How Being The Funny Guy At Work Turned Into A Full Time Career

Published: June 6th, 2019
Andrew Tarvin
Founder, Humor That Works
Humor That Works
from New York, New York, USA
started January 2009
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I am Andrew Tarvin and I am the world’s first humor engineer (at least according to all the Google searches that I’ve done).

I run Humor That Works, a training company focused on human effectiveness. Our primary goal is to deliver programs that help people get better results while having more fun in the workplace.

We’ve worked with thousands of people at more than 250 organizations, including Microsoft, the FBI, and the International Association of Canine Professionals.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I am an engineer and have always been obsessed with efficiency (I think the word efficient should be one syllable).

I went to The Ohio State University, got a degree in Computer Science & Engineering, and started working at Procter & Gamble after I graduated. At P&G, I realized that you can’t be efficient with humans--they have “emotions” and “feelings”--but rather you had to be effective.

Photo Caption: College Graduation. Proof I was (and still am) a nerd.

As a stereotypical engineer growing up (including an allergy to the sun), I didn’t have the social skills I needed to be effective with people. But I started doing improv and stand-up in college and began to realize that the same skills you need to be effective as an improviser are some of the same skills you need to be effective in the workplace.

So, at P&G, I started incorporating humor into my job. I added jokes to the ends of my emails, I taught improv exercises to my team, and I eventually proclaimed myself the corporate humorist of P&G. I assumed, at some point, someone would stop me. Someone from HR or legal would say, “Hey, you can’t just create your own job title.” But no one ever did. Instead, people just started referring to me as the corporate humorist.

My primary focus in business development was inspired by a quote by Steve Martin, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Not, “Be good so people like you” or even, “Be really really really good so people are happy.” It’s “Be so good, they can’t ignore you.”

I fell in love with the work and started Humor That Works part-time in 2009. I spent the next three years building it into a business while also testing ideas through blog posts and internal training events at P&G. By 2012, I decided to take the leap from the corporate world and focus on the company full-time. At the time, I was leaving a six-figure salary to focus on the training company with a 12-month runway (from personal savings).

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

My first “product” for the training business happened by circumstance.

I was still at P&G at the time and an internal advocacy group decided to do a training program on humor in the workplace. One of the members had read an article in the Harvard Business Review about the benefits of humor at work and compiled some research about it.

She was going to present it herself, but learned that I did stand-up comedy, and thought I could better speak to it. So, I took the research she had found, made some slides about the benefits of humor, and then wrote some stand-up material about working at P&G. I put them all together and it was … okay. But, people did enjoy the talk and I loved the process.

Photo Caption: One of the slides from my first presentation, complete with terrible PowerPoint theme.

From there, I would “sell” each training before building it. I reached out to different groups internally at P&G and offered humor and [blank] training, where the [blank] was whatever they cared about. Then, if they said yes, I’d build the training before the delivery. While building the training, I would do a lot of stand-up comedy shows as a way to test material to see what would make people laugh.

I did this because:

1) I don’t procrastinate but I do believe in just-in-time productivity. By booking stand-up shows, it would force me to work on the material.


2) I could prototype and iterate on material so I knew it actually worked before trying it with my clients.

There were typically no costs for the trainings themselves, just my time spent on doing the research, developing the program, and practicing it.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Since the very beginning, the primary cost for launching the business was my time and energy. I would work 45-60 hours at P&G, add another 10 hours or so in stand-up and improv, and then another 15 or so in working on the business.

Once I decided I was going to leave my job, I made a spreadsheet called “Operation: Leave Corporate America” (OLCA for short). It included a list of all the things I needed to have completed before I felt comfortable quitting my full-time job.

The monetary costs early on were relatively low. I created my own website with my own logo (~$150), got cheap business cards (~$50), and started blogging ($0.00). The most expensive part was registering as an LLC in New York (~$1500), which is about as fun as sitting in traffic with the radio stuck on a station that only plays polka music. All of this was self-funded from saving up money while working.

Photo Caption: Original Logo I made myself.

Once I decided I was going to leave P&G, I made a spreadsheet called “Operation: Leave Corporate America” (OLCA for short). It included a list of all the things I needed to have completed before I felt comfortable quitting my full-time job. It included:

  • Have website up with training offerings.
  • Have pictures of me in action at events.
  • Have a “clients page” with at least 10 clients on it.
  • Have an idea for a book.
  • Have 12 months of savings for bare-minimum lifestyle in NYC (aka lots of Ramen noodles and $1 pizza).
  • Have made $5,000 as reason-to-believe I can make money.

Photo Caption: An early version of the Humor That Works website.

After 2.5 years, I checked off all of the items and felt confident leaving. And, because of the savings, I figured I had nine months to make it work, and if it failed miserably, I’d have three months to get another job. So, I spoke with my manager and I left four-months later to build the business full-time.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

My primary focus in business development was inspired by a quote by Steve Martin, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Not, “Be good so people like you” or even, “Be really really really good so people are happy.” It’s “Be so good, they can’t ignore you.”

That means create fantastic products and experiences so that people feel like they have to at least learn what you’re about. And if you get that good, then when people experience one thing that you do, they’ll want to experience other things that you do.

So our primary business development strategy is less, “Post tweets at 10:07am on Tuesdays for the most engagement” but more, “Let’s create really compelling content that people want to engage with.” And since you can’t ever be really sure which content is going to take-off and when, let’s continually create content everyday in the form of tweets, Instagram posts, and guests posts ;).

More specifically, the primary method for business development is word-of-mouth and referral. You do one event and that leads to another. What I didn’t realize early on is that you can engineer those referrals so that they’re not just by chance. Now I’m much better at helping potential clients understand all of what we do, regardless of what they initially come to me for.

For example, if a client calls up asking about a training program, I will learn about what they’re looking for (always start with asking questions, not with pitching services), and then ask if I can give them some background on the company. In that background, I cover how it started (it’s important people realize that I’m an engineer and that I talk about humor because it works, not because it’s fun), and then I share a short overview of everything we do (books, coaching, training, and speaking). Then I’ll make a recommendation on what I think will work based on what they’ve said. However, it’s important that I give the overview so that later down the line, when we (hopefully) crush their event, they’ll remember, “Oh right, they also do coaching” or “Maybe we should buy their book for everyone.”

There also things you can do during the program (include value-added stories that also mention your other services, e.g. “The other day I was working with a coaching client and [insert relevant point for them to takeaway].”) and afterwards (“Here’s a digital copy of the workbooks from today, and a link to our book if you’re interested in learning more.”).

The other implication of engineering referrals is to have multiple ways that people can engage with you. Some people will want a hands-on training for their team of 10-15 people, others might want an opening keynote to their conference, or some might prefer just a book they can read by themselves. We focus on a single area (human effectiveness), and then provide multiple ways people can engage with it.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The business has grown every single year since the start. Last year, growth was 24% YoY. The business breaks down into:

  • 8% from books / app / online course sales.
  • 50% from keynote speaking.
  • 42% from trainings and workshops.

The goal for the future is to shift more into the trainings and workshops where I am not the primary facilitator. Also, with the launch of the book this year and an online course coming in the fall, the goal is to push more towards products and not just requiring a physical presence somewhere.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The biggest mistake I made in the beginning was trying to be too broad. It’s true that I think our training can help with just about any organization, but no one wants to hire a generalist; they want the expert in the area.

Once we shifted our focus to engineers / tech groups, people started better understanding what we do. And we also noticed that when we said, “We help engineers become more effective in the workplace,” people started asking, “Can you also do that for sales?” etc.

The best decision I made was getting involved with communities of other speakers and trainers. I’m an engineer, which means I want to get results, but I’m also lazy (that’s what efficiency is, lazy productivity). By getting involved with the National Speakers Association, Applied Improv Network, and others, I was able to learn from people who had already figured out some of the hard stuff. And now, I can also give back to the people who are just starting out.

Finally, I’m a huge believer in the harder I work, the luckier I get. Yes, I’m lucky that my TEDx talk on the skill of humor now has over 4 million views, but I also worked hard to make sure that I nailed the delivery of it when the opportunity came.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Here’s a rundown of what I use daily (note, some of them are referral links, feel free to delete that part of the URL if you want):

  • G-Suite - gmail, docs, maps, etc.
  • Todoist - for everything I need to do.
  • Evernote - to keep my thoughts / planning straight.
  • Dropbox - for syncing everything on the go.
  • LastPass - for sharing passwords with my assistant / contractors.
  • Xero - for accounting.
  • Otter - for AI transcription.
  • IFTTT - for automating processes such as one instagram post also posts to Instagram, Tumblr, blog, etc.
  • PromoRepublic - for scheduling out posts.
  • Canva - for quick design work.
  • KDP & IngramSpark - for book selling.
  • TravelingMailbox - for accessing paper mail anywhere in the world.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Here are some of the best resources I’ve found in running a business:

  • The Personal MBA (book) - a summary of the best business books of all time.
  • Same Side Selling (book) - reframing sales so you actually enjoy the process.
  • How to Persuade (audiobook) - a masterclass in “earning the right to make a recommendation.”

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Here’s what I find myself telling people who interested in this type of work:

  1. Start part-time. Starting a business is stressful and the added pressure of needing to eat can make it harder. Build as much as you can as a side hustle before launching into it full-time. That will show that you are actually committed to the work and have a viable idea.
  2. Love the MVP. Figure out your minimum viable product and get it out there and iterate. The more you can create, expose, refine a process, the more it will improve over time. Start with prototypes and descriptions and build once you have a strong reason-to-believe people will buy.
  3. Focus on a niche. Of course your product can help everyone in the world, but focusing on a target market makes things easier. It helps you narrow what type of outreach / marketing to do and turns business development into an actionable process.
  4. Seek others who have succeeded. Research and follow what other people have done (by reading more of these stories). And reach out to them with a personalized message, it’s amazing the number of people who will say yes to a quick chat to answer questions.
  5. Have fun. When you enjoy what you do, you’ll not only have more fun but you’ll also get better results. Life is too short to do things we hate.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Not looking for anything specific right now, but I do have a list of projects I would love to get done but I don’t actually want to do the work for. So, if you’re interested in this space or passionate about our message, happy to talk about some part-time contract work.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!