Has Josh Blair found his calling with Impro.AI?
Telus’s former golden boy starts from scratch.
Josh Blair is late for our interview. The former Telus executive ends up postponing our talk by 30 minutes because the venture capitalists on his previous call wanted to keep going. “Always a good sign,” he chuckles after apologizing profusely about missing the original time.
No kidding. Almost exactly a year after co-founding one-on-one coaching platform Impro.AI, the company is bringing in USD $500,000 a year and Blair is on the hunt for VC money. Perhaps less surprising than his new venture’s success is the fact that he’s involved in it at all.
In September 2019, most of corporate Vancouver was shocked to learn that Blair was leaving Telus, the company he joined in 1995 when it was still called BC Tel. Blair, who spent his last five years at the firm as group president and still holds a connection with the telco as chair of Telus International, was thought by many to be CEO Darren Entwistle’s eventual successor.
But he had other ideas. “I knew if I hit the 25-year mark I wanted to go off and do some new things and be exposed to some new things,” says Blair, who started with BC Tel right after graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Victoria.
The desire for one of those things was set in place years before, when Blair helped run a startup company that was spun off of Telus in the early aughts. “I knew I had that entrepreneurial gene in me, and I loved it when I did it,” he recalls. “So I definitely had it in the back of my mind that I always wanted to return to that world.”
Shortly after stepping down, Blair reached out to Opher Brayer and Maya Liberman, the founders of research development centre Stages Global. That company seeks to build methodologies to help children learn more efficiently. “They proved that, rather than have 10 percent of kids being branded gifted learners, they could turn almost any student into a gifted learner,” says Blair.
Brayer, quite literally, had other ideas. “He said that Stages was at the point where it runs well and almost by itself, but that he had another idea for a company around taking one-on-one performance coaching to all employees, not just executives,” remembers Blair. They also agreed that, if the new venture became successful, they would take a portion of the profits and direct them back to Stages, because there are many countries in the world that can’t pay for the program but would benefit from it hugely.
With all that set in stone, they launched Impro.AI in January of last year. How it typically works is that companies sign up as a group and empower their employees to receive hands-on virtual coaching from experienced advisors.
So far, Blair says the platform has been received very well by clients, which include employees from companies like property management firm Mynd and Adobe. “It’s amazing the changes people are able to make in both their work performance and lives—this is stuff they struggle with for their whole career in many cases,” he maintains, explaining that the half a million in revenue has been something of a bonus thus far. “We kind of purposefully grew slowly over our first year. It seems like the tip of the iceberg.”
For Blair—who spent his formative years on the Sunshine Coast and graduated high school in Nanaimo—the experience guiding the team of 12 has been “both weird and exhilarating,” he says.
“At Telus, given that I was in such a senior role, so many people help you with stuff. You have a massive team helping you achieve things. At Impro, I’m not only the CEO, I’m the top salesperson, the head of finance, the head of HR, the head of legal. I’m doing my own spreadsheets, that’s the weird part.”
He continues, his voice staying steady and controlled even as he portrays a certain amount of disbelief in his new life. “And on the exhilarating side, you can achieve so much in such a short period of time as a young company. It always blows me away how much better we are as a company every month than the month before. We learn so much and become much more supportive of our customers and our team.”