When millionaires mix work and pleasure, the result is a high-octane adventure.
The millionaires are floating around in midair, looking foolishly happy -- and not just because they’re rich. These are boys at play, unconstrained by the bounds of gravity. Manufacturing mogul Mike Lally is spinning multiple somersaults without touching down. Chris Zavadowski, wizard of webinars, is performing fingertip push-ups that spring him four feet off the floor. Real estate broker John Mewhort floats by wearing an Elvis Presley wig. A day-trading consultant is using an Internet-marketing guru as a human beach ball to play catch with a purveyor of fitness supplements, while two dozen other wealthy entrepreneurs dressed in matching flight suits are literally bouncing off the walls.
The millionaires are on a zero-gravity flight high above the Nevada desert, but they could just as easily be off-road racing in Baja California, Mexico, or rock climbing in the Rockies as part of a Maverick Business Adventures (MBA) outing. MBA is the brainchild of Internet-marketing whiz kid Yanik Silver, who contends that adventure and business networking are compatible bedfellows. To prove his point, he easily filled 30 spaces on this Nevada trip that blends aviation high jinks with fast-paced business sessions -- at $9,000 a pop for four days and three nights.
It was Silver’s own passion for adventure and sharing business secrets that fueled the genesis of Maverick Business Adventures.
“I’ve always been engaged in high-adrenaline activities,” says the 35-year-old entrepreneur, who’s based in Potomac, Maryland. “They leave me feeling renewed and reinvigorated. I always come back with new ideas to apply to my business.” Prior to starting MBA, Silver invigorated himself by running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain; bungee jumping from 440 feet; and skydiving from 30,000 feet. “Sitting on the beach for five days has never been my idea of fun,” he says.
Silver’s parents were Russian immigrants and serial entrepreneurs. He came to the United States at the age of two, began telemarketing for his father’s medical-equipment-sales business at age 14, and made his first cold call at 16. By the time he was 26, he was making $10,000 to $15,000 a month hawking sales secrets to physicians.
But it was online where Silver found his real gold mine: a universe of entrepreneurs hungry to learn the art of Internet marketing. His first Internet venture was selling sales-letter templates with pitches like, “In only two and a half minutes, you can quickly and easily create a sales letter guaranteed to sell your product or service … without writing!” Acolytes pay dearly for access to Silver’s brain -- attendees paid $3,495 each for a three-day Yanik Silver Underground Online Seminar last March.
Silver launched Maverick Business Adventures after realizing that the age-old adage “Money isn’t everything” is true. “I was pretty successful,” he says. “But was I totally fulfilled? I decided to create the kind of club that I wanted to be a part of -- hanging out with like-minded successful entrepreneurs, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and business icons, and experiencing incredible adventures.”
MBA debuted in January 2008 with an off-road racing adventure in Baja California that attracted 25 participants and featured Jesse James (the charismatic fabricator of custom motorcycles and the star of Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage and Motorcycle Mania) as the shoulder-rubbing celebrity. The Maverick Airborne Action adventure in Las Vegas was the second trip.
High in the Nevada sky, Silver’s MBA participants are as loose as any group of 30- and 40-something dudes -- and dudes they all are -- would be in the padded fuselage of a jetliner flying parabolic arcs for more than a dozen 30-second sessions of varying degrees of weightlessness. The zero-gravity flight, the first of three sky sojourns, renders everyone giddy, a looseness they carry into the portal to their first business session. But once the conversation turns to best business practices, the adventurers are in a different zone.
“Burning questions” is the theme of the first session, and it soon morphs into “biggest problems.” Complaints and solutions are tossed out in a rapid-fire manner. Importing talent is a major challenge, several agree. “Write awesome job descriptions and then grill the crap out of ’em,” says Lally, who runs a $100 million manufacturing business. “Make the job description scary,” says another businessman. “That way, only the best apply.”And that, in a way, describes the by-application-only process for joining MBA. Applicants are highly vetted company owners, CEOs, or entrepreneurs of sundry stripes, whose enterprises are generating more than $1 million annually. Willingness to share business skills, techniques, and resources is key (confidentiality agreements prevent the leaking of trade secrets to competitors). “Plus, they can’t have a big ego,” Silver adds.
Most of the Las Vegas attendees are in the business of Internet marketing. Many are making fortunes selling Internet-marketing secrets to other Internet marketers, who in turn market to still other Internet marketers. Not surprisingly, topics and lexicon in the sessions tend toward Netspeak -- conversion rates, squeeze pages, auto responders. The business gurus are serious about their work, but each is in it for the inherent freedom of entrepreneurship, which includes the freedom and income to attend the MBA adventure. Colorado-based fitness consultant Mike Geary keeps the flab off 200,000 e-subscribers and says he spends only about an hour a day at work. “I won’t let work distract me from anything I want to do,” he says. He’s making seven figures this year and expects eight figures next year. Tim Houston, of Santa Cruz, California, practices and teaches the art of online affiliate marketing. “I market more than 2,000 products,” Houston says. He came to Las Vegas because he loves “extreme.”
Peter H. Diamandis is MBA’s celebrity guest for the Vegas outing. Diamandis is most famous for founding the X Prize Foundation and awarding the $10 million Ansari X Prize to Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites for successfully launching two private space flights within two weeks in 2004. The MBA participants know him by reputation and are clearly impressed by his vision and temerity. He tells them how he announced the X Prize before he had a penny of funding: “No one asked.” And he spills his latest endeavors: the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, and a nascent venture called Rocket Racing League. The idea is to promote NASCAR-style racing in the air with rocket-powered aircraft. The League is set to debut with demonstrations this year, and races starting in 2010. The concept is just audacious enough to inspire an audacious group. “Man, he showed me that I can dream even bigger,” says attendee Mike Hill, CEO of online ad agency MyMediaBuyer.com. “But I wonder why it took him so long to raise $10 million. Geez, just build a page, build some traffic.”
Work, Play; Play, Work
The four-day Maverick Airborne Action adventure in Las Vegas proceeds in alternating sessions of work and play. The participants pull on flight suits yet again for a day of aerial combat -- one-on-one dogfights in fast, maneuverable planes capable of pulling such high g-forces that the prospective aces are instructed how to avoid blacking out in mid-combat. Trash talk ensues as everyone pairs off to engage in friendly fire. Real pilots with nicknames like Nails and Screech handle takeoffs and landings, but the entrepreneurs take the stick and throttle and proceed to dog each other in a series of high and low yo-yos and half Cuban eights in best-of-five sets. Two online marketing consultants rise to the top: Brian Johnson, COO of StrategicProfits.com, scores a kill within seconds. Justin Abernathy, who runs SureClick Promotions with his twin brother, Jason, emerges as top gun. A true ace, he takes down his brother in five straight dogfights.
When the adventurers settle into a poker tournament that evening (everyone is doled out an equal stake), an unlikely champion emerges. Quiet Kacper Postawski, marketer of natural ways to enhance sleep (who became so queasy during aerial combat that he considered parachuting out over the Nevada desert), rebounds to handily put away all comers. “I read faces pretty well,” he says afterward.
Breakfast the next day combines business with play. Skateboarding mogul Tony Hawk stops by to discuss his Tony Hawk Foundation. The “first person to land a 900” (i.e., multiple midair skateboard spins) and the first to make a fortune from skateboarding wants to help fund community skate parks. The MBA participants jump onboard and pepper Hawk with imaginative fund-raising notions: “Cross-market with other foundations. Tap their lists.” “Use MySpace and Facebook.” “Start a National Skate Park Day.” The ideas come so fast and are so clever that Hawk seems a bit overwhelmed. When he auctions a signed skateboard to benefit his charity, the bidding quickly soars to $2,000. Then, half a dozen more attendees place orders at the same price.
Giving back is something of a Maverick Business Adventures manifesto, as the company donates five percent of its gross revenues to select charities. And on the inaugural Baja California trip, it devoted one business session to assisting young Mexican business students with their entrepreneurial ideas. Silver always offers an optional “young entrepreneurs” session at every MBA gathering.
That generous nature characterizes the penultimate business confab in Las Vegas, during which two participants offer presentations they’d charge substantially for in a conventional seminar setting. Lally advocates creating a one-page strategic business plan. Though most in the room work alone or with a handful of employees, Lally urges them to see themselves not as lone wolves but as corporations: “Every entrepreneur has a corporate culture. You’ve got to define it and orchestrate it and pay as much attention to it as Disney does.” With a simple but highly focused one-page strategic plan, an entrepreneur is obligated to identify corporate values, goals, and targets, as well as the requisite actions to achieve them.
Hill is the second presenter, and the quick-talking Californian sets a world record for speed as he spells out the profitable advantages of a risk-free trial offer. “Use the mind-set of the Internet consumer -- that everything online is free or a great deal -- and get them to make a mini commitment,” Hill says. Up-selling the customers who bite is, of course, the payoff.
Silver chairs this and every business session with a mixture of lightheartedness and focus. He is clearly in his element. And clearly admired. “He’s the real deal,” says Zavadowski, who is an occasional Broadway producer as well as a webinar strategist. “He’s easily among the top five Internet marketing people. The sheer quality and quantity of his work is amazing.”
During a break, Silver admits that he’s devoting more and more of that work to MBA. “But that’s fine. This combines everything I love. Besides, my other businesses are 85 percent automated. They’re like oil wells. Some are gushers; some bring in a couple hundred a month.”
By the time the MBA participants clamber into helicopters for a flight into the Grand Canyon, they’re about as loose and relaxed as a group on a business-improvement mission can be. There has been no forced intimacy, no team-building exercises. No one has cried. But clearly, the twin stimuli of adventure and networking have forged an easygoing bond among the men. The helicopters deposit them on a remote shelf above the Grand Canyon floor. Mimosas and snacks are arrayed, but the men scatter like pups let loose to explore. To no one’s great surprise, some of the bonds formed in Las Vegas get parlayed into deals and profits. A month after the Las Vegas outing, Australia entrepreneur James Schramko (SuperFastBusiness.com) reported that promoting another MBA attendee’s business on one of his sites was bringing him more than $2,000 a day. A conversation over poker led to potential funding for the Broadway show Zavadowski is associate producing -- Children of Eden, by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz.
But no one came to Maverick Business Adventures specifically to cut deals. Sitting in the sunshine on a ledge deep inside the Grand Canyon, sipping cool drinks, watching the Colorado River flow timelessly beneath their dangling feet, this group looks exactly like a bunch of tycoons enjoying life and each other.
“Where else,” exults online marketer Aymen Boughanmi of Quebec, Canada, “could you want to be?”