A group of internet entrepreneurs take male bonding to a whole new level with their jet-fighter flights and dune-buggy races--and just maybe secure some new business in the process.
Kacper Postawski climbs slowly from the cockpit of the two-seat Marchetti fighter jet, pauses for a shaky moment on the wing, and crawls to a patch of tarmac shaded by a fuel tank from the Las Vegas sun. When someone asks how he's doing, the internet entrepreneur holds up a plastic baggy of his own vomit.
Welcome to Maverick Business Adventures. At most networking events, "high speed" is a golf cart on a straightaway, but the Mavericks are reimagining the business trip and bonding with their peers over activities like flying fighter jets, racing dune buggies, and floating in zero gravity aboard a specially modified aircraft. And they're paying well for the privilege. Each of the group's trips costs about $9,000 per person in addition to membership fees of up to $5,000 a year.
The group's founder, internet-marketing pioneer Yanik Silver, says he started the group to try to combine all his favorite activities. "What are the things I really love?" Silver says he asked himself one day. "Adventure, partying, [and] business. So I had this idea for M.B.A. that had been sitting in my idea journal."
The members of M.B.A. (ironically, none of the members on the Vegas trip have an M.B.A. degree) all run businesses with between $1 million and $100 million in annual revenue, most of them selling products like vitamins or exercise guides or acting as affiliates and placing ads for products sold by other people. Each is admitted to the group by Silver with the understanding that they'll be candid about their businesses, even though some members might be direct competitors.
For most of the Mavericks, the main payoff is being able to discuss business with peers who have grappled with the same problems as them. This has particular value to M.B.A.'s participants because of the mostly solitary nature of running a small business online.
During the first day's business session, Jim Sweeney, owner of Honesteonline.com, which helps to validate Web merchants, explains how he's discovered some sales rules that apply regardless of the product. For instance, the price point $39.95 grosses more and sells more units than either $29.95 or $49.95. ("I found the same thing-different marketplace too," says Silver.)
On another day, Mike Hill, a consultant and C.E.O. of Mymediabuyer.com, talks about the wonders of the free trial offer. "Those of us who know about the risk-free trial offer don't really talk about it because we're too busy making millions of dollars a month," says Hill.
Another draw for the trips is the chance to meet celebrity entrepreneurs; on the group's first trip to Baja in February, motorcycle builder and TV personality Jesse James rode with the group on their three-day, 425-mile dune-buggy race across the California desert, telling them about his licensing deal with Wal-Mart and his brand strategy. In Las Vegas, the main attractions are X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and skateboarder Tony Hawk, who signs autographs and asks the group for ideas about raising money for his foundation.
Diamandis, who owns the company that will take the Mavericks on a zero-gravity flight later that day, divulges how he launched the X Prize, a $10 million competition for the first private aircraft to shoot humans into space twice in two weeks, which was won in 2004 by billionaire Paul Allen. He's since announced more branded X Prizes in genomics, unmanned moonshots, and hyperefficient automobiles, each offering multimillion-dollar prizes.
Like many of the men in the room, Diamandis launched his business with very little backing (or even the initial funding to pay out the first prize). While he's now operating on a much larger scale than most of the members-his latest project is setting up a racing league for rocket-powered aircraft that he thinks could become a billion-dollar business-the Mavericks say they still have plenty to learn from him.
Craig Ballantyne, who runs TurbulenceTraining.com, a fitness and weight-loss website, points out the overlap between the body-transformation prizes he offers and Diamandis' incentive-based X Prizes. In both, the work-and money-participants put in far exceeds the value of the prize on offer, and Diamandis has become an expert at leveraging this to create technological advances. "His passion is putting people into space," says Ballantyne. "Mine is helping people get in shape."
Perhaps even more valuable than the daily business sessions are the bonds formed-tighter than any networking event could ever conceive. And those bonds can be helpful for business.
Postawski, for example, got to know Web marketer Aymen Boughanmi riding in the same helicopter through the Grand Canyon and floating next to one another in zero gravity. They brainstormed about new business ideas in their hotel rooms at night, and Postawski later says that Boughanmi will likely wind up sending millions of dollars worth of traffic to his site every month from Facebook.
"For business deals, you've got to know people in a very personal environment," says Boughanmi. "It creates trust, and you get to know people's strengths and weaknesses, then you capitalize on the strengths."Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.