Did you grow up bored with museums too? Grown-ups talked about them like they were an adventure but they made them feel like history class for old people.

Times have changed!

An entrepreneur and his team have transformed museums into exciting, vigorous, personalized adventures where you meet people, run around the museum, and, while you weren't paying attention, still learn about art.

Their company is called Museum Hack. Its founder, Nick Gray, who didn't like museums growing up either, created it out of a hobby. He gave irreverent, informative, fun, free tours to his friends describing his take on New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art on weekends.

Word got out. His tours went viral. Overnight, his waiting list grew from dozens to thousands. He hired a team, started charging, and has grown since.

Now Museum Hack has grown into corporate territory, helping firms like Google, Facebook, and KPMG create experiences, tell stories, and see old things anew.

I interviewed Michael Alexis, who leads marketing at Museum Hack. We talked about how the company has evolved from the original tours and how your company can use experimentation to rapidly grow your business.

What is Museum Hack and how did it start?

We lead renegade tours of the best museums in NYC, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The tours are unconventional--for example, we talk about the Mona Lisa of Chinese Horse Pictures--and even sassy (there are a lot of love affairs in history).

We also include a wine stop, activities like "Match Maker" where guests develop a love story for the art subjects, photo challenges, and prizes. We activate our guests. Who doesn't want to pose like you're Washington crossing the Delaware?

Museum Hack started In 2013. Our CEO, Nick Gray, went on a museum date with a woman who was passionate about the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She shared stories about which pieces she felt a personal connection to. Nick fell in love... with the museum.

For a few months he led free, friend tours of the Met that followed a similar theme. A popular blog broke the story on the friendly tours, and overnight 1,000-plus people joined his ticket wait list.

Nick hired a guide to help lead the tours, and started charging for tickets so he could pay the guide. He tells the story in his TEDx talk:

Today, we're a $2 million-plus per year business. We've been described as a thought leader in the museum industry.

How Have You Evolved?

We're growing organically. We started with public "Un-highlights" tours of the Met. Now have a variety of themed tours including "Badass Bitches of the Met" that celebrates female art and artists and "Political Scandals," which is what it sounds like.

We do private tours too. When a guest asked if she could host her bachelorette party with us, we started leading "Classy Bachelorette" party tours. When a guest asked if he could bring his company on tour, we started our company team-building tours. We do "Little Hackers" for families with kids. We've done dozens of marriage proposal tours... and we hold a perfect record--everyone said yes!

Team-building has become a large part of our business. Clients like Google, Facebook, Etsy, KPMG, LEGO, Adobe, Chipotle, Dannon and hundreds of others have hired us for things like employee team bonding and instilling company values. We had over 500 team-building tours in 2016, mostly in New York and San Francisco.

Did You Plan This Change, Discover It, Did It Just Happen, or What?

Museum Hack thrives on experimentation. There wasn't a master plan to get into company team building. We saw the opportunity and ran with it. We've had dozens of successes this way. And as many failures, probably more.

Experimentation was necessary for growth. We charge $59 to $89 per public-tour ticket, but those margins are slim. We hire talented people and pay them well. There are additional costs like museum admission, wine, bonus souvenirs, and photographers.

One business we've intentionally developed is custom experiences for corporate clients, which we call "Experience Consulting." For example,

  • Bloomingdale's worked with us to develop a custom, in-store scavenger hunt for customers and visitors at their flagship store in Manhattan
  • Elizabeth Arden hired us to lead a storytelling workshop for their team to learn the 5 Elements of a Hack we use on tour
  • SolarCity had us develop a custom scavenger hunt for their staff and other stakeholders in Philadelphia

We've done many other similar engagements, like annual conferences, staff training, onboarding videos, and sales training that our clients keep confidential.

The Bloomingdale's Scavenger Hunt Sounds Fascinating. Can You Share?

Bloomingdale's came to us because they are facing similar challenges as many established businesses--how to stay relevant and keep people excited about their brand. Just like museums, department stores are competing with all the other things millennials could be doing: Netflix, Plants vs. Zombies, Tinder.

The custom scavenger hunt was a way to win back attention and educate customers about the store. Specifically, here is what we created:

  • Guests attended at specific dates and times and we gave them branded Little Brown Bags of goodies and clues
  • The clues included a range of the store's departments and services to promote awareness. For example, guests had to find the Men's Personal Shopper station, and the "hidden" cafe at the back of the store
  • Guests did activities and challenges at each department, like "design your dream outfit for under $250" to show that the product was both appealing and affordable
  • Guests got points for snapping pictures with Bloomingdale's gold mannequins
  • We tallied points, awarded winners, and let participants explore the store

The event was a success, and we've done similar engagements since. Here are some pictures:

You Mentioned Failures. Can You Share About Them Too?

One of our company values is "No Failure, Only Feedback," but by the conventional meaning, we fail all the time.

For example, this year we tried to launch a staff training business for topics like sexual harassment, and health and compliance. We thought that staff training could be a good business for us because our renegade guides are experts at engagement and conveying information that sticks.

Ultimately, this product didn't resonate with our market. We hadn't developed the experience and credentials around these topics. We may revisit it, but for now those kinds of training workshops are on the back burner.

Do You Think Young Businesses Should Plan for Change or Let it Happen?

Unless you are a magical, unicorn business with no competitors, then you'll need to change. We've learned two big lessons:

  • Be open to change. Experiment. This means not becoming too entrenched or invested in one way of doing things. Listen to your customers and outright ask, "What else could we be doing for you?" or, "What is your biggest challenge right now?"
  • If your business isn't growing as quickly as you'd like, then you may need to force change. At Museum Hack, we look at our assets, such as talented guides, museum expertise, and a strong remote team, and find other products and services we can offer. For example, we have relationships with museums and we have a marketing team, so we are experimenting with offering marketing services to museums.

Overall we've learned to embrace change, regardless of how it happens, and work with it.

Leadership, creativity, luck, and dozens of other factors go into a successful business. Experimentation works well for Museum Hack, and I encourage people to try it on their own. When you are starting out, mitigate the risk and see if you can hit a homerun.

Published on: Dec 28, 2016