How do you parlay a hip-hop obsession into a business? By building a virtual buzz.
NO, GREG ODEN has not yet proven his star power, but at least he’s given us a reason to party. On January 25, more than 1,000 people paid $15 each to help him celebrate his 20th birthday, packing the Roseland Theater. From a raised stage, DJ Juggernaut spun hip-hop sets, while young women with bejeweled belly buttons grinded hip-to-hip with guys in baseball caps.
There was, however, one tiny hiccup: Toyota sponsored the party, but Chevrolet sponsors Oden. Contractually, the 7-foot-tall center wasn’t allowed to come. Oops.
The gaffe is a testament to the business inexperience of 21-year-olds Ryan Black and Ian Asbury, the two men behind the company that organized the event, one-year-old Red Carpet Entertainment. But then, it’s their youth that made the event a success. Black and Asbury, students at Portland State University, create dance parties for people aged 18 and up, many of whom are too young to get into "real" clubs.
And how do they attract the throngs that now reliably show up for their fêtes? By aggressively marketing their events on the websites where young people connect. "In a few minutes, we can have the word out to nearly 2,000 on Facebook and 4,000 on MySpace," boasts Black, who prefers his pants baggy and his blazers unbuttoned.
By giving users the tools to build their own web pages—including space for photos, messages and MP3s—such "social networking" sites have allowed like-minded people to interact online since the early 2000s. But increasingly, Facebook and MySpace are becoming business-networking sites—especially for companies that target young people.
"The savvy entrepreneur will fish where the fish are," says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research, a technology and marketing-research company. Using such sites to hawk goods is hardly a novel idea. Portland-based folk musician Brandon Chandler calls MySpace his "little Wal-Mart," because that’s just about the only place where fans can purchase his music.
What makes Black and Asbury’s venture unique is that it provides a venue for virtual friends—specifically those who love hip-hop—to connect in the real world, something they’re apparently itching to do: So far, Red Carpet has hosted nine parties in Portland and netted nearly $30,000 in profits. True, it’s hardly a princely sum, but they earned it sans office, employees or business plan, and it’s enough to pay a couple years’ worth of tuition.
Red Carpet helps virtual friends party in the real world.
Black and Asbury created the first party in March 2007, when both were underage themselves — and dying for a good party. By maxing out their credit cards, they secured the Lloyd District’s Ambridge Event Center. They then created a Red Carpet web page on both MySpace and Facebook and blasted the inboxes of Portland-based users with thousands of e-mails, text messages and party fliers. In response, more than 850 people filled the ballroom, and the duo banked a couple grand. When they failed to spend as much time marketing the second party, however, only 400 people came and they went $9,000 into the red. (Renting space, buying insurance and hiring security and DJs isn’t cheap.)
It’s a mistake the two have astutely avoided in parties they’ve thrown since, like the one they hosted aboard the Portland Spirit, or the Playboy Hotel Party they threw at the Jupiter Hotel, attended by October 2007 bunny Kristy Morgan.
What the two gadabouts will pursue postcollege is unclear: Asbury hopes to join a Los Angeles PR firm, and Black is a reserve officer for a local police department. In the meantime, they’re enjoying their minor celeb status. "At the mall, we hear people talking about us," says Asbury.
Last summer, a pair of Las Vegas club promoters interested in creating a joint party even flew them to Sin City, where they club-hopped by limo. And how did the Las Vegas contingent find the Portland one?
On MySpace, of course.