Museum hack founder & ceo
Photos courtesy of Nick Gray and Museum Hack
The foundation of Nick Gray’s company was built out of a romantic date in New York City, and now he’s running a multi-million dollar business getting the world to fall in love with museums.
I had to connect with Nick and have him on.
Museum Hack leads unconventional tours of the world’s best museums. And as founder and CEO, Nick is constantly channeling his creativity to discover ways to engage others with the arts and culture.
Outside of Museum Hack, Nick is also prolific content creator. For Nick, life is about adding value to other people’s lives and building meaningful friendships along the way.
I dialed in to Nick’s office to chat with him about Museum Hack, how museums have impacted his work as a creator, as well as what we can forward to from him in the coming years.
A special thanks to Hover, our domain management provider, for their partnership and extended generosity in making The Modern Block possible. Use code “modernblock” at checkout to save 10% on your first domain purchase.
From my understanding, this all started while you were on a date? Can you give us a better glimpse of what that night looked like? What were some memorable parts of that private tour that sparked such a great interest in museums for you? Yes, Museum Hack started out of a romantic date. A woman took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City for our third date. She gave me a private tour of things that she was interested in: sculpture, artifacts, paintings, etc.
I had been to the Met before, and I have to admit I didn’t like it. Or it didn’t connect with me. I didn’t grow up in an art environment. I was a business major in college—very entrepreneurial, and museums and the arts just never connected, or I thought they were boring.
This date was on a Saturday night in the middle of December. It was cold and snowy outside, so we had a lot of the museum to ourselves despite it being open to the public.
I remember some of these magical rooms that she showed me with gilded furniture. It felt very luxurious. I was living in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn at the time, and looking around this majestic space, I got the feeling: Wow, I moved to a big city to come to places like this.
That tour really unlocked a sense of curiosity about art and history in me. I started returning to the Met every weekend, exploring on my own, and about a year or two later I was doing free tours for my friends. Those became quite popular, and Museum Hack was born out of that.
Let’s take it back a little bit further. Talk to me about moving to New York, why you moved, as well as what you were doing prior to Museum Hack. Sure! Let’s firstly talk about New York. I moved to New York about ten years ago, and I moved here for the people and the energy that a large city attracts. I could have moved to downtown Atlanta, or maybe even Los Angeles, but I really like living in bigger cities because I think it attracts a certain type of individual. I also like that it allows me to be spontaneous—living in New York allows me to not set a schedule as much, and allows me to have adventures almost every day and night.
Before Museum Hack, I was working for an avionics company, selling electronics equipment used in small jets and military planes. It was a family business that my dad started in the basement of our house. I joined in after college and helped grow it to about 65 employees, and we sold it about three years ago to a private equity company.
So you really were brought up in a very entrepreneurial environment. Outside of running Museum Hack, you’re also a prolific content creator. From the newsletter and your blog, to Facebook videos and everything in between, talk to me about why you’re constantly finding ways to experiment with content creation, and perhaps how it all ties into your work life? I’ve been experimenting with videos and blogging for about 20 years now. I always put stuff out online. I had a webpage back in high school, college, and I was the first non-employee user of Vimeo (cause a few of my friends started Vimeo), and I’ve always really enjoyed sharing content, because it helps me to meet more people and eventually make more friends.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with videos on Facebook to share with my friends and my Friends Newsletter, which is a way for me to stay in touch with friends and kind of promote and broadcast cool content and things I’m doing.
And how’s the experiment going? It’s going well. It definitely helps me stay in touch with people. Where I’m out at a party, or I see somebody at a friend’s house, they remember me, they keep me in mind, and that wasn’t something I always had. I wasn’t a popular kid in high school, and I didn’t really have a lot of friends. And you know, people say the opposite of famous isn’t infamous—the opposite is that nobody knows about you. It’s hard today to stay relevant and stay in touch with people. Throughout everything that I share, I’m always trying to figure out how to build more friendships and, at the same time, add value to people’s lives.
“Throughout everything that I share, I’m always trying to figure out how to build more friendships and, at the same time, add value to people’s lives.
I watched your TEDx talk. Towards the end of that talk, you told a story about how a music video producer gave you a compliment on how your tour has made him want to become a better creator. So, I’m curious, how have museums personally impacted you as a creator? Museums have definitely taught me to place a deeper focus on quality—to make an excellent product and never compromise.
The scale and sizes of museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art is also so inspiring to think about. It puts our company into perspective, and inspires me to grow more.
Nick’s TEDx talk: How I learned to stop hating and love museums.
“Museums have definitely taught me to place a deeper focus on quality—to make an excellent product and never compromise.
This is a bit of an odd question, but I think your advice could be applied really well to hosting networking events: can you share some tips on hosting a dinner party? In a recent blog post, you talked about having plans to write a short book on hosting dinner parties. I figure now that I’m interviewing someone whose work revolves around hosting events, it’s a good place to ask. I love this question! I’d love to share some advice.
The first thing I’m gonna talk about is the importance of name tags. Whenever we have a company meeting, if we even have one new employee, then we do name tags for everybody. Obviously, the new employee doesn’t know anybody’s name and they aren’t familiar with any faces, so we want to make them feel included and help them familiarize themselves with their new team. I’m very quick to use name tags at dinner parties and networking events.
I love doing icebreakers. Although I have to admit, I’ve been changing my thoughts a little bit on icebreakers—trying to be more aware of people who are shy and have social anxiety. When you go around a circle having people say their names and where they’re from and their favorite movies, the person with social anxiety—especially if they’re at the end of the circle—will just get really uncomfortable.
I try to do an icebreaker 30 minutes in, another 30 minutes later, and then maybe do kind of an activity. For an activity, I like to ask people to make a mini speech—a mini kind of TEDx talk where they talk for one minute about something they’re excited about or something that can add value to the room. I like to ask about 2-3 people to do this, and of course, I only ask if I know they’re confident and comfortable enough to do so. Anyway, all that we’re doing with these mini icebreakers and little talks is giving people a space to have a conversational break, so they don’t get trapped with someone the whole time. It’s also a great way to mix up the energy of the party.
That would be my two main pieces of advice. As you mentioned earlier, I will be working on a short book soon that really dives into a specific formula on hosting a dinner party. The formula is basically as follows: set the time, affirm start time, affirm end time, let people know that the start time is sharp (because you want them to only stay for about two hours, don’t stay too late ’cause you want people to come back), and I’ll write about ways to break it up.
Let’s dive into a little bit of your work. What are some of the challenges you’re currently facing? Current challenges are trying to keep up with our growth. We’ve been very lucky that a lot of corporate clients have reached out to us to do company team building at these great museums that we work with. We also do storytelling workshops, so training our staff to do those, and really having enough staff to do them, have proven to be a struggle. It’s something that we’re working to grow, especially in our newer cities like Chicago and San Francisco.
Hiring can be also be a problem. We have a very unique type of culture—we’re very remote-first, remote-friendly, and so thinking of that is interesting. I can’t say I have a ton of problems. The ones we do have are great problems to have, so I’m always staying thankful.
You briefly mentioned having a unique culture and having challenges with hiring. Can you share further? At Museum Hack, we’ve tried to build a culture that 1: empowers our tour guides to be the CEOs of their tours—they’re in charge, they write their own tours, and they make the decisions to make our guests happy, and 2: we’ve tried to build a supportive, remote-friendly environment for so much of our remote staff that doesn’t work in a museum. By that I mean our operations, our sales, and our marketing team. So we’re constantly encouraging as much Slack communications as possible and encouraging our teams to share everything in open rooms. We also have random channels for those water-cooler conversations and things like that for our teams.
In your video, How to visit a museum, you shared a four-step guide to properly exploring a museum. Step two insists walking nonstop throughout the entire floor plan. Why is this? I think you really have to walk the entire floor plan to build a mental model in your head of the space. You need to go through everything and know where the end is. I do this often. If I walk through a museum and look at every single thing at the beginning and I’m so focused, eventually, I’ll just burn through all my mental reserve before seeing half the exhibit.
That’s great advice. Is this why you also said this was an unconventional life philosophy people could apply everywhere as well? Exactly. You’ve gotta ‘walk through’ the whole thing, know what you’re getting into, know the course, and then go back and enjoy the journey at your pace, knowing you may not want to blow your load if there’s something amazing at the end.
How to visit a museum with Nick Gray
What’s next for you and Museum Hack? Trying to grow as much as we can. We’re a completely bootstrapped business with no outside funding. So, we’re growing very carefully and very slowly, but we really want to expand this to as much of the world as possible. Right now, we’re just looking at expanding into more cities. As I said earlier, we’ve been very lucky that other companies have reached out to us for brand activities and having us bring the Museum Hack flavor to their own companies. So I’m very interested in exploring more of that.
Any near-future plans for expanding into Dallas? We actually have been thinking about going to Dallas! You have to be one of our beta testers! We would love your help. But you should be careful, ’cause we might put you to work as a tour guide as well.
I’m totally game if you are. That’d be awesome.