How Museum Hack went from $2.8 million per year to zero in 3 days

Museum Hack News
Museum Hack News April 20, 2020 How Museum Hack went from $2.8 million per year to zero in 3 days

A few weeks ago we got the first call from a museum partner: they were canceling group gatherings, including all third party tours.

Over the next few days, every museum we operate in announced closures. First for a few days, then for a few weeks, and now for at least a few months.

At the same time, our corporate clients implemented internal travel bans and stops on group events. Nearly all of our private tours canceled, and new business stopped coming in.

In 72 hours we went from running 50+ tours per week to zero, which also meant no work for our guides and nearly zero revenue.

In this post I will share more about that story and the actions we’ve taken since.

Specifically:

  • How we managed going from $250,000 per month to nearly zero.
  • The pivot we made to start recovering in less than 24 hours.
  • Our short term plan for Museum Hack.

Let’s get to it.

Disclaimer: This isn’t a story about museums

The interplay between a global pandemic and the museum field is complex, and not one we are attempting to cover in this article.

This article is about how a small museum tour company is navigating the crisis.

There are museums and museum professionals doing inspiring work despite a wildly fluctuating climate. You are awesome. You have our admiration and support.

What happens when you lose $250,000 in monthly revenue

Museum Hack is a mission-based for profit, which means we have two imperatives: work on the mission, and keep our bank account above zero.

Staying above zero is difficult with no revenue 🙂

When you scale business operations to manage $2.8 million in annual income, you invest in a team and systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. That system is like a carefully set table where every part has its place.

Losing all of your revenue is like cutting the legs off the table and trying to catch the pieces as it falls to the ground. Unless you have another significant source of funds, you need to make changes quickly.

The first thing we did was make a list of ways we could reduce spending, and a second list of how we could earn revenue.

Some of the spending changes happened as soon as they made the list. For example, we cut our online ad spend, switched from a $4800 per year email platform to a self-hosted one that is better and costs about $4 per month, and put a halt on internal travel. We prioritized non-labor reductions first.

That initial round of reducing spending gave us breathing room. We carefully watched the market for the next few days for any indication of what would happen next. We gave our team notice that everything was under review.

A few days later, museums confirmed extended closures and we decided on a short-term layoff for our guide staff. It’s a complex and difficult decision to take away someone’s job and stability. We made the decision because we had no work available for our people, and the layoff would allow them to access unemployment benefits. We set up an emergency fund to support our team with instant distributions while they made the transition, and this emergency fund remains active.

For our full time staff, our plan was to keep them employed as long as we could. We made plans to keep these team members working on marketing projects and other parts of a long term strategic plan. The mindset was that this challenging period will eventually end, and we could position the company for a quick recovery.

On the revenue front, we brainstormed a wide variety of ideas for how we could earn money, some of which had merit. We talked about virtual tours, an online conference, remote bootcamp and more. One of the challenges was that it didn’t feel like an appropriate step to launch paid offerings to the museum community or our public guests. We were in a Catch-22 scenario where we needed to find new revenue to survive and charging our audience wasn’t a viable option.

Then, one crucial insight saved us.

Our 24 hour pivot to virtual events

Last year, we quietly purchased and started developing the domain teambuilding.com. The goal was to expand the for-profit part of our operations with corporate offerings both within and outside museums. The new offerings provided more work to our people, and more revenue to fuel our mission and projects. We positioned Museum Hack’s co-owner, Michael, as the CEO of teambuilding.com, with Tasia continuing to lead Museum Hack.

This purchase wasn’t out of the blue.

One of Museum Hack’s most successful initiatives is our corporate team building tours. Via this program, we’ve brought tens of thousands of people into our partner museums, from organizations like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, Chipotle and hundreds of others.

With museum closures, the corporate tours were effectively on pause, however what we had learned from them was still top of mind. With the global shift to remote work, we anticipated the same companies would be looking to connect staff online for training and team building. We dug into data available via Google and other platforms, and saw a promising increase in virtual experiences for corporate teams.

Museum Hack had done some online training in the past, and we have always been a 100% remote work company, but virtual corporate events were new to us. All we had was a blog article from a few years ago about virtual team building with remote teams. Still, this area seemed like our best shot at creating new revenue for the business, and we redirected our entire operational capacity toward it.

It’s been a little over a month since that shift and the results are promising. We managed a small profit in March despite the loss of all tour revenue, and are on track toward a strong recovery. We’ve started bringing our guides back to work, and continue to increase our capacity to do so. We have more than breathing room; we have a viable business again.

This article isn’t really about teambuilding.com, but here is a quick summary of operations. We work with organizations to help build culture and community through team building. Our virtual offerings include training like Working Without Pants, which is a seminar on how to work from home effectively, and tiny campfire, where we ship s’more kits to guests and then tell historic ghost stories around a virtual campfire; inspired by stories we tell at the museum.

One of our most successful event types is online storytelling workshops where we condense a portion of our three-month training program for Museum Hack tour guides into a two hour, interactive training on how to tell engaging stories.

The Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State University did an Online Office Games event with us and wrote about the experience on the museum’s blog.

Virtual events are a bright light for us in an otherwise dark time. We are sharing what we are learning with other businesses to help them recover, and expect the insights to have long term benefits for Museum Hack as well.

Let’s talk about Museum Hack.

Our short term plan for Museum Hack

For as long as museums are closed, Museum Hack as it was cannot support a team of 50+ people. We are a museum tour company, and our obsession is live, social experiences. For now, Museum Hack is in a gentle hibernation mode.

We are experimenting with what a virtual Museum Hack could be, including the forementioned ideas in online tours, conferences and training. We do not have a specific timeline or commitment to any of these projects, and will not launch them until we have confidence in delivering a world class experience.

Via teambuilding.com we are starting to experiment with experiences that blend our renegade storytelling with internet friendly themes. One of Museum Hack’s first tour guides is leading a seminar called Beer & Sharks, combining expertise with fermented grains with experience developing programming for zoos and aquariums. Other guides are working on content highlighting the Library of Alexandria, mollusks, volcanoes and vikings. It’s not Museum Hack, but it’s in the spirit. For now, the code name is Nerd Talks, and it’s like a mini interactive Ted-style talk with the reverent irreverence dial turned to level 10. More on Nerd Talks soon.

Final thoughts

For as long as we exist, we will be working to re-imagine museum experiences. It’s in Museum Hack’s mission-based blood, even when we are in hibernation.

For now, we are fighting like hell to keep our operations alive and our people employed. In a cascading economy, we are adjusting to whatever the new normal is as quickly as a small bootstrapped company can. We are grateful for our team as they make the shift with us.

We will stabilize, and we will rebuild the table.

💖 Tasia + Michael

written with 💖 by Tasia Duske

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Comments & Reactions

  1. Tony Bacigalupo
    Tony Bacigalupo
    April 20, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    “We managed a small profit in March despite the loss of all tour revenue, and are on track toward a strong recovery.”

    CONGRATS and wow, way to handle an impossible situation with grace! I have no doubt you will come out on the other end stronger than ever.

    Also, if somebody wants to offer me a Museum Hack-style virtual museum tour, I would pay for it. I need to take my lady on something resembling a date and that would be the best!

    Reply
  2. Mike Smith
    Mike Smith
    April 21, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    This economic downturn really highlights who is a leader and who is a manager. Love how you spare no detail of a tough process

    Reply
  3. Elizabeth Beckett
    Elizabeth Beckett
    April 21, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    Brilliant!

    Reply
  4. Savannah Dearhamer
    Savannah Dearhamer
    April 28, 2020 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you for your transparency. I am a loyal follower and museum professional- your company inspires me and what I do as an art historian! I will always be an advocate/supporter of Museum Hack. Well done navigating these difficult waters and staying true to the company mission.

    Reply
  5. Tree Callanan
    Tree Callanan
    April 29, 2020 at 9:03 am

    I have been waiting to see you folks focus your brilliance on this dark time. You never fail to impress and inspire. Keep up the good work! And thanks for meeting the challenge head-on. I’m really looking forward to following your progress. Cheers from RI where we tell the virus (and disobedient citizens) to “knock it off”

    Reply
  6. Timothy J. Craig
    Timothy J. Craig
    May 29, 2020 at 1:57 pm

    The most transparent article I have read since this “shift” began. Wow?! What this says about the leadership goes so far beyond the words written here, speaks so loudly you can’t hear a word spoken, and reaches out with compassion to the furthest regions of my heart where there are no shadows, nor folds. You are all-inspiring, Tasia and I’m a B-I-G fan!

    Timothy J. Craig
    Head of Corporate Outreach
    Google My Business NC/SC

    Reply
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