From the March 2011 issue of Entrepreneur
A trio of New Yorkers delivers fabulous fetes made to order
A trio of New Yorkers delivers fabulous fetes made to order
Photo© Natalie Brasington

Entrepreneurs: Tania Luna, Kat Dudina and Maya Gilbert, founders of Surprise Industries, a New York company that plans surprise events for individuals and businesses. Think trapeze lessons, private beer tastings and a zombie birthday party complete with actors in costume and a terrifying alleyway ambush--the possibilities are endless.

How It Works: The clients themselves can be the surprisees, or they can hire the company to surprise someone they know. Surprisees have no idea what they're paying for, aside from some hints, a location and an arrival time. They're asked what kind of experience they want (adrenaline-spiked, romantic, mysterious) and what the occasion is. Then, Surprise Industries' team, including 13 part-time "agents of surprise" on call for emergency brainstorming sessions, makes it happen by contacting the right people and putting together the surprise.

In covering our "Wacky Idea" subject, Surprise Industries, for our March issue, Entrepreneur staff writer Jennifer Wang got her own surprise: A lesson in cloud swinging at a circus school in Williamsburg, N.Y. The glittering Agent S-aerial dancer Seanna Sharpe-showed our writer how the experts twirl on silk cloud swings.

What Possessed Them: Gilbert stumbled upon a website called somethingstore.com that sold "surprise" objects. After trying it out, she realized the awesome power of buying a mystery. Now, Dudina says, "We want to spread the surprise bug and encourage risk-taking and adventure-seeking."

"Aha" Moment: One night in June 2008, the three were chatting about cool business ideas and hit on a concept that combined somethingstore.com with the excitement of learning something new and unexpected in a class. "The idea just appeared on the table. We thought we should do it, and that night, we did it," Luna says.

Startup: Within minutes, they bought the domain name golearnsomething.com and got to work on a business plan. They entered their idea into a competition and won $10,000 to get started. By the time the first order came in January 2009, the concept had morphed into Surprise Industries, covering all types of experiences, not just classes.

Customers: Most clients are in their 20s and 30s, but the trio has planned surprises for family reunions and vacations, as well as corporate team-building activities and company events. "It's like a concierge service, a little personalized luxury experience that's accessible to anyone," Luna says.

Success: Revenue doubled in 2010, and Surprise Industries now receives approximately two private orders a day (averaging about $300 to $500) and one corporate order a week (as much as $10,000). Clients include Christian Dior, L'Oreal and marketing agency Mr. Youth--and this all came about without any active marketing efforts.

What's Next: Building up business clients and focusing on large-scale private surprises, as well as planning more public holiday surprises for multiple groups. (Last year's Valentine's Day involved couples samurai fighting, a Moroccan cooking class and Thai massage.) Gilbert says they're constantly expanding, too: "Our database of surprises is the largest in New York, but we're going after interesting people in all interesting cities."