Summit at Sea lets ambitious young entrepreneurs take time off from being ambitious
Until recently, the precocious founders of Summit Series ran their exclusive conference fiefdom out of the Fantasy Factory, a 12-bedroom Miami mansion with a private chef, a pool, water views, and a trampoline. A few mornings per week, a yoga instructor was summoned to teach them to control their dreams and, using the Mayan calendar, read the day's energy. "If it was an organization day or endurance day," says yoga-cum-calendar-reading instructor Ken Von Roenn, "it would be announced on the house PA."
This April was particularly energetic. The seven executives (average age: 26) and their 14 employees—nearly all of whom lived in the Fantasy Factory—were preparing for Summit at Sea, their three-day maritime adventure. Like all Summit events, this one allowed young entrepreneurs to hang out, network, and facilitate the changing of the world. That's because the three-year-old Summit Series is Sun Valley for the Zynga generation. Instead of golfing with Herb Allen, participants twirl hula hoops and go shark-tagging. And as 1,000 aspiring moguls were preparing to board the 14-deck ship, the Summit dudes were channeling their inner Mayan. It was, after all, "a time of enhanced resonance in the universe," recalls Von Roenn. "When I told this to [co-founder] Brett Leve, he was so psyched."
Unlike most businesses run by twentysomethings, Summit Series was born without irony. Aboard the Celebrity Century, earnestness was bolstered by a banner proclaiming "Make No Small Plans" and a horde of fedora-wearing young adults drinking champagne. "It's easy to judge people," says Leve, 26, whose duties include "curating" a guest list of people willing to spend about $3,500 for a cruise. "I first ask: Is this person positively disrupting their industry? And if they didn't have their company, their fame, influence, and money, would I still be interested in them?"
Not everyone makes the grade. "If you've made some app that just draws kids in and makes money, that's a bit useless," says 25-year-old Elliott Bisnow, who originally came up with the Summit idea. What about the creators of Angry Birds? "I would invite them because they have so much influence," confesses Bisnow. "We would hope that ..." Leve finishes his sentence: "We would hope that they would pivot and do something positive." And if any such business can't, the Summit dudes are happy to help. "It's easy to have a frank conversation and tell them their business model isn't where it should be, their attitude isn't where it should be," says Bisnow.
Belying such business expertise is the fact that the Summit hasn't been in business very long. Bisnow, who dropped out of the University of Wisconsin, was helping his father put out a business newsletter in Washington, D.C., when he arranged his first networking event—for himself. In 2008 he cold-called a bunch of entrepreneurs, including Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes—the company that gives away one pair of shoes for every pair bought—and the you-can-do-pretty-much-anything-in-four-hours self-help guru Timothy Ferriss. But instead of asking them to lunch, he proposed an all-expenses-paid ski trip in Utah. "The first time Elliott called me, I said, 'No,'" recalls Mycoskie. "Then he called back and said he'd pay for everything. So I said yes." Bisnow tapped his D.C. network, bringing in real estate service behemoth Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) and venture capital firm Valhalla Partners as sponsors. Still, he lost about $8,000.
After Leve joined him later that year, Bisnow proposed a gathering in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. "I thought it was shady," recalls Ferriss. "But a few friends went [to Utah] as sacrificial lambs. They said it was O.K. So I went." The $100,000 trip drew 65 attendees and several sponsors, including Goldman Sachs (GS), which sent someone from its wealth management group. Bisnow and Leve lost $30,000 but learned an important lesson. To succeed, Summit couldn't just bring people together to help themselves. It needed a twist. So, says Bisnow, "We added benevolence."
The emphasis on do-gooder business networking led to an invitation to the Obama White House in 2009 to discuss the economic recovery. (Bisnow and Leve wrangled eminences such as Twitter's Evan Williams.) The ensuing buzz helped attract 135 paying customers to Summit's April 2009 event in Aspen, and 750 to a 2010 Washington gathering. Along the way, the duo recruited five more members to their executive team and attracted partners such as Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft (MSFT), and Research In Motion (RIMM). Bisnow says Summit is now profitable and continues to search for growth opportunities. "There are a lot of folks who don't quite make the cut," he says. "We might build events for them."
One obvious moneymaker is a three-day cruise with a stop at an uninhabited island in the Bahamas. Aboard the Celebrity Century, a "three-foot giant" asked everyone to stand up and hug each other (they did) and dozens of people partook in a speed-networking event. "It's like being at the zoo and seeing a new species," says Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel group and a Summit speaker. Other events included a discussion called "Back to the Future" with Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal (EBAY); Russell Simmons on the joys of being Russell Simmons; and a chat with Richard Branson.
Although shark-tagging may be awesome, some of the Summit Series's greatest rewards come from securing seed money. At the 2010 D.C. event, Yael Cohen, the 24-year-old founder of F—- Cancer, a nonprofit that teaches Millennials about cancer prevention, raised $30,000 when magician David Blaine auctioned off a date with her. ("It sounds worse than it was," she says.) At another, Doug Imbruce made a contact that helped him start multimedia search engine company Qwiki. The company has since raised $10.5 million.
While Bisnow insists, "You can't come with an agenda," that's exactly what everyone does—including the Summit dudes. Last year the founders invested in Qwiki, one of seven companies in which they now have a modest stake. "I'm introducing these entrepreneurs to people, hooking them up with celebrities and funders," says Leve. "Why wouldn't I want to own part of the company?" Especially when there's a lifestyle to maintain. Earlier this month, the Summit group upgraded from Miami to a 13-bedroom Malibu house overlooking the Pacific. It, too, has great views, and a private chef who doubles as their tae kwon do instructor. "We're setting a good example," says Bisnow. "You are what you eat."