By Erica Bray
When you think about a work conference, here’s what probably springs to mind: cookie-cutter conference rooms, bad coffee and rushed business card exchanges during networking breaks. Bor-ring, right?
Now how does this sound: mingling with tech founders and social entrepreneurs at an ice cream party in Miami. Or at a recycling plant after a midnight bicycle ride through Detroit. Or while aboard a pirate ship in Baltimore.
This is just a sampling of the activities woven into itineraries designed by Breakout, which hosts 48-hour networking retreats in cities across the U.S. for (mostly Millennial) entrepreneurs.
“It’s about taking people out of their comfort zones and into new places for inspiration and purpose,” explains co-founder Michael Farber.
Led by Farber, 32, and Graham Cohen, 30, Breakout invites entrepreneurs to "network" in up-and-coming startup cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, Portland and Nashville during a creatively curated weekend program. Participants explore and learn in a relaxed environment designed to inspire friendship and forge business partnerships -- without the suit-and-tie decorum.
Think of it as an extended field trip meets startup exchange, attended by professionals between the ages of 29 and 36, all of whom Cohen describes as “aspirational, driven and caring.”
Attendees are referred to “Breakers,” and the name, Breakout, evokes the feeling Farber and Cohen want to inspire in this next generation of business leaders. The goal is to “break” entrepreneurs “out” of their typical routines and gather them together in unique environments to learn from one another, as well as businesses innovators from the host city.
This intention is even punctuated with its corresponding domain name: www.breakout.today.
"In the entrepreneurial space, everybody is messing with a different ‘dot-something,’” says Cohen of their 'dot-today’ (.today) domain name. “The ‘dot-com’ doesn’t mean anything for us."
He adds: "The ethos behind Breakout is ‘Building a better tomorrow today.’ When we saw [.today], we knew it was the right fit.”
The website name is prominently used across all of Breakout’s social media platforms, which has helped it grow a digital community of entrepreneurs who share with each other online and offline. Members pay a $500 annual fee to be a part of this growing community, which includes local and national educational programming; access to other community members with introductions; and use of a private Breakout app.
Today, Breakout boasts a network of nearly 5,000. That’s a far cry from the 10 participants who planted the seed for this business in 2014.
Breakout started as a startup “salon series” in Farber’s New York City apartment. Farber and Cohen, who met while working at Bisnow, a real estate news and events agency, would gather the city’s top young business leaders to generate new ideas and partnerships – knowing that they ultimately wanted to leave the corporate world behind to launch a business together. They figured that they could learn from this diverse group by tapping into each person’s respective business knowledge.
They quickly identified a problem: Their friends across the real estate, tech, media and fashion industries never had the opportunity to speak with one another and share like that before.
“They were very silo-ed off,” recalls Faber. “We thought that was pretty crazy, especially in the sense of how fast we're building businesses and how technology is enabling people to jump into different niches.”
Farber and Cohen hatched the idea for Breakout after organizing a retreat in Miami. They chartered a plane to take 100 entrepreneurs down to Florida for 48 hours of private roundtables, meals and active discussions.
"From that trip, we had people invest in each others businesses; new partnerships take shape; new friendships; and even new romantic relationships," says Farber.
They decided to build upon that retreat model to create what they call an “impact events company” that fosters relationships across industries.
At the core of Breakout's mission is empowering attendees with “social capital” that will make them thoughtful business leaders. This is done, in part, by exposing event attendees to local entrepreneurs, artists and leaders who are making their respective cities blossom in a socially responsible way.
At a Baltimore Breakout, for instance, “Breakers” heard an inspirational talk from the founder of Thread, a non-profit mentoring program; painted at the Maryland Institute College of Art; learned about Baltimore's tech scene at startup incubator Betamore; and participated in a discussion with Baltimore Police Chief Kevin Davis.
Breakout retreats, which cost from $1,250 to $2,250 per person, are attended by anywhere between 40 to 125 participants, all of whom are pre-screened by one of the Breakout co-founders.
“It’s not about being exclusive or building a wall,” says Cohen of this policy. Instead, he says it helps them in building a more cohesive community with individually-tailored opportunities. “We want to get to know the person so when we plan, we understand why this person should sit next to this person or why we could be helpful about making this intro or that intro.”
Breaking out into the future
Breakout is on the verge of, well, breaking out from its startup mode. It's reached nearly $1 million in revenue in the two years since it launched. It's grown its staff and volunteer "ambassadors" to 10 people. It will be hosting four retreats this year, in Miami, Nashville, Detroit and Portland.
“We’re really excited about the next six to nine months as we have significant interest from brands who align with our mission as well as membership growth across new markets,” says Farber.
The team has plans to carefully incorporate business sponsorships; launch a foundation so that they can write checks to growing startups with expansion plans; and continue to grow the website’s content, which currently features a potpourri of inspiring stories and advice from Breakout entrepreneurs.
In other words: They have plans to scale, scale, scale.
“Our business is kind of hard to explain sometimes because I think what we're doing is kind of forward thinking,” says Farber. “But that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about: It's about believing in something so much that you think about it in your dreams so much you can't go to sleep.”
To learn more about this business and apply to be a member, visit www.breakout.today.