On a Saturday night in December 2012, Nick Gray went on a date to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Well, let me rephrase that. He was taken on a date to the Met. It was his date’s choice.
To Gray, who’d majored in business and had never taken a single art history class, one of the most celebrated art museums in the world was “the kind of place you go when your parents are in town.” He thought museums were boring.
But then, as his date pointed out some of her favorite pieces, something amazing happened.
“I don’t know if it was the the very romantic mood lighting that night,” Gray says, “or… the snow falling down in Central Park.”
“Maybe it was just having a very attractive woman talk to me… but something magic happened and that night, I fell in love… with the museum.”
Four years later, Gray’s love affair has persisted — and blossomed into a business that brought in $1.2 million last year.
Here’s how it happened.
The Anti-Museum Tour
After Gray’s fateful night at the museum, he decided to go back again. And again.
He quickly became obsessed with the place and with the plethora of stories he’d only just realized were locked within.
“A great piece of art can communicate through time,” Gray says — and he was starved for all the tales he’d been missing.
He started spending every minute he could spare in its halls, finding more and more fascinating artifacts.
Soon, he was bringing his friends along for the ride, doing makeshift tours of his favorite parts of the giant museum.
“These were not very sophisticated tours. They were basically ‘10 cool things I found and three things I want to steal,’” Gray says.
The tours were fun, fast-paced and not at all like what many adults had come to expect from a “boring” art museum. They were also totally free.
Needless to say, word spread. Gray’s friends told their friends, who told even more people about their newfound love of the Met and the tour that made it happen.
Then, lifestyle blog Daily Candy ran a story about Gray’s tours, which he called “Hack the Met.”
The next day, a thousand people emailed Gray requesting a coveted place on one of his tours.
“This was becoming a very full-time hobby.”
From Entertainment to Entrepreneurship
Gray realized he needed backup if he was going to keep up with demand, so he found someone to help and paid him on a per-tour basis.
And suddenly, he’d created a business: Museum Hack.
As more and more eager tourgoers lined up, Gray continued to find and hire people who were enthusiastic about the museum and its contents.
Gray knew genuine excitement was the contagious key to helping others appreciate the museum, so each guide wrote their own route based around the artifacts they were most excited about.
Soon, the company was developing different types of tours, from the original “Un-Highlights” tour to a swankier, VIP evening walk-through, complete with a glass of wine.
In April of 2013, Nick was able to quit his job and start working on Museum Hack full time.
In the first quarter of 2014, after less than a year of operation, Gray brought on a sales team to help book his newly established company team-building tours.
By the end of that year, Museum Hack pulled in $500,000. Instead of pocketing the profit, Gray reinvested every cent he could spare.
Sure enough, at the end of 2015, Gray’s records showed his company’s revenue had more than doubled — and Museum Hack had expanded nationwide.
Today, you can choose from about a dozen different tours in a variety of museums across New York City, as well as in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Museum Hack will even host your bachelorette party, set up a scavenger hunt or help you propose to your sweetheart.
Not bad for an accidental business, huh?
Why Museum Hack Worked
Discovering a new passion is already awesome, never mind stumbling on a way to leverage it into a million-dollar enterprise.
But Gray found a way to provide a service people didn’t even know they wanted. And because his project was based on genuine enthusiasm, it worked.
“Today’s audiences have to be entertained before they can be educated,” says Gray.
“We’re selling museum adventures, not museum tours.”
To that end, every single one of Museum Hack’s tours relies on fun, creative ways to engage with art that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
“We do yoga in the contemporary gallery,” says Gray. “We do squats in the stairwell” to ward off “gallery fatigue.”
He even admits that some of the tours’ infectious excitement is based on “gossip.”
“I love to tell people the juicy backstories behind the art,” he says. “Storytelling matters more than art history.”
By revitalizing the way people engage with museums, Museum Hack humanizes what can feel like a cavernous maze of sterile objects. As it turns out, that’s a service people are willing to pay for.
Gray’s story proves your hobby can become your business, and doing what you love actually does pay off.
“It’s not the fluffy ‘Do what you love and they will come,’” says Gray.
But when you’re excited about something, that feeling is palpable and infectious. And when others get a taste of it, they’re gonna want more.
As Gray puts it, “it’s way easier to build a business when your customers want to pay you.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of nerd who already thought museums were cool… and I can’t wait to go on a Museum Hack tour.
Your Turn: What’s your favorite museum?
Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at Word Riot, DMQ Review, Hinchas de Poesia and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.