How to discover pan-roasted wax worms and other oddities in your neighborhood
When Martin Shen first bit into the pan-roasted wax worm, it crunched. The natural oils of the worm made it taste like pork rinds.
This wasn't some SXSW panel on how bugs are the future of food. It wasn't a tour through a Latin American village where bugs are the main dish. Shen was in a kitchen in San Francisco, learning the art of insect cooking from La Cocina. As the founder of UpOut, an events startup, he gets first pick of the craziest options available.
UpOut is an events subscription service, where people pay $20 a month and then get a pair of tickets to two events per month out of a list of 40 or more choices. As the worm tasting suggests, we're not talking about the kinds of events everyone already knows about through SF Weekly or Time Out.
We're talking weird, underground events and classes. Fire dancing school. An urban spy adventure where participants carry briefcases and shoot lasers at each other. A live bull run in Alameda. Cunnilingus lessons with a live demo. A tomato fight with 2000 pounds of tomatoes.
Shen's team built technology that scrapes the Internet to dig up these obscure happenings around town. If a subscriber hasn't picked two events to attend month's end, they receive AMC movie tickets instead. In its simplest sense, UpOut is Birchbox for activities. But in this case, the box we're talking about is your comfort zone, and rather than being delivered, it's being removed.
UpOut has been around since 2011 but it has kept a pretty low profile. "Press is nice to have, but when you're trying to prove out a scalable model, [it] isn't a scalable service," Shen says.
Instead, Shen has focused on growing through word of mouth and endless, endless Facebook ads. Facebook is how I first encountered UpOut. After seeing the bazillionth post saying "'Anyone who doesn't have a good time in San Francisco is pretty much dead to me' - Anthony Bourdain," my curiosity was piqued.
UpOut raised $1 million in seed funding from Tandem, Sand Hill Angels, and TEEC Angels across 2011 and 2012. The company plugged along with that money as a free events listings service, hoping to generate revenue through advertising. That proved futile. "We realized [event organizers] don't have that big of an ad budget," Shen says.
In September 2013 the company pivoted to their current subscription model. Event organizers give a handful of their tickets for free in exchange for free advertising to UpOut subscribers. It's similar to Birchbox, which secures beauty samples for free from companies and delivers them to consumers for $10 a month. The beauty companies get free advertising, the users get to test new products, and Birchbox gets the cash.
With the pivot to a subscription model, UpOut is certainly unique. There's not many companies in the event space offering the same service. HowAboutWe and Delightful are comparable, but focus on couples. Sosh is more general but isn't available as a subscription.
UpOut is growing steadily in San Francisco and seems to have landed on a repeatable formula. Shen wouldn't release any metrics, so we're taking his word on that. But as wacky as SF residents can be, it's just one market. There's still plenty to prove as the company looks to reach a wider audience.
"Rolling it out to lots of cities requires a special touch," Shen says.