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Michelle Welsch

LMSW turned entrepreneur

23

15

Project Exponential: connecting ideas and industries over dinner (and making money?)

I was a Probation Officer, changed careers, and went into corporate branding/marketing/social media consulting. With many, many, many talented colleagues across diverse fields, I fantazied about what could happen if they all were in the same room together. Thus, the invite-only secret dinner party began.

I began to selectively invite a small group (no more than 15) of folks to share dinner in private rooms throughout NYC. I would ask a few questions to get conversation rolling, and seat people strategically based on who they need to meet / what they are trying to accomplish / where they are going, both personally and professionally.

Word got out, and more people wanted to attend. I threw a few "open" parties, where folks could bring friends, but ultimately realized these kinds of settings didn't result in the conversations and meaningful introductions I wanted people to have.

So I reeled things back in, choosing instead to focus on select, small, intimate groups, and I continued to hunt for interesting places to hold real discussions.

People got it:

Fast forward:

Over 300 folks have attended Project Exponential events. People love the dinners, but they are a lot of work. A lot of work for one person.

Each attendee is "screened" and assessed and placed in a unique group. Private dinner settings in NYC aren't cheap/easy to come by. Organizing the actual dinner involves scheduling 12-15 very busy people, reservations and menu-negotiating, hand-made place settings, discussion prompts targeting individuals' needs, invitations and confirmations, in-person facilitation, the actual event (2-3 hours, sometimes more), letterpressed take-aways, follow up.... yeah. The dinner is a pretty full-on event.

I've struggled to nail down a business model (I went to grad school for social work...); I've been told I should be able to make money on this, but I haven't quite cracked that nut. Possibly because that hasn't been my aim, probably because I want to include artists and entrepreneurs and people who maybe can't afford a higher price tag that a business exec might be willing to pay. Maybe because I'm a "shoestring" entrepreneur, bootstrapping this from the ground up.

I have ethical deliberations on charging one attendee a different price than another. I think if dinners were subsidized by an outside or larger entity, it would forfeit the unique environment that's created. I'm not sure if this is something I need to raise funds for to develop a system that is more "processed" and standardized, or if I keep doing it myself because that is part of the charm and what people pay for.

I'm in the process of creating an online community for everyone who has attended dinners to join, post jobs, connect, ask questions, make introductions. And I am training a few hosts (think adventure guides for the dinner table) how to creative magical evenings themselves.**

Yup, still stuck on the money thing. I'm hoping this Skillshare course can push me in the right direction....... 

**update (following Ch. 2 video): After watching this segment, I'm not sure expanding in this way -- training hosts -- is the right way to go. Maybe it IS perfectly ok not to "franchise" the dinners and focus instead on figuring out a way to position/market the experience so that they are in such high demand, people have no problem paying for what they're worth (and/or subsidizing the event for other folks to attend). 

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