Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
We are Erick Szentmiklosy and Daniel Zaltsman, the Co-founders of Haiku Guys & Gals. Technically we are The Haiku Guys after whom our company was initially named; there are many more of us now. Our flagship product is an entertainment service in the form of personalized Free Haiku for guests at events written on typewriters about anything they tell us and our core customer base is primarily event planners.
After realizing the colossal amount of joy this brief encounter creates for strangers, we’ve made our mission haiku for everyone. KPIs of our business all center around that. We conservatively estimate a collective 60,000 haiku written since inception, at over 600 events, and have generated over $600,000 in income for the poets that work with us. Our monthly revenue averages around $35,000/month and we’re grateful for every single penny. We are so lucky to get paid to write poetry and are blessed with the opportunity to share it with our poets.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
People always ask us if we’re poets or writers. The short answer is yes, but it wasn’t always that way. In our adolescent years, we both wrote poetry here and there but individually decided we were pretty bad at it. Erick even failed poetry class in high school. Erick comes from Hungarian and Colombian parents, grew up skateboarding, listening to rock, and reading Henry Miller in Dover, NJ. Daniel was born in Saint Petersburg, emigrated to the US and grew up in Cliffside Park, NJ performing in Russian plays, ballroom dancing, and playing counter strike.
Both of us grew up in lower-middle-class households and our journeys crossed at freshman orientation of Montclair State University. We spent most of our time studying at the library and going on vision quests. Our studies, like our interests, intersected - Daniel’s Marketing and Sociology and Erick’s Mathematics and Philosophy. Later these would serve as foundations for running our business.
During senior year, we wanted to start a business but had no idea what business to start or how to go about it. Inspired by a late-night dazed encounter with a stop sign, we developed a logo that replaced STOP with START. Shortly thereafter, our friend Zach came back from a keynote by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes, and was reeling about how inspired he was by the story. A lightbulb went off: we should interview entrepreneurs and share their stories on the internet as inspiration for other people to START going after their dreams. But how would we find these entrepreneurs?
We can’t stress enough how valuable starting on the street was for our future success. Not only did we develop a key network of future collaborators, clients, and fans, but we also perfected the way we would go to market with it.
Our momentum halted when Erick moved to Florida right after college. We stayed in touch while we held our first jobs out of school - Erick at an investment bank and Daniel at an NYC social media startup. In Florida, Erick bought a vintage Royal Typewriter at a thrift store to write letters to his friends back home. Turns out, writing letters on a typewriter is frustrating and he began writing haiku instead. During a brief visit to NYC for Christmas break, we thought it would be cool to breathe some life back into START and go out on the streets of Brooklyn to find entrepreneurs. We figured a lot of them live there.
We didn’t want to be “those guys” on the corner asking pedestrians for a minute of their time, especially with the sufficiently weird question: “Excuse me, are you by any chance an entrepreneur?” The best way to get people to stop and talk to us would be by offering something for free. But what would be interesting to offer such that folks would actually stop for one and also not cost us a ton of cash? Erick had the typewriter with him and suggested a Free Haiku since he was writing them anyway. Cool and interested people would see our Free Haiku sign and stop by to ask for one. Everyone else would keep walking by, we wouldn’t bother with them.
When a person walked up, Erick asked for a topic and got to writing. While they were stuck standing there waiting, Dan would tell them about START and ask if they were, by chance, an entrepreneur and interested in doing an interview later in the week. One day, a guy who was jogging by stopped and said, “Hey, this is cool. Would you come to do this at my festival?” We said yes, he gave us his email address and ran away. He didn’t even get a haiku. That was Jeff Krasno, the founder of the Wanderlust Festival, and he was the impetus for us moving from doing interviews to performing haiku at events.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We can’t stress enough how valuable starting on the street was for our future success. Not only did we develop a key network of future collaborators, clients, and fans, but we also perfected the way we would go to market with it. We thought lean from the get-go always taking careful note of guest responses. While our product is not digital, we approached it as though it was.
The service itself is a brief interaction, and there are only a few things to perfect. At first, we used pharmacy-grade 3x5 notecards where the ink bled through to the other side. Our outfits were initially whatever we were wearing and not fit for a cocktail party. We asked only one question: “What would you like your haiku to be about?”
Luck and necessity played a big part in the iterations. One day on our way to write haiku at a monthly dance party, we realized we didn’t have any notecards on us and stopped at a Paper Source to grab some. They have limitless options and we found a lovely cardstock that has the look and feel of a wedding invitation. People would receive their haiku, and holding it in their fingers go “ooOoohhh, this feels nice,” before even reading it. We were booked for a fashion event on the Hornblower Infinity out of Chelsea Piers and knew that we’d look like schmucks if we didn’t show up in suits.
So we went to Saks Off 5th and bought $3,500 Versace suits for $600. Some people were frightened by the question “what do you want your haiku to be about,” so we experimented with other versions like “tell us about your favorite moment from this week,” and “what are you looking forward to in the near future?”
While the core offering came together we got all our business ducks in a row. We purchased the first iteration of our domain (poetryatparties.com), registered the company in New Jersey, developed our first website, set up our email servers. The expenses were low enough that we were able to cover them from what we were making at our full-time jobs. Even to this day, we are able to locate great deals on typewriters - some of which we find for under $100 a piece.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The day after Jeff asked us to come to write at Wanderlust, Dan suggested: “we should be writing poetry at parties.” We were on our way to find a spot in Dumbo to post up with the typewriters and Erick stopped as soon as the words were finished coming out of Dan’s mouth. He downloaded the GoDaddy app and bought poetryatparties.com.
Dan was working in the startup world and shared an office with a gentleman named Sascha Lewis, the founder of Flavorpill. He was throwing a monthly happy hour dance party, and Dan asked him if we could test our concept there. At that party, we met Jerri Chou, founder of The Feast, who wanted to pay us to write at her conference. At each event, we met someone new that wanted to hire us. Seven years later, in 2019 alone, we’ve performed at 207 events in 21 states, mostly by word of mouth and brand awareness.
We never really “financed” the business. We both had full-time jobs and this was a straight-up side hustle that was fun and growing. We launched in 2013, didn’t pay ourselves until 2017, never took out a loan, or raised capital. As time went on and we received more booking inquiries, we asked our friends to write with us if one of us wasn’t available. Some of them started writing with us regularly and still do through today. Most of our money went to them or towards resources.
We were lucky to get some early press from The New York Post and worked some regular gigs like DYBRKR so the word spread pretty quickly about who we were. After a few years, one of our (ex)-friends began working full time on handling booking and managing day to day operations. After about a year and a half, Erick quit his full-time job selling payroll and used his skills to upgrade the operations. We went from collecting payments using PayPal to managing receivables with Quickbooks and from keeping track of bookings with a Google spreadsheet to a using a full-blown CRM called Copper.
We went from a one-sheet slapped together on Google Docs to a beautifully designed twelve-page deck and paid for a real logo. We put a sales process in place and began using templates for responding to similar types of emails. Now we use Hubspot and have an end-to-end booking system that’s down to a science from lead gen through to post-event follow up and thank yous.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We incorporated it in 2013 and didn’t begin sincerely advertising until 2019. That said, all of our business has been from word of mouth and serendipity. If you carry a typewriter around with a sign that has Free Haiku painted on the case, people typically ask what you’re up to. We show up dressed to impress and truly connect with each person. They tell us their hopes, dreams, and fears.
They tell us about affairs, deaths in the family, miscarriages, growing families, and intimate stories from their past. All we do is listen carefully and translate their energy into a haiku. Guests laugh, cry, hug us, and tell their hosts about how awesome our poets are. The hosts and guests tell their friends. Eventually, enough of them book us for the growth to continue.
Instagram has been a blessing. We’ve achieved slow and steady growth, currently at 12k followers. Sometimes we run haiku contests, giving away $100 for the best haiku on a given topic. Since we began running Google Ads, we’ve seen a lift in direct traffic, but we haven’t been able to nail Facebook ads. Other than Instagram, the social media world has been a battle. We honestly owe the majority of our traffic to word of mouth marketing from the number of events we do.
Our average deal size is $2,100. Depending on the size, duration, and location of an event, it may be more or less. One of the ways we generate interest is by giving discounts to couples for their wedding and non-profit organizations if they truly can’t afford to pay our full rate. Sometimes we donate our services to an organization pro-bono if they represent a cause that strikes us. We still pay our poets their full rate and view the money spent as an experiential advertising expense. There’s nothing more powerful for our brand than for an individual to receive a free haiku in person. The more haiku we write for people, the more people go to our website later on.
Before we knew it, we had created a whole new market category. Initially, we thought we were competing with photo-booths, now there are myriad other performance poetry services all across the nation. We know many of these groups personally and are grateful to get to share the market with them. We continue to invest in the quality of the end-to-end experience to provide the highest caliber offering available.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are very fortunate to have been profitable from Day 1. Having a modest overhead gives us a comfortable unit margin of around 30% depending on the event. It’s shrunk over time as we pay for more services that streamline our operations and because we’ve increased the amount of money we pay our poets per hour.
Today our operation consists of the co-founders, our booking team Alida and Tiffany, and about thirty poets in seven cities: NYC, LA, SF, Boston, Chicago, Austin, and Washington DC. Spreading out and having a reliable team allows us both to continue working full-time jobs since it’s not profitable enough yet for us to each earn a living wage.
Always get everything in writing. Starting with the operating agreement all the way down to roles and responsibilities. We’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to document the business’ bylaws upfront rather than having to react to a sticky situation later.
Erick moved to LA two years ago to expand our network on the west coast which was initially based mostly in NYC and DC. Through our network, we are able to find talented marketing professionals to help us leverage core competencies such as SEO, SMM, Web Development, and Branding.
Our goal will always be to continue providing premier entertainment in the form of personalized Free Haiku written on typewriters for people. In the near future, we’re optimizing our marketing channels, refreshing our brand, and moving to 100% plantable paper. Within three to six months, we’ll be expanding our offerings to introduce more ways to spread our mission of haiku for everyone. They are all in ways that no one has ever seen before so we’re keeping them a secret for now. We’ll give you a hint though: soon, you won’t need to be at an event to receive the magic of a haiku experience.
Our long term sights are set on doing for poetry what Hershey's did to chocolate - taking it from being this seemingly inaccessible art form to experience for the masses.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way in no particular order:
- Always get everything in writing. Starting with the operating agreement all the way down to roles and responsibilities. We’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to document the business’ bylaws upfront rather than having to react to a sticky situation later.
- Pay yourself for your work. The optimal formula is to re-invest in the business but only after paying yourself for the work you put in.
- Founders form the initial culture. We’ve spent a lot of time looking around asking about our culture and values when it was right here in us all along.
- If you see a wave coming, be prepared to ride it. Experiential event marketing began trending right around when we began. Brands want to connect with their fans through one-on-one experiences and we provide them with a meaningful way to accomplish this.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our site is built on WordPress; it’s not our favorite but it gets the job done. We use Hubspot for lead forms and tracking all our data. It’s like having a Lambo engine to drive our business. PandaDoc pulls fields from our deal records in Hubspot to auto-fill both contracts and invoices for client signatures and payment. It has automated reminders for both and Quickbooks syncs the transactions to our Chase account. G-Suite for business allows us to use shared drives and sync literally everything; it’s worth the extra $7 per user versus G-Suite Basic.
Our typewriter fleet includes two chrome-plated Smith-Coronas, a handful of Royal Quiet-de-Luxe’s, one Remette, a silver Rocket, three Remingtons, one Underwood, a few Olivetties and some other typewriter brands.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
When it comes to inspiration, we’re a bit all over the place. We both read almost daily but it’s not just booked. We find articles on Medium about entrepreneurship and business, subscribe to Noah Kagan’s newsletter, listen to podcasts by Tim Ferriss, Joe Rogan, Shane Parrish, and Reid Hoffman.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz is a good one to pick up as often as possible. He talks about the countless struggles that occur when growing a business and the sacrifices his personal life makes. He also just wrote What You Do Is Who You Are which we are currently working through and recommend.
Girlboss hits home for us because it’s about how Sophia Amoruso stumbles upon her business similar to the way we did. If you don’t know where to start, this is a highly recommended read.
Ask for help and be as helpful as possible for other people too. Without the help of our friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers, none of this would be possible.
Basho - Really all the original haiku masters helped to inspire our approach to everything we do. We read The Beat Poets, Ernest Hemingway, Edna Saint Vincent Millay, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Marquez. Erick loves to read philosophy from Socrates to Camus. Dan loves absurdist lit from Gogol to Kafka. Some of our favorite biographies have been about Carnegie, Jobs, and Buffet.
Yvon Chouinard - we recently read him and it has shifted our mindset to be even more conscious of the way our work impacts the environment.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
In the spirit of where this all began, with a START, the top tip for entrepreneurs is to just go for it and get started. It is unlikely that you’ll end up where you initially thought you were going, but you’ll be better off figuring it out while you’re in motion. Start with something, anything.
Ask for help and be as helpful as possible for other people too. Without the help of our friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers, none of this would be possible. Say yes to almost every invitation. Talk about what you’re doing with as many people as you can. Become a broken record. Do all of this in such a way that you make people happy. We are in the business of connecting with people. If you’re trying to start something people-oriented, make eye contact, listen, and ask questions.
Tap into what inspires people and makes them feel alive. We would have never imagined we would create something people would tattoo on themselves, the frame on their bedside tables, and hang on their fridge to read every day. We are driven by these interactions and they feel the love that all our poets put into the work they do.
We’re at a place now where we are in motion and trying to balance our time between the core offering and adding new high-quality products and services. We’re going to learn a lot on this journey and will let you know what comes of it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’d love to bring on someone to help with business development. Sure, we’ve done a decent job getting this far but we’re by no means pros. Our goal is to double revenue in 2020 and we’d love to pay someone to help us accomplish this.
We are always looking for great poets to join us. Our roster is pretty stacked at the moment but if you’re in New York, LA, Boston, Washington DC, SF, Austin or Chicago, give us a shout.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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