Life: A Contact Sport
A quarterly recap from our founder.
Q2 ’23 Letter // BY Cornelius MCGrath
Taxes are filed. Windows are clean. The AC is on, and the pool deck is open.
Summer’s officially here, and boy, am I ready for it. Yet adjusting my routine to the new season always takes a little more time than I’d expected.
I blame one of my favourite parts of American life: air conditioning.
It’s so cold you often have no sense of how warm it is outside since you’re too busy shivering inside your icebox of a car or apartment.
A stark departure from my life in London. I still have PTSD from taking the tube to school everyday for 7 years. Wearing a suit in the dead of summer heat is awful wherever you go, but TFL’s systemic lack of AC is vile regardless of your outfit.
10 years after leaving, I still have to remind myself that I can now head straight to the pool at 4 PM. This pale Irish skin doesn’t need much, but ending every day basking in the sunlight does wonders for your headspace.
If you need something to impress your friends using you for pool access this summer, exclusively use poolsuite.net.
That said, the sun brings everybody outside.
So you’re, by definition, completely unprotected against bad habits, and there’s nothing quite like a swimming pool to illuminate the worst of the human race.
Here are a few things we need to leave indoors this season.
First, laptops. It should be illegal to bring them to the pool. I don’t care how polarised your Ray-Ban’s are. You can’t see, the WiFi sucks, and in 5 minutes, the machine’s metal will start burning your thighs. Do yourself, your boss and your career a favour and bury your nose in a great magazine or book instead.
Second, swimming. I’m convinced a secret society dispatches blokes to turn up in swimming goggles at all pools with 3ft or less of depth and pays them to dive in. There’s a reason the pool depth is 3ft. It’s not meant to be swum (let alone dove) in. Get yourself to a proper lido for lessons. You need it. And maybe an eye test.
Third, bad music. Look, you either have it or you don’t. If you wouldn’t feel confident enough to grab the AUX cable at a party, I’m not sure why you suddenly feel qualified to do so at the pool. If you can’t resist and need something to impress your friends using you for pool access this summer, exclusively use poolsuite.net.
You – and your pool mates – can thank me later.
My travels this quarter have been an exercise in getting up close and personal with infamous brands.
When not lolling by the pool, I’ve been on the road this quarter bouncing between Atlanta, Fort Wayne, Fayetteville, Asheville, Las Vegas, D.C. and Angola.
I’ve travelled to the White House, the EEOB, British Embassy, Accenture’s latest D.C. office and even the DMV. I attended two college friends’ weddings, my very own bachelor party in America’s playground and held down a cigar bar down south in Atlanta with some of my favourite Rick Ross beats.
Rubbing shoulders with award-winning chefs, DJs, diplomats, actors, and newly promoted Premier League footballers has been electric. But my travels this quarter have really been an exercise in getting up close and personal with infamous brands over people. Some I have a long-standing relationship with.
Take Monocle, who hosted their Weekender down in Asheville in April, or the Financial Times, who held their FT Weekend Festival in D.C. in May. I’ve read and subscribed to these publications for years and know their MastHeads inside out.
While they’re very different events in terms of size, scale, format and purpose, they’re all equally historical to their constituents, especially in two spaces I care deeply about — media and hospitality. And given their collective importance and role in the zeitgeist, I feel it’d be worthwhile to unpack my experiences with them.
Read into this what you will, but I’m almost certain I was the only person in the world to attend all four events.
Read into this what you will, but I’m almost certain I was the only person in the world to attend all four events. And having planned, curated and hosted hundreds of experiences myself, I’ll be the first to say convening is hard.
So I’ll start by tipping my hat to what I thought was done well.
First, there’s an undeniable intimacy in attendees staying under the same roof. It creates serendipity, collisions and space for off-the-cuff spontaneity, like deciding to host pre-dinner drinks on the rooftop patio “if it’s sunny”. Props to Monocle for this and for picking such a tremendous home base in Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn.
Second, quality moderators make all the difference. Weak moderators stifle great speakers, but strong moderators make average speakers great. The FT’s Chris Grimes put on a masterclass interviewing Jamie Lee Curtis. Special mentions to Colm Toibin, Simon Godwin, Bertha Nievez & Katie Button as standout speakers.
However, a few cardinal sins were committed.
#1: Timekeeping. Every event was rushed, overcrowded, or both. Poor time management creates stress, eats into activities, and doesn’t allow attendees to enjoy the moments they truly care about. Organisers would do well to do less, embrace breaks and remember their top staff are often as valuable as external speakers.
#2: Overselling. Can you imagine paying for an Ed Sheeran concert ticket only to turn up and be told, “Sorry, we ran out of seats.” Come on, organisers. Don’t be like the airlines. You sold too many tickets and selected an incorrectly sized venue. It’s unfair to tell attendees they can’t attend something they already paid for.
#3:Green Rooms. I understand why Hilary Clinton can’t exactly stand around and shoot the sh*t after her talk. But most speakers can, will and should be encouraged to do so. It makes a lasting impression on attendees and gives speakers something to hold onto. Talking on stage is a one-way dialogue; all the value’s in the conversation with the audience afterwards. Don’t keep speakers locked away in green rooms.
#4: Food & Beverage. It continues to baffle me that in a world where brands like Foxtrot exist, conferences still serve bang-average food and drink. Stop using caterers built for conventions and start using your event as a platform to promote the best of your local city. Nothing supercharges a conversation like an excellent bit of F&B, and it might even be enough to tempt speakers out of green rooms.
Maybe I’m just a different calibre of superfan, but how most brands engage their audiences and communities has long felt stale to me.
After attending countless major events from 2015-2018 — hosted by the likes of Forbes, WSJ, and TNW — I felt like I’d seen every format. So I stopped attending conferences in 2018, which meant buying tickets in 2023 took some convincing.
On the one hand, I’m glad I did it. Just because I stopped attending conferences five years ago doesn’t mean I stopped believing in the power of events. I look back at my journey and often think, “Wow, where would I be without them?” They’ve taught me much about myself and the world and connected me to incredible people. This year was no different; they are a social capital hack when done right.
On the other, I felt just like I did five years ago; burnt out on a tired format that hasn’t changed (despite a pandemic) and has all the same problems as a result.
The time away from the circuit has helped me realise I’m looking for something more from the brands I love; that’s clear.
I’d happily pay $1,000+ for a 3-hour sit-down dinner with the right staff and speakers, ask anything off-the-record and honestly debate ideas. But I’m forced to settle for a few hundred dollars to sit in the rafters with lukewarm coffee, a plastic lanyard and an arm’s length relationship to the green room.
The question remains why they’re not doing anything with the former?
Michael Rubin & I at WSJ FEOF in 2018. New York City.
Maybe I’m just a different calibre of superfan, but how most brands engage their audiences and build their communities has long felt stale to me. In fact, it drove my decision to start my own convening arm in 2019.
I did this primarily to scratch my own itch, but really to show the world what could be done if you committed to gathering properly at a time when nobody else was.
I’ve always felt confident our experiences went toe-to-toe with any brand, but these last two months actually proved it, which is wild given we’re a 1-man shop.
I can’t lie; it provides a good self-esteem boost and some much-needed closure on what has been an excellent chapter of our convening business. But I’m probably more burnt out now than I was then because now I know what’s truly possible.
Anyway, enough of that. Onto business.
We’re shaking things up. It’s a win-win-win for all.
We proved in Q1 we could raise community-driven capital via investment vehicles (e.g. SPVs). However, in Q2, I’ve been highly focused on creating a system to help operators extract capital from their existing customer bases.
As a result, I’ve been deep in the weeds with our revenue operations team on customer enrichment, loyalty and memberships. Simultaneously productizing our system in concert with building relationships with an array of exciting technology partners who will ultimately help bring it to life.
Building a systematised process to analyze, research and enrich tens of thousands of customers isn’t easy. But we’ve managed to source a global team of researchers to execute a follow-the-sun model for us moving forward. Finding talent is tricky, and I’ve admittedly been out of the hiring game for a while. Yet the central mantra from my old gig proved out well — always hire for work product over a resume.
I’m in early exploratory conversations about bringing the system we’ve built to others. It’s wild to me the troves of data operators are sitting on and doing nothing with. By helping owners discern who their customers truly are —outside of the four walls of the dining room — they can assess what higher-margin products they might be the best fit for and how to introduce them via their brand organically.
I will say the chasm between loyalty for QSR and full-service is massive. Nobody’s figured it out; the challenge is getting a unified integration across many different partners who all have different roadmaps prioritising different things. It can be frustrating when you’re stuck in the middle, but we’ve found some bright spots.
Whoever wins our business, know we’ve built strong relationships on all fronts and will ultimately still be cheered on en masse by all because what we’re doing is driving the industry forward.
We’re shaking things up. It’s a win-win-win for all.
The game hasn’t changed. The firm with the best people wins. Do the best still want to work in an office, regardless of how nice it is?
We’ve had a busy quarter on the story front.
I teased this in my Q1 letter, but my story on Foxtrot was published in Issue 164 of Monocle on May 31st. Available on newsstaands, in bookshops and airports around the world. Do send me a picture if you get a copy. I’d love to know what you think.
Overall, I’m delighted with how things came out. Although this is my first piece for the magazine, I was told I was better than 90% of contributors. Foxtrot put out a great post on Instagram and LinkedIn, and my story was featured in the Sunday Weekend Edition newsletter written by Tyler Brûlé.
If I could do this just once per quarter, I’d die a happy man.
Catch my Foxtrot story in Issue 164 of Monocle.
We’ve also been productive on the audio front. Yes, editors, I can write and record.
In addition to my interview with Foxtrot’s founder, Mike LaVitola, I also published a conversation with Notre Dame Board of Trustee Marty Rodgers. We taped the episode in the executive boardroom of Accenture’s Global CEO Julie Sweet.
Since Accenture’s brand new D.C. office isn’t even open yet, I’m pretty certain that’s the first podcast ever to be recorded in that space. Fitting for a man who’s never worked in a formal office. Though I will say the new space is impressive, and fitting for a firm that throws off $23B (yes, B) in profit annually. But it’s a huge bet, and the RTO climb is steep, even for a brand like Accenture.
Marty leads 22,000 people worldwide, and his biggest challenge is getting people back into the office. He calls it “earning your commute“, which he hopes to do for the 11,000 people he’s responsible for in the southeast of the USA alone.
In our podcast, Marty says the game hasn’t really changed. The firm with the best people wins. Do the best still want to spend their lives working in an office, regardless of how nice it is?
I personally believe top talent can go without pictures of their CEO on their morning coffee. That said, I am starting to hear rumblings from friends bored of working from home. Socially isolated, and burnt out from sitting on Zoom calls all day for the last 3 years. But does that mean they’re looking for an office or, rather, some sort of IRL community that can drive their professional development?
I’d work in an office every day if it meant I got to hang with Marty. Maybe there’s something in that.
As I reflect deeply on Marty’s words, I actually don’t think he’s got to earn people’s commute. As he says himself in the episode, he quite enjoys his. People travel for things that are worth it. Period. What he’s got to earn is the trust and belief of his people — particularly the next generation — that being in the office is going to:
#1: supercharge somebody’s development and career in a substantially different manner than WFH could ever
#2: Not eradicate their employee’s personal freedom or end up being a waste of time because nobody else in the office to collaborate with or learn from
#3: Eliminate their ability to engage in other side hustles or jobs that can supplement their income (e.g. over-employed) and career development
Once employees are “in” the office, the biggest challenge is not just getting them to stay but rather using the spaces companies like Accenture have created. On one hand, this is an image problem. If you’re not seeing others regularly use the spaces to complete important workflows, how do you learn how to do so?
On the other, it’s a multiplayer problem. Almost new office spaces require more than one person in the space to have value. You can’t just take over Julie Sweet’s boardroom (like we did) and work on your own in there.
After all, how different is that from being home?
These are hefty barriers to overcome. But for what it’s worth, I’d work in an office every day if it meant I got to hang with Marty. Maybe there’s something in that.
I see lots of pent-up travel demand in hospitality as more and more restaurant groups start taking customers on trips worldwide.
On the services side, we’ve done a lot. I’ll break it down by speciality:
Advise: Another excellent quarter with Beast. We’ve renewed a new deal through the end of 2023. I’ll deliver my first retreat in H2. The team is expanding. CSO was promoted to oversee the entire holding company. New challenge. Faster pace. I’m finding a lot of joy in our process. I was super inspired (again) by Dan Frommer’s Advisory launch. It forced me to put some teeth on Everyday Advisor.
Let me know what you think.
Travel: Been scoping out what it would look for Everyday Travel to become a fully-fledged technology-driven TMC. Early doors, but I see real potential here. Our prosumer use case is strong. Now it’s time to land our first corporate travel partner. I also see lots of pent-up demand in hospitality as more and more restaurant groups start taking customers on trips worldwide. That’s our foundation, on top of which a stack of tools (e.g. point.me) and advisors (e.g. Uproute Travel) can sit.
Convene: I hosted a series of dinners and talks in D.C. in May. Felt good to leave the Capitol on a high. We’ve built a fantastic crew of people there over the years. Most are moving on to new cities, jobs and lives. So it felt pretty special to bring the crew together one last time and celebrate the end of a remarkable era.
Wine is not drunk like alcohol. For those who know how to welcome it, it transports you towards something within oneself, something deep.
And last but certainly not least, here are some of the latest updates on the burgeoning lives, ventures and projects run by members of our global community.
Bryan Henn first visited Beaune in 2015. He didn’t know what to expect, but 8 trips, 500+ miles of walking vineyards, and 1000s of wines shared later, he’s developed a deep curiosity for this place, its people and its heritage. So much so Bryann just moved to Beaune for 45 days while still holding down his full-time job in the USA. He’s exploring many ways of sharing the magic of the Côte d’Or – with tastings (places, vertical, blinds) and curated travel experiences that best share the insights from the vineyards to the cellars. Do get in touch if this whets your palette.
Raise Your Seed
Jack Kuveke has helped early-stage founders raise $50M+ in the last 2 years. He just relaunched Raise Your Seed Round, a 2-week live fundraising bootcamp, where he works with a handful of top startups every month. The next cohort kicks off in July. If you want to craft a more compelling story to investors and implement the tactics the best fundraisers in silicon valley use, sign up here.
Uzoma Ayogu is the founder of YC-backed Releaf, which uses technology to supply key ingredients to African Food Factories. Releaf is on a mission to build its most efficient agricultural supply chains, starting with vegetable oil in Nigeria, where 80% of market participants are women. The business is doing $7MM ARR, & grew 20% MoM into May. Releaf announce its Pre-Series A in January and has just launched its Series A. If you’re a mission-driven investor with a deep interest/expertise in Climate, Food &/or Africa, do get in touch with Uzo.
Proper Good is on a mission to get healthy, affordable meals well into the hands of millions of Americans, with 14 delicious meal options now on shelves in thousands of stores. The business – founded by Jen & Chris Jane – just launched Overnight Oats nationally in Walmart to add to their lineup of Soup, Chili and Oatmeal currently in store. The new Overnight Oats offer 15g of protein for a high-protein breakfast that’s super easy, filling and tastes like dessert. A brand new lineup of wholesome winter recipes will launch in late September, ready for colder weather. Try Proper Good Better Ready Meals for yourself in Walmart or online.
2022 saw Sam Viola take Uproute Travel international by traversing 24 countries across 5 continents. 2023 has seen him build domestically and grow seamlessly into the luxury travel space. Between June and August, 50 of his clients will be enjoying the vacation or honeymoon of their dreams – mine & Monica’s included. Sam has differentiated himself because he’s been everywhere his clients are travelling. Stay in the know of him and his clients’ global escapades on IG. And if you know someone looking to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip, be sure they talk with him first.
I’d also like to make some special shoutouts to the team at Monocle (Chris, Josh), Foxtrot (Mike, Jasen, Stephanie), photographer Victor Santiagos, and our consummate D.C. hosts Angela Krasnick and Amy Schenk. Also, a massive shout out to Al Butter McLean, the music producer who said my music taste was hard.
I might just have started believing him.
I’ll be percolating on real estate, the story of NPR Tiny Desk, and what my cigar bar cum music radio show might look like.
Looking back, Q2 has been equal parts brilliant, nuts and stressful.
Business aside, I’ll be a married man in 9 days. Rings are in hand, and all the final preparation is complete. After a year of planning, I can’t wait for the big day and all the surrounding wedding festivities with my favourite people on the planet.
Looking ahead to Q3, I’m excited to get the corporate side of Everyday Travel off the ground. Land my next op-ed or ghostwriting deal. And who knows, maybe even add a new hospitality partner to our loyalty-membership-enrichment service.
I’ll also be percolating more on real estate, the story behind NPR Tiny Desk, and what my cigar bar cum music radio show might look like.
I’m always on the lookout for community-driven deals, clients and partners that are innovative, ambitious and can benefit from our support.
Until October — CGM.
Never Miss A Letter
A quarterly reflection from our founder.