Portland-based “sister-preneurs” Lee Lazarus and Janine Kurnoff are on a lifelong journey together, building practical, experiential visual storytelling workshops that teach talented businesspeople in all functions, at all levels, a simple framework that injects impact into the ideas behind every presentation, proposal, email, and even phone call they make. Co-founders of The Presentation Company, the two are at a particularly exciting point in the arc of their own 20-year business story. Their first book, Everyday Business Storytelling—based on the practical storytelling strategies from their workshops—is hitting bookshelves nationwide on February 17th.
On the eve of their debut as published authors, Lee and Janine reflect on the road that got them to where they are today.
How Silicon Valley shaped what we wanted… and didn’t want
Janine: In 2001, the dot-com-dot-bomb was busting, companies were downsizing, and most of the recent start-ups were getting vaporized. Lee and I had both been working in tech for several years and saw it all. I was in global sales training at Yahoo! Inc. (and later as an on-camera webcast host). Lee was head of marketing communications for two of the fastest-growing Internet and telecommunications market-research firms in the Valley.
We were no strangers to rambling PowerPoint presentations, choc-a-block with data and no story. We could see how audiences were left perplexed by what they were supposed to know or do with the information being presented. Communications were often built without their audience in mind. We became fixated on helping people change that.
Lee: It was a moment that many people have in their careers, where they ask themselves, “Can I do better than this? What would it take to start my own business?” Both of us were doing well professionally, and we knew that regardless of how we were going to leave it all and start our own company, we needed a dream that was big enough to include our ambitious vision of the future… a future that included building a successful company, having families, and a work life that didn’t run us into the ground.
We were inspired by two things our entrepreneurial immigrant parents instilled in us from a young age: take risks, and follow your passion. So we put our minds together, took a leap, and started The Presentation Company (TPC) in 2001.
Passion is ignited and a company is born
Janine: Starting out, we had very little money, but also very little overhead. We had no kids, no husbands, and rent was cheap! We were virtual… all we needed was a computer and stable Internet. It brought us huge benefits and allowed us to devote our energy to building a solid business.
Lee: We quickly found that clients really needed what we were offering… and they tended not to judge us on whether we had a fancy office space or a team of employees. They liked what they heard, and they wanted to hear more. It was never about relentlessly selling ourselves, it was about teaching people to become more confident, strategic communicators. Not only that, but we were pioneering the space of virtual learning (yes, 20 years before the pandemic!). When we told companies that we could train their teams to communicate and learn more effectively in an online environment, people’s ears started to perk up.
Janine: We’d invite them into a conversation and suddenly they wanted to be a part of a new and better way to communicate. This curiosity with our work turned into request after request with new teams, and word of mouth spread like wildfire throughout companies. Our first corporate client, Symantec, happened to be in the audience at a networking session we held for a Silicon Valley Women’s group. She saw our content and clearly envisioned what this could do for her, her team, and her company.
Lee: From there, as we developed our storytelling workshop, we observed hundreds of organizations with varying paces, workstyles, and cultural norms. We trained ultra-fast-moving companies. We trained the slowest dinosaurs. But no matter who we encountered, we unmistakably noticed that those with a culture of storytelling were truly winning. They have more cohesive messaging, better team collaboration, and a far better approach to selling their ideas to their customers, partners, and executives.
The power of sisterhood
Janine: It’s no coincidence that we follow the architecture of a great story in everything we do at TPC. Transparency shows up in the WHY of any story—it’s an opportunity to establish context.
We’ve had to be transparent with each other as business partners and sisters as well. On day one, Lee and I didn’t look at each other and say, we are going to grow an empire, raise money, get office space, and take over the world! Our approach was to quietly chip away at our business and continue to focus on what we were capable of. We were young 20-somethings, passionate about what we were doing. But we wanted to grow our families as much as we wanted to grow our business.
Lee: This really speaks to our relationship as sisters. We have been able to work hard, while not killing ourselves… or each other! We always make sure we’re on the same page, have the same desired outcomes, and work toward the same resolution—just like what we teach our clients about the arc of any story.
Our advice for aspiring entrepreneurs…
Janine: The advice I would give to any entrepreneur is: don’t wait. Get out there, show others what you have to offer, be a thought leader. Remember you’re entering into a world of unknowns, which means you’ll need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and operate without an exact blueprint (that’s the fun!).
For fellow moms out there, balance between work and family is easiest when you have passion for both. At times, I’ve had to step away from work. Other times, the business spills over and the kids are wondering why mommy is working so much. But, even on the hardest days, I am always proud of what of I have created and the legacy I’ll leave behind… which fills me with gratitude.
Lee: First, find a network of people who inspire you outside of work life—trusted people you can turn to for strategy and perspective. Female leaders especially can benefit from mentors who lift them up through bumpy times, as well as celebrate the wins.
Second, take care of your physical health. Being present for people in your life is one of the most challenging yet most important balancing acts to strike when growing a company. Whether it’s yoga or a run, you need something to help you reset and refuel.
Want more tips for becoming a better leader?
Get your hands on the business storytelling strategies that The Presentation Company has delivered to clients like Facebook, Nestle, Accenture, Marriott, McDonald’s, and many others over the past 20 years. Everyday Business Storytelling is filled with practical techniques and real-world business story transformations. Order your copy today.