After a wildly successful launch in New York City in 2016, the Museum of Ice Cream had a 200,000-person waitlist of people eager to Instagram its pastel walls, wade into its pool of sprinkles, and try its edible sugar helium balloons. Its founders decided it was time to take the ice cream-inspired installations to the West Coast. The problem: No one would lease them a new home.

"I called every single broker from Tijuana to San Francisco and no one took me seriously. No one," says Maryellis Bunn, co-founder and CEO of Figure8, the parent company of the Museum of Ice Cream, which raised a $40 million Series A round at a $200 million valuation in August. "I would call, and they'd go, 'Oh, you're the ice cream girl? You've already called us. We don't have anything for you.'"

Eventually, Bunn and co-founder Manish Vora were able to secure a space in the gritty Arts District of Los Angeles for the spring of 2017. Tenants from nearby buildings cautioned Bunn to set her expectations low, claiming the area was a ghost town.

"They told me, 'You might have great business on the weekend, but no one will come here during the week. There are tumbleweeds here,'" she recalls while sitting in her New York office. "And then we sold out every single day."

During its eight-month run in L.A., hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the Museum of Ice Cream, perhaps most notably Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Kardashian, and Beyoncé, who broadcasted their visits with their kids to legions of social media followers. On Craigslist, scalpers would offer two $29 Saturday night tickets for as much as $250. "Conversations are very, very different now," says the 27-year-old Bunn through the faintest of smiles. "Now [property brokers] are calling me and sending me flowers."

Bunn, who's been called the Millennial Walt Disney, says her goal is to create the kind of irresistible, whimsical experiences in the real world that you can't get by, say, scrolling through your Instagram feed. Never mind that the Museum of Ice Cream is an Instagrammer's paradise. Regardless, she's hit on a concept that's not just resonating with the masses but also generating serious revenue. The company has reportedly made more than $10 million in sales since its inception.

From summer hobby to a life mission

Bunn was 24 years old when she came up with the concept for Museum of Ice Cream. About six months after quitting her job as the head of forecasting and innovation at Time Inc., she was going through a prolonged wandering period. Every day, she would walk to a café in the East Village, order a chai, and try to map out what to do with the rest of her life. The Laguna Beach, California, native found herself wishing there were other accessible things she could do to fill her time besides going to bars and restaurants. "I didn't feel like there were places for myself and for my peers to go to," she says.

A trained designer, Bunn started brainstorming. The concept for the Museum of Ice Cream originated from her own experience visiting different ice cream shops across New York. She found comfort in the short and inconsequential yet genuine interactions she had with other people there. Plus, she adds, "ice cream is the one thing that I love more than anything in the world."

She enlisted Vora's help and the pair began calling everyone they knew to see who could help make her idea a reality. "I wasn't thinking about a business," admits Bunn. "I wanted to create this for the world because I so desperately needed this, and I wanted to give this back to whoever would come." Even so, the co-founders inked partnerships with brands willing to sponsor certain installations, such as the dating app Tinder and American Express.

She envisioned pastel-colored walls with framed pop art illustrations of dripping ice cream and popsicles. Light fixtures shaped like ice cream cones hanging from the ceiling and a giant​ Neapolitan ice cream sandwich swing on which you could enjoy a scoop of your favorite flavor. It was the Millennial version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. 

A friend of Vora's offered to host the exhibit in an empty building he owned in the meatpacking district. Bunn, who designed all of the installations, says the build-out took 18 days, with everyone, including herself and Vora, working around the clock.

Tickets sold out in five days, thanks in part to a deluge of press promoting the pop-up exhibition

"Her creative vision and [Vora's] ability to get partners involved in his network--they work very well," says Will McClelland, co-founder and partner at Elizabeth Street Ventures, which led Figure8's Series A round alongside Maywic Select Investments. "She has a wellspring of creative energy, and she's pouring it into this business."  

In the three years since its debut, the Museum of Ice Cream has welcomed more than 1.6 million visitors to its roving exhibits in New York, San Francisco, Miami, and L.A. It inked two major retail partnerships with Target and Sephora to launch limited edition apparel and makeup collections in 2018. The brand also debuted its own line of ice cream, available at Target, and decided to make its San Francisco outpost its first permanent location. This December, the Museum of Ice Cream will open a second one in New York's trendy SoHo neighborhood. Tickets are already on sale.  

Bunn says she wants to figure out how to make future installations (and not those limited to ice cream) as iterative, malleable, and adaptable as software. She explains that the reason Millennials and Gen-Zers are spending more and more time online is because there are not that many compelling alternatives in the real world.

"It's not that online is bad," she clarifies. "It's just that no one is trying hard enough in the real world to actually not necessarily win that race but have equal footing. If something was as compelling as Netflix, and it just lived in the real world where people could interact with each other, people would be doing it," she says.

With the money from its Series A, Figure8 is planning to ramp up operations--and to respond to the considerable interest Bunn is getting from brands that see potential beyond the ice cream concept. She says she's already charted a road map "at least until 2024," which includes launching other brands under the Figure8 umbrella as well as one-time installations and corporate projects that she says she can't yet disclose. She says she hopes her work will lead people to have meaningful connections with one another IRL--in real life. "I want to spend the rest of my life figuring out how we can truly build a world that can support and have a relationship with humans," she says.

"So [I'm] thinking about, how do you actually build experiences that are so engaging to our audience that the photograph becomes a garnish?" Bunn adds. "It's there for you to have so you can look back on it, but it's not the purpose of why you're there."

Published on: Nov 20, 2019