On the weekend of February 28, I rented a mansion in Los Angeles for two nights and stayed there with about 15 people from the internet. I facilitated a mini-conference; everyone there presented some ideas. After that, we partied. In this post I'd like to share: a few lessons learned, some financial accounting, a few observations, and a bibliography of all the books and films mentioned in conversation throughout the weekend.
The main thing is that I pulled it off and it was epic. Possibly, potentially, legendary. Only time can tell, but feedback was overwhelmingly, almost absurdly positive. More than a few people said things like, "most amazing thing I've ever been to." I won't brag and show you tons of testimonials, but let's just say this email I received afterward is not even an outlier.
I feel roughly 90% confident that I will do another event similar to this, bigger and better. Personally I'm leaning toward a more production-oriented version, more on the "writing retreat" model, somewhere in the mountains or something.
This was my first time ever hosting a fairly elaborate event IRL so I found the preparation and execution fairly stressful, though not too bad. A second time would likely be much less stressful, since I'd know what to expect.
On the one full day, Saturday, I facilitated a mini-conference of sorts. Everyone gave presentations and we discussed. On the whole it was quite interesting and edifying for all, I think. But I could have done some things better. It was too long, first of all. I should have planned a longer break in the middle, or split it across two days. I also should have kept time better, I was too relaxed about that. Next time I should also give people more guidance in the few weeks before, to support them in planning their presentations. The first time I couldn't really do this because even I didn't know what it would be like, but next time I will have a better idea of what to expect.
A month beforehand I announced the idea and circulated an application form. One purpose of the form was to gauge interest and willingness/ability to pay, so I could then compare this data to projected costs and see if it was feasible.
Since it was my first time ever doing anything like this, my only goal was to actually pull it off and send everyone home happy. My only financial objective was to break even. And I acted accordingly, which meant that I spent any potential profit on any little thing that might increase the odds of success and decrease the odds of serious problems or unhappiness. If I do another, I will probably try to earn a modest profit, and when I prove I can reliably deliver experiences that people love, maybe in the future I'll be able to do quite profitable events. So far, so good!
I received a total of 46 submissions.
I decided to try an aggressively tiered pricing model. The idea was to offer a few expensive options, so that hopefully I could use that money to offer a few spots for people who are broke. I gave people three options. Remember that this is before I even booked a place. I checked out some prices on Airbnb and suggested these options based on some very loose math.
53% or 25 people wanted the cheap option: Floor/couch/sleeping bag on a first-come, first-served basis (2 nights) for ~$100
36% or 16 people said they'd want a private bed in a shared room (2 nights) for ~$300.
11% or 5 people said they'd want a private bedroom in their own room (2 nights) for ~$900
So then I emailed everyone who I thought would be a good fit. I should note that this quickly became a clusterfuck. Since I'm now a regular user of Airtable (it's my no-code database on the backend of IndieThinkers.org), I tried to stay organized by importing all the responses into Airtable but I was a day late and dollar short. So it was really chaotic, and I think I possibly failed to email some people (sorry if that was you!). But I wasn't sure if this event would even really happen, so I wasn't going to make a whole slick system in advance! But now, I know that if I try something like this again it's really going to happen — so next time I'll create a robust system for managing this stuff before announcing and receiving applications.
In the end:
4 people paid $100
4 people paid $300
1 person paid $900
This would have amounted to a total revenue of only $2500, which could have got me a crappy LA mansion, but I would have still needed money for food and booze (which I promised).
Honestly I could have just hyped it more — made more blog posts, videos, go on podcasts to talk about it, etc. — and I would have gained more paying guests. Every time I mentioned it publicly I got a handful of new applications. But luckily, a random person on Twitter asked if he could donate $1500 to the event (he declined to be mentioned in gratitude). Thanks again dude!
So once that happened, I pretty much crossed the threshold of revenue required for me to confidently book a legit mansion. Total revenue: $4000. I closed the application form and focused on making this happen. Only had a month or so.
I booked a nice place in the Hollywood Hills that could sleep 15 people. The mansion cost $3,282 for two nights.
Instead of trying to get more paying guests, I decided to use the extra space generously and focus on making it the best possible experience for everyone.
First, I offered a free private room to the guest speaker at my live podcast event. Surprisingly, he accepted and stayed at Based Mansion all weekend. In retrospect this worked out really well for everyone, because he seemed to really enjoy himself and obviously event participants always enjoy having some "featured speakers" with name recognition or whatever. So that was an accidentally great thing; next time I should probably try to bring on board some "featured guest(s)" on purpose. If you're a semi- or micro-famous intellectual of some kind, hit me up and maybe I'll pay your expenses to come out to my next event.
Next, on a first-come-first-served basis, I offered free spots to already paying members of my private community for independent intellectuals. It was a natural fit, and I'm still experimenting hard with ways to deliver as much value as possible to my people in that community. On the whole, the composition of the group that attended Based Mansion, and the chemistry as a whole, was honestly pretty perfect. So in the future I'm planning to make my IRL events free or at last steeply discounted for paying members of IndieThinkers.org. I think that aspect worked out well.
Dinner on Saturday night I had catered by Chipotle. Dinner cost $298.90
I promised a light breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and ample adult beverages throughout. Before arriving at Based Mansion I picked up these things; that supermarket run cost me $300. One of the guests chose to make their own supermarket run and buy a bunch of other nice things for the group. Had they not, perhaps my $300 worth of things would not have been enough. Or it might have been uncomfortably spartan. So next time I should plan to spend a bit more per person.
I had to Uber there and back and that was kind of expensive. I think it was about $30 each way. So figure $60 for transportation costs.
The labor cost was substantial, unsurprisingly. I use Toggl to track how I spend my time, so I can tell you I clocked 33 hours and 7 minutes preparing the LA event (not counting the hours being in LA). This overstates the labor cost for Based Mansion insofar as I also did a separate, live podcast show/party at a public venue on that Friday night (which I counted as one project in my time tracking). On the other hand, my time tracking under-estimate labor costs insofar as it only counts focused work sessions, and I definitely did a lot of little random things like emails and DMs about Based Mansion that I didn't always punch the clock on. So it's probably not a bad estimate of how long it takes to plan something like Based Mansion. So if you count the labor costs then of course Based Mansion did not break even. But it was fun to challenge myself and I can write off the labor cost as an investment: by earning the trust of people and showing I can and will deliver on apparently extremely good IRL events, I am earning the right to do bigger and potentially more profitable events in the future. So forgetting labor costs, the final tally looks like this...
Total Revenue: $4000 -
Total costs: $3941 ($3,282 + 298.90 + 300 + 60)
I kid you not, it really cut that close.
Goal of it actually happening: accomplished.
Goal of breaking even: accomplished.
Goal of creating an extremely unique, fun, edifying, and memorable social-intellectual experience: accomplished.
I profited 60 bucks, for only 33 hours of labor! That amounts to an hourly wage of about about $2/hour. Was it worth it? Definitely.
I kind of wonder if I should have taken more photos and videos, and shared them more publicly. I chose not to, out of respect for everyone's privacy. But if I wish to do more events then having good photos and videos in circulation would probably have a major positive effect (thinking with my business hat on for the moment). On the first try, going too hard on that probably would have been corny and might have felt weird to people, so I'm glad we didn't. But in the future, perhaps, if I can set expectations adequately, and get permissions, it would be good to come away with more photographs and videos of what the whole thing was really like.
Another obvious takeaway is that, next time, I'll need to go for a higher price point on average. I don't at all regret offering a really cheap option and getting scrappy to make it happen, this first time around. But next time I'll probably make the cheapest tier more expensive, and then offer scholarships quietly to whatever degree I can. Personally my mind keeps envisioning, say, a week in the mountains for people writing books, somewhere more like $500/per person. Maybe some fancy VIP tier for a higher price tag. Then if there are really great students or broke people I'll just let a few come for free or something like that.
And finally, again pretty obvious, if I plan my next one much further in advance, I should have no problem making the finances work. Doing all of Based Mansion in about a month was kind of ridiculous, in retrospect. The planning actually wasn't too bad to do in that time, but many people need more time to book a weekend trip. So next time I'll announce at least 3 months, and probably more like 6 months, in advance. Probably on my newsletter first, ahem.
I did my best to take notes on all the books and films I heard mentioned by anyone at Based Mansion. Check out the bibliography of works cited at Based Mansion LA.