Andy Russell is an entrepreneur with nine lives. Russell, who began throwing parties in his teens, went on to open one of the most influential nightclubs in New York City in the ’90s—Moomba—eventually going on to pursue a career as a venture capitalist working as the lead investor behind what have become huge digital media brands like Thrillist and DailyCandy. Now it seems that Russell’s career has come full circle. He struck out on his own as the founder and CEO of his own venture fund Trigger Media in 2011, and one of the companies that he is incubating is Host Committee, a social networking site that allows influencers to throw parties for their friends at nightclubs during off-hours.
We chatted with Russell about his early nightlife career, his secret sauce for being a great entrepreneur, and why he is measuring his success in babies (seriously).
The Vivant: You started in nightlife at an early age to say the least. Tell us about how you got your start.
Andy Russell: I was born and raised in New York City, and I was really young, 16, but I knew all of these kids from [New York City private schools like] Horace Mann, Fieldston, Chapin—and I just saw this opportunity. I started renting out spaces, and getting kegs of beer and charging $10 to get in. And I would reward those that were influential and bringing people in, and let them cut the line. At 17 I was making real money. I had thousands of dollars that I was hiding in textbooks in my wall.
Then I went to Cornell, and I would come back every third of fourth weekend. Keep in mind this is pre-internet, there were no e-mail lists—and the parties just kept getting bigger—there would be 200, 300, 350 people there.
So how did you go from being a promoter to the owner of one of the most famous clubs in New York City during the ‘90s—Moomba?
I came out of school in 1993, and became an investment banker. I was good at it, but it really destroyed me. So I started applying to business school. While I was doing that the opportunity for Moomba came up—it was this huge risk, but I also knew I had a way out [because of business school].
Finance guys knew my work ethic, I would hook them up at spots—so I got some of them to invest $50,000, $100,000 and I got big names like Oliver Stone and Larry Gagosian to be investors.
I really did everything in the beginning—including painting. When we got the liquor license I cried—I was just so relieved and we had so much to lose.
Did you have any idea what a big hit it was going to be?
It was unbelievable—head-to-toe celebrities—Leonard Di Caprio was coming every night, Val Kilmer, Madonna. It was just so much bigger than I could have imagined.
And then all of a sudden four-months in I was supposed to go to Chicago for business school. At the same time there was a billboard in Los Angeles for Sprint that had Moomba on it.
I took all my press from Moomba and a handwritten note from an investor to Columbia Business School admissions and waited there for two hours until someone would see me. Three weeks later I got in. I did really well. [Laughs] I don’t know how, but maybe giving my professors the hook up at Moomba had something to do with it.
You left Moomba while it was still hot and moved into venture capital.
It was 1999 and I was graduating from business school, I decided to sell. I had long hair at the time and I had never thought of doing anything else but growing Moomba around the world. I heard from a friend to think about venture capital, before venture capital was cool. It was all very serendipitous. I ran into some venture capital guys doing healthcare and that’s what I ended up doing.
OK, the rest is really history, and you ended up working with Bob Pittman eventually, backing what have become huge digital brands like DailyCandy and Thrillist. Now you’ve started your own VC fund Trigger Media Group. Tell us about this next phase in your career.
I thought I had been involved in every other lifestyle newsletter and I wanted one for myself—for that 42-year-old guy looking for a tip of the day. That is how InsideHook came about.
Host Committee though is really my crown jewel. I just thought in the city that never sleeps there is no one in clubs from seven to midnight. There is just all of this empty inventory. So Host Committee is the platform for filling that inventory. We created a really beautiful invitation tool. Hosts invite friends, and are then rewarded. You can see who has RSVP’d, the photos of everyone who has RSVP’d. You can research what cute guys or cute girls are going to be there, or the influential friend of a friend who is coming. We supply the DJ, a photographer.
How have you seen it grow since you started it?
The posts to social media have grown like crazy. We are doing like 50 parties this month. And we are working with the top nightlife destinations in New York City like The Westway and The Box. And we have expansion plans in the works. We are also potentially going international, though the structure of how to do that is still in the works. We are also working with brands that are interested in sponsoring these parties.
Why do you think it has worked?
Nobody loses. Clubs don’t have to pay a bouncer, you don’t have to pay $1,000 for a table. You are in a place where you are comfortable talking and forming relationships. And you are home at 12:30 a.m. not that hungover.
We heard that your true motivation for Host Committee has a lot to do with forming romantic relationships.
I want to improve dating in global metropolitan areas. So many people are not meeting their one true love. Everyone is really two or three degrees from that love—and Host Committee is curating that meet. I’ll know I have succeeded when there have been 4,000 children. I’ve calculated it. I need to be throwing 100 parties per month, four relationships can on average come out of those events. 2,000 marriages will average two children. That’s what will it take.
What makes you a great entrepreneur?
A lot of it is instinct—understanding growth trajectories, and seeing momentum earlier than the consumer. I do think though that a great entrepreneur can make a bad idea work. I’m a really good judge of people and I hire and train well.
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