters or cats with inspirational quotes.

Dann: Sunrise is great; I can open it and see who’s birthday it is that day without logging into Facebook, and I can send them a text or call them instead of posting on their walls – I’m over that. It’s just a nice calendar app.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Brian: Biggby. Where all, well, most of the meetings happen.

Dann: We’ve been into Something’s Brewing recently. It’s been good to us. I’m still overwhelmed with how cool the Beer Exchange is, too. We go there after shows a lot. The gimmick is so good, they’ve got great food, and the people are awesome.


What is your dream for Improv Effects?

Brian: Our big dream would be to be national, and to be able to train others in what we do. It’d be great to still do it, but to have the ability to be in more places and expand our reach.

Dann: Anytime we hear back from clients that what we’re doing is making their business better, it confirms we’re in the right place. We believe in this so much, and seeing what we do have a dramatic effect on their employees’ productivity, as well as things like their bottom line and revenue stream is really something. It’s been an emotional dream to continue with that.

Brian: I love how positive it is. People have a good time and feel better about what they do on a daily basis.

Dann: It’s a selfless dream. As far as a business interest, of course we’d love to be in more states reaching bigger clients to see how far we can take it, but it’s about the people and seeing improvements in themselves.


Dann & Brian, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Be sure to keep up with Improv Effects on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.