Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in business development but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Joel Zeff, Founder of Joel Zeff Creative, located in Dallas, TX, USA.

What's your business, and who are your customers?

I bring the TA DA energy and fun to my client's events. As a keynote speaker and emcee, I energize and engage audiences with a blend of improvisational comedy and powerful choices about leadership, finding success during change and disruption, teamwork, passion, fun, and communication. I have spoken to more than 2,500 groups that range from 8 people to 7,000.

There are many great speakers with extraordinary messages. There are far fewer keynote speakers that have excellent messages and are funny. Even fewer keynote speakers have an awesome message, are funny, and are interactive. And that is my wheelhouse. I use audience volunteers and play improvisation games. The games are hilarious.

Audience members are laughing and playing, and then we discuss the choices made by the volunteers, and that is how I make my point. When I first started speaking, I didn’t even know there were keynote speakers. I knew little about the event business. I loved improvisation and performing. My wife says I only want to make people laugh and tell people what I think. Boom. I figured out how to make a living doing what I love. My goal is always to be a refreshing alternative to the rote speakers that all sound the same. I want to connect with the audience and break the fourth wall.

Each presentation is unique and full of surprises. When I first started speaking, I had to explain improvisation comedy. Only some clients understood the concept. Clients often say, “I don’t know if my team will do that,” because improvisation didn’t have enough exposure. It is different now. Everyone knows and understands improvisation. Audiences want engaging and entertaining keynotes. I first tell my audience that I want them to have fun. There is no better way to spend time together than through laughter and joy. And if they happen to get something out of it, even better.

Tell us about yourself

I started my career as a newspaper journalist. My first job out of school was for the Saginaw News in Saginaw, Michigan. I covered the police beat: crime, fire, murder, death, accidents, and destruction. The Dallas Times Herald recruited me to work for their newspaper in 1991. I moved to Dallas, and six months later, the other paper in town bought out the Herald and closed it down. It is just a coincidence the newspaper closed six months after I arrived, and I promise it wasn’t my fault.

Side note: I always say the day I lost my job at the newspaper was one of the best days of my life. That day started me on the path I am on today. I tell a story sometimes in my keynote about the day I lost my job and a magic harmonica. When I left my one-bedroom apartment with little furniture to clean out my desk on the last day of the newspaper, I grabbed my magic harmonica.

I arrived at the newspaper, and everyone had a range of emotions: sadness, anger, confusion, and defeat. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I saw this day as an opportunity and a new beginning. For some reason, I found myself on the back loading dock where the media covering the paper’s demise had assembled. I took out my magic harmonica and started poorly playing a blues note. The lyrics went something like this: “I lost my job. I got no money …” Well, I ended up on two local television newscasts. My photo in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the story of me playing the harmonica were picked up nationally. True story. I chose my attitude. I decided how I would react to change and disruption.

That magic harmonica (which I still have) taught me to embrace change and disruption. It taught me that fun and whimsy are part of my life. It taught me to stay in the game and create opportunities. Soon after the Herald closed, I started doing stand-up and improvisational comedy. I joined a comedy troupe. That led me to speak, which led me to this interview. All because of a magic harmonica.

After the Herald closed, I freelanced as a writer and journalist. Some of the highlights included covering Mickey Mantle’s funeral for Newsday almost getting hired at America’s Most Wanted and interviewing the Easter Bunny in a mall for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

At some point, I needed a regular job. I opened the Yellow Pages (this dates me) and looked up public relations agencies. I sent my resume to the four most extensive advertisements. Soon after, Edelman Public Relations called and hired me as an account executive. Texas Instruments was my primary client. I was then recruited by J. Walter Thompson and worked there for about a year.

In 1994, I started my own business as a writer, media relations consultant, and creative communications consultant. I did a little bit of everything. Around the same time, I also performed with an improvisational comedy troupe on the weekends. One of my clients, Texas Instruments, asked me to speak and perform at an executive retreat. With no hesitation, I agreed. I asked another performer to join me. We didn’t have a plan. There was no message. We just played improvisation games with the audience members and had fun. The attendees loved the interactive and engaging performance.

The light bulb started flashing, and I knew I could offer the same experience to other clients. I didn’t think speaking was going to be my business. I just thought speaking was something else I could offer my clients. Like anything, if you do a great job, people will pass your name around. I loved speaking. I loved sharing my passion for improvisation and what lessons the art form taught me. I also realized audiences were thirsty for something fresh. They wanted to laugh. They wanted a unique perspective. They wanted to be engaged.

I love every moment as a keynote speaker and emcee. Everyone needs to laugh. And most people don’t have the opportunity to play. My presentations create that opportunity. Every client tells me their people are stressed or have had a tough year or quarter. They always say everyone is working hard. I come in and make them laugh and let them embrace the silliness. I can’t believe I get paid for this.

What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?

I didn’t know much about the business when I started as a keynote speaker. I didn’t even know speaking was a business. I just followed my passion and what I loved to do. Sometimes people wait until they are ready. You will never be ready. You have to try. If you fail, you stay in the game. I am sure I didn’t do everything right. I just worked on my business every day.

I always say, “Figure out what you would do for free.” I love making people laugh, creating energy, bringing people together, and telling people what I think. When I started speaking, I often spoke for free or would get a Chili’s gift card and a t-shirt. And I was thrilled. If you love what you do, you don’t watch the clock. You aren’t worried about mistakes and failures. You are focused and passionate, and that overcomes all challenges.

I don’t have a job. I have passion. I am fortunate that I figured out how to make a living by having a passion. I encourage others to do the same. Just ask: What job would I do if I didn’t care whether I got paid? Now you have a road map. Take the first step. If you fail, try something else. Nobody is keeping score.

I am also proud of starting two scholarships at the University of Kansas. One is called the Joel Zeff Chicken Piccata Scholarship. I named it that because I ate Chicken Piccata when the KU Endowment person asked me to name my scholarship. She laughed. And that was all I needed. The name also represents fun and whimsy, which defines my career. Plus, it is remarkable that, at some point, a scholarship recipient will have to explain the Chicken Piccata scholarship in a job interview.

I also started a scholarship for my late journalism professor, mentor, and friend, Tom Eblen. He meant a great deal to all his students and me. Once I started the scholarship, it was quickly fully endowed by former students, colleagues, friends, and family. I believe in education. Every problem in the world can be solved by education.

What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?

Improvisation teaches us to be prepared for change, open and flexible to change, and present and in the moment. I focused on the change and adapted. As a business owner, you have to adapt constantly. Improvisation teaches that there is always constant change and disruption. Your choices determine your success.

What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?

  1. Have fun and follow your passion. Always include a little silliness and whimsy. Don’t be afraid to try something new. There is always room for pie. Stay in the game, and don’t quit.
  2. Be present and at the moment. Embrace change and disruption. Don’t wait until you are ready. Nobody is ready.
  3. Start now. You don’t have to do everything today. When you build a business, it can be overwhelming. Work your list and do something each day. And when in doubt, always order the enchiladas. That might be more than three. I am not good with math.

Where can people find you and your business?


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