Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! 👋 We’re Michael Alexis and Tasia Duske, owners at Museum Hack.
Museum Hack is a 55+ person company based in NYC. In 2018 we joined the Inc 5000 with $2.8 million in revenue, as one of the fastest-growing private companies in America.
We are known for operating renegade tours of the world's best museums. This includes public tours like our Badass Bitches of The Getty and Game of Thrones-inspired tour of The Met. We also run private tours of the museum for VIP groups, families, bachelorette parties and marriage proposals. We consult for museums to help them attract new audiences. We also run team building events inside museums across the country.
Everything we do is VIP, fast-paced, story-based and includes social elements, actions that give you a new perspective on the galleries (and life) and sometimes wine.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
On a starlit evening in 2013, Museum Hack’s founder, Nick Gray, went on a date to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That night Nick fell in love... with the museum. Over the next few weeks, Nick hosted renegade tours for his friends while working his day job at the family business--a company that sold electrical equipment for small airplanes.
Everything changed when a blog wrote about Nick’s tours. The next day more than 1,300 people emailed Nick wanting to join one of his tours.
The first real-time he started to charge was when he’d let people skip the waiting list. He’d say, “I’ve got like 1,500 people on the waiting list. If you want to skip it, you can pay and you can sign up for a couple of spots this weekend.”
However, on his first paid tour, he ended up giving everyone their money back. He said it felt wrong to have so much fun AND get paid.
What Nick really wanted was to grow into his passion project into a real business that could make real change. He knew he needed to hire a team.
Nick started hiring guides and charging for his tours to pay the guides. This led to launching in more cities and hiring more guides. Museums started contacting him to ask him to consult for them and help attract new audiences. Corporations started reaching out asking if he could handle large groups. He ended up building a fully bootstrapped business-- never taking any outside investment -- and being so scrappy that he was profitable from day one.
Museum Hack is best known for its unique storytelling style which makes the museum more accessible, understandable and digestible for our guests.
All of Nick’s work was guided by the ultimate principle that Museum Hack should exist to reimagine and inspire new adult museum experiences around the world.
In 2018, Nick named Tasia as CEO and we began to run the company together, building innovative systems, increasing revenues, and improving team satisfaction scores. At the end of 2018, we had lunch with Nick and asked if he would sell us the company. A number of factors aligned that made sense: We wanted bigger opportunities, Nick was sure he never wanted to return to management, and so we eventually negotiated a purchase agreement that was win-win for all.
The new structure is such that we are equal partners at 42.5% and Nick still holds 15%. He was both able to lock-in a big financial win for his investment in the company, and also participate in its future potential.
The biggest change we have made as owners is increasing the focus on corporate work. For about five years, Museum Hack led museum tours as team building activities for corporate clients like Google, Facebook, and KPMG. In 2019, we acquired teambuilding.com so that we could continue to grow that team-building side of the business and expand to include other brands. We also have exciting plans for Museum Hack to do more tours in the US, and international plans as well.
An article about a historical figure can attract 10,000x more readers when a movie about their story is released.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Content and social media marketing have been key to our growth--specifically on Instagram. Early in our business growth, we struggled with launching new cities. One of the tactics we tried was working with influencers. We invited people with blogs and Instagram followings to join a complimentary tour. In total, we had about 30 of these guests join us, and it was enough to “jump-start” the cities with ticket sales, reviews and upward momentum for our SEO.
If you do want to work with influencers then you need to make sure the value you provide matches the value you are asking for. In our case, a ~$50 ticket to a premium experience is a nice gift, but wouldn’t be a match for influencers with tens of thousands of followers. Instead, we prioritized working with influencers that were at our level.
As we built a following on our own social channels (37K on IG at the time of writing), we started developing our own voice. We realized that the thing that made people love our tours was the way we exposed them to art and also made them laugh.
Thus, our meme strategy was born. Our memes are easily the best performing posts. Here are a few of our favorites.
We’re not sure if this is good or bad but we’ve heard from many people that they didn’t know we did tours-- they thought we were just a funny Instagram account. In a way, we’re honored! But also we want them to come on tour and experience the depth of what we offer.
With content marketing, it was all about building inertia. For us, it was a viable lead-gen tactic since we viewed it as a long-term game, and we heavily invested in blog content. At last count, we have about 470 blog articles on the site.
Despite investing heavily in a team of writers, we knew even the best content of ours took months or even years before anyone would read it. Sometimes what we wrote on the blog wasn’t relevant at a given time, but became more so later (ie. an article about a historical figure attracted 10,000x more readers when a movie was released about their story).
The articles we wrote have slowly increased their positions on Google until many have reached the front page which attracts organic traffic. SEO builds on SEO.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we are in a very interesting place as museums and cultural institutions are currently closing their doors.
Museum Hack is best known for its unique storytelling style which makes the museum more accessible, understandable and digestible for our guests.
With museums and offices closed down for the foreseeable future, we realized that we could still help our clients by offering Online Storytelling Workshops. These 90-minute, 100% remote workshops were rolled out two weeks ago and have won back 40% of our canceled business as well as attracted new clients looking for team building events for their new remote workers.
The biggest challenge was just how fast it all happened. At the same time that museums were closing left and right, and social distancing became the norm, our public tours and team building events were being canceled, and it was clear we had to adapt or be left behind.
Our team has actually worked remotely since our inception in 2013, so we had a head start when it came to developing a strong company culture and working out the many kinks that come with remote situations. For years we’ve been doing remote dance parties, meditation sessions, book clubs, and group yoga in addition to the typical meetings companies usually have.
Our advice to small business owners who are facing something similar is to take this time to reevaluate and fine-tune your company's existing core values. These should be crystal clear at your company as the dust settles and work as usual resumes. You’ll be stronger for it, find that you’re hiring the right people, and building a team that can weather the next storm that may come.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Michael: For me, it was a simple yet profound realization: You don’t have to be a founder to be an entrepreneur. You can buy a company, inherit one, franchise, or license. None of these options are inherently better or worse than starting your own.
Tasia: Reexamining my definition of “Servant Leadership '' was key. For much of my career, I modeled myself after Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I worked as a youth counselor, then front-office manager for a major hotel chain, and then later as Chief of Staff for a startup. In each role, if I ended the day without being fully-depleted, then I felt like I was failing. My mindset was that my clients and team needed all of me. If I didn’t answer every question or follow up immediately, I was letting them down. As a result, I felt guilty nearly every day.
Then I learned a hard lesson: my team didn’t need me as much as I thought. As I developed as a leader, I learned that sometimes people have questions that don’t need to be completely solved, they just need a little direction. I also learned that by taking better care of myself, I could focus on supporting my team in new, more sustainable ways. For example, instead of trying to fix day-to-day problems, I took a longer view to help employees develop their problem-solving skills.
The result is a massive change, not just in my emotional health, but in the success of our people and company. We’ve grown to ~$2.8 million in revenue, enough to join the Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing private companies in America. More importantly, our team satisfaction scores are higher than ever, we are growing as an organization, and I no longer feel the guilt that I used to lose sleep over.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
One of our most successful team building activities to date is something we refer to as “Mr. Roger’s Calls”, so named because we are a fully remote workplace and the purpose is to help our employees and contractors get to know their digital neighbors.
Here’s how it works. Twice each month, Slack randomly matches two or three team members to schedule a 30-minute call. The only rule is that during the call you aren’t allowed to talk about work, and you are encouraged to explore other topics. Employees talk about their pets, travel, favorite books, and similar topics. These conversations help employees get to know each other better and find common ground.
Over the year or so that we’ve run Mr. Roger’s Slack Calls, we’ve noted a significant increase in camaraderie and teamwork, as well as an increase in retention and job satisfaction — measured with quarterly surveys of our team. We’d highly recommend Mr. Roger’s calls for every remote team, and even for teams that congregate in an office as well.
In the last two years, we’ve increasingly used automation for our support team (marketing, sales, admin, etc.). The goal isn’t to replace people with automation, it’s to use automation to augment our team members’ talents and productivity. For example, we taught our sales team how to automate lead qualification and other repetitive sales tasks; which resulted in significant time savings (~10 hours per week per sales rep). This is extra time the sales team can use to spend more time on the phone with potential clients, which is a win for us and also a win for them (commission-based sales).
With Zapier, our team has automated ~14,000 tasks per month; which allows everyone to focus on higher-level creative work and developing systems that grow the business.
Some of the most difficult tasks to manage at Museum Hack were all the different times, locations and guide capabilities for certain tours. Accidentally assigning a guide the Bad Ass Bitches tour when the tour group they are leading is expecting the Game of Thrones tour means the guide won’t be properly prepared to lead the group through the museum and the group won’t get what they signed up for.
Additionally, our tour schedules can be very complicated but using When I Work allows us to easily schedule 30 tour guides in 9 different cities (not to mention the office staff). Moreover, it gives employees control over their schedules with features like My Availability and Shift Swap. Instead of manually keeping track of ever-changing availabilities, employees enter and maintain their own availability. When an update is made, their managers are notified for approval purposes.
This has significantly reduced the time spent creating and maintaining schedules, and on top of that, we have fewer headaches when creating schedules that work for the guides and the managers.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Every leader should read Susan Scott's Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time. This book is about having hard conversations, faster; which is critical for moving forward with healthy relationships in life and at work. The key premise is that our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time.
We invest a significant amount of time working with our team, helping to develop and empower them, and helping them to feel happy and excited about their work. If you have a strong, productive team, then you will achieve more than you ever could alone.
Fierce Conversations was also key to accelerating Tasia’s career by asking for what she wanted. She went from Chief of Staff to COO to CEO of a 55+ person company in under three years, and before she was 30.
In the words of Susan Scott, “While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can”!
Also, Noah Kagan Presents is a great podcast and anything written by Isaac Asimov is gold.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Give recognition for individual achievements daily. For example, we have a #you-are-awesome channel on slack where anyone can share praise for a coworker, and the leadership team records shout-out videos where we give our teams credit for their awesome achievements that week.
Avoid outside investment if you can.
We prefer self-funding for three reasons:
We don’t have to compromise with the product or mission of the company. The closely-held structure means that the owners are directly involved with the decision making and operations of the business.
All of the business profits accrue to us. Acknowledging that VC capital can give you a piece of a bigger financial pie, we still prefer the direct correlation between our work each year and the profit that comes from it.
We have no intention of ever selling the business. This preference gives us a long-term view of what we can build and precludes investment from most VCs.
Bootstrapping is actually easier than most would-be entrepreneurs think. To make it work, you need to be able to do two things; First, bootstrappers must be very effective at marketing. In most cases, you need to achieve a very low customer acquisition cost in order to operate profitably. You can achieve this result with productive strategies in SEO, PR and other areas of marketing. If your main acquisition strategy is ads for another cost-intensive area, then bootstrapping may not work for you. Second, you need to build a financial buffer. We recommend having at least three months of operating expenses in the bank. If you have this buffer, then you can afford to take risks and build out new initiatives without jeopardizing payroll. Also, if your business model ever stops working then you can survive for at least another quarter while you develop a new one.
Do more than your competition
Whether it’s content marketing, social media, SEO, email or PR, doing more than your competition can make a huge difference. While each of these channels has a different approach, “doing more work than the competition” will help you stand out. For example, instead of writing a ~300-word blog article, write a 10,000+ word resource on the topic.
Aim for national media coverage
For a small business, Museum Hack has earned a good deal of media coverage. One way we punch above our weight is by sending custom, personalized YouTube videos to journalists. Instead of blasting a general pitch about a new renegade museum tour we’re launching (like our Game of Thrones-inspired tour of The MET for example), we’ll read up on the writer, see what interests them, and tie it all together in a custom YouTube video that starts with “Hi XXX, my name is XXX and I’m here today to tell you about XXX because you’re interested in XXX”. While there is no silver bullet when it comes to garnering media coverage, going above and beyond and showing the journalist that you’ve done your research is one way we’ve found we can outperform the typical, generic pitch.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! Our sister company, teambuilding.com is hiring a full time, remote sales rep here.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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