Best.Team.Building.NYC.jpgBest Team Building NYC

2018 will mark nine years since I founded TrivWorks as a trivia team building company in New York City. However, my experience in the corporate event entertainment and group bonding space actually stretches back several years before, to 2006.

Back then, I had just started working a new job as a program associate at the 92nd Street Y, a renowned cultural and community center in Manhattan. I enjoyed the work – I was responsible for conceiving and running adult education and enrichment programs, and it kind of felt like I was a camp counselor for grownups. The only problem was, the pay was HORRIBLE. So bad, in fact, that I actually couldn’t afford to live on just my salary alone; like so many other struggling young folks in NYC, I had to take on a range of side hustles.

My fist hustle was as a bar trivia night host on the Upper East Side. Little did I know at the time that this was to be my first foray into the world of professional trivia hosting – but that’s a story for another time (if you simply can’t wait to read more, click here). What I want to talk about in this post is actually my OTHER side hustle during those challenging years, when I was simply trying to make ends meet.

That first summer at the 92nd Street Y, I quickly discovered two things: A) I wasn’t making enough money to survive, and B) summers were dead. There were virtually no programs to run, and it turned out that most people whom I worked with took extended vacations during the summer months, or came in irregularly. It was a very lax work environment to begin with, but I soon found myself coming in to a virtually empty office every day, with nobody interacting with me at all. I pretty much stopped showing up as much like everybody else, because there was no point. There was no work to be done, and I was literally just hanging around the office by myself.

And so, I decided to take on another side gig in addition to the weekly bar trivia hosting. But what? I didn’t want to make lattes or stock bookshelves. I thought to myself: what’s something I would genuinely ENJOY doing? It hit me surprisingly quickly:

Scavenger hunts.

I used to write and run scavenger hunts for my friends in high school and college, and it was an absolute blast. I loved the creative challenge of coming up with clues, the excitement of mapping everything out, making preparations, and then finally running the thing, and seeing how people did. Given I was in the Big Apple, where there’s just about anything one could possibly ask for, I did I quick Google search for professional team building scavenger hunt companies in New York City.

Lo and behold, there were SEVERAL.

I checked out the first one that popped up, and they looked legit. They’d been around for a while, had a nice professional-looking Website with some great clients and testimonials, appeared to be extremely reputable, and came off as the Real Deal.

I reached out to them.

It was a simple cold Email, introducing myself and stating that I was an experienced scavenger hunt writer looking to take on some side work. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but sure enough I received a reply that very same day (turns out there aren’t too many “experienced scavenger hunt writers” out there). The owner of the company had responded to me directly, said he was intrigued, and offered to meet me for lunch.

Wow! All from one simple Email…! I took him up on his offer; we met a couple of days later, he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I carefully walked him through my experience writing hunts, how I approached them, what I enjoyed about them, etc. For his part, he told me a bit about how he got started in this quirky NYC team building ideas area, and a little bit about how he ran his business.

It turns out that he actually had a whole team of freelance writers working for him. Whenever a new hunt needed to be commissioned – be it a neighborhood, a museum, or even an entire city – he would “assign” a writer to create the product, which he would then sell to corporate clients and then have “emcees” guide attendees through. He asked me if I would be interested I writing a hunt for him on a trial basis – an opportunity which I quickly jumped at!

As luck would have it, this guy had never written a scavenger hunt in Stamford, CT – a busy NYC suburb and growing commercial hub in its own right, where I just happened to have also grown up. He asked me if I’d like to take a crack at writing a Stamford hunt, and I agreed. He told me the fee he was willing to pay me for writing a hunt – a very small fee, embarrassingly small actually, probably a tenth of what he would be charging clients who would buy it. But I was in no position to turn down any extra money, especially for a writing job, and ESPECIALLY for a scavenger hunt writing job.

Before starting the work, he asked me to sign a Writer’s Agreement. It was pretty standard-looking stuff, however there was one thing that caught my eye. This guy had a “Right to Refuse” clause; basically, the agreement said that he could accept or reject my work at his sole discretion. Should I submit my hunt and it meets with his approval, great! I get the agreed-upon fee. However, should he decide to reject my hunt, I would be compensated with a “kill fee” – 25% of my full fee. Not having anything to lose, I agreed to the terms and signed the agreement.

That Friday, I took the Metro North train from Grand Central up to Stamford, notepad and map in-hand (alas, there were no Smartphones back then) and set out to write the best scavenger hunt I possibly could. I spend HOURS wandering around the downtown area, looking for interesting spots, statues, plaques, street signs, landmarks…you name it. I took detailed notes, took photos on my digital camera, and mapped everything out. I stayed there literally until dark, then took the train all the way back home.

That weekend, I didn’t leave my room. I spend the ENTIRE day Saturday and again on Sunday working on this hunt, looking up fun facts and historical tidbits online to tie to each of my 30-odd clues I’d crafted. It was grueling, painstaking work, but I couldn’t stop. I had to get this right, and wanted to make it as awesome as I possibly could. When I finally completed the job, I eagerly attached it to an Email, and hit “Send.”

I didn’t hear back.

I followed up several days later, but still heard nothing. Finally, a week later I received an acknowledgement that my hunt had been received, and that it would be reviewed soon.

I waited another full week, but no response. On a whim, I decided to check out the guy’s Website. I was surprised to see under his list of cities serviced, was now a “New! Stamford, CT” icon. I wrote to him again, saying that I saw the announcement of Stamford on his site, and asked if he’d had a chance to review my hunt yet.

I was even more surprised by his response.

He wrote back that while he hadn’t had a chance to review my hunt yet, he had indeed been promoting it, and in fact had SOLD a scavenger hunt in Stamford – as such, he would need to review and approve my hunt ASAP. To compensate me for the extended wait time, he offered to send me a 25% advance on my fee, with the balance to be paid once he approved. I didn’t love this arrangement, but figured it was better than nothing. I received a check in the mail a few days later.

Shortly afterwards, I received the following Email:

“David, I reviewed your hunt and am sorry to say it doesn’t work for us. Please consider the 25% advance I sent to be the contractual ‘kill fee.’ Thanks and good luck.”

I was stunned, flustered, and angry. It’s one thing to reject my hunt, but another to actually promote and SELL the thing, then come back and say he’s rejecting it after the fact. I wrote him back stating this fact, adding that because he had promoted and sold my hunt third party, I was assuming that meant it had been approved; as such, when would he be paying me?

His response was short and swift:

“I didn’t sell YOUR hunt, I sold A hunt.”

He’d ripped me off. He had taken my work and sold it, then tried to play it off like he hadn’t.

My response was equally swift: I took him to small claims court.

And WON.

Why am I telling you this story? Because now, over a decade later, I am in the position that this guy was in back then – that is, the founder of a NYC team building company. Having now been on both sides of this table, I can see clearly what this guy was doing – and just how unethical and dishonest it was. He was basically taking advantage of a desperate kid, to save himself a few bucks (and if you had any idea just how few bucks we’re talking about here, you’d laugh). As a business owner, I can’t even IMAGINE doing something like this to one of my trivia writers, emcees or producers.

Incidentally, after this thing happened I did approach another NYC scavenger hunt company, and it was a MUCH better experience – I wound up freelancing for them for over two years, during which time I learned so, so much about team building activities in New York (you can learn more about my unique experience running trivia AND scavenger hunts by following this link).

Somebody who treats the people he works with the way this guy I’ve described did, invariably treats his clients with similar ill regard. Conversely, someone who takes pains to treat his or her colleagues well, probably will do the same for their clients.

Believe it or not, I am actually thankful that the above incident happened. Though I couldn’t have known it at the time, this helped imprint me with firsthand experience about unethical behavior in business; I vowed then and there to treat those who would eventually be in my employ with the respect, always doing the just and honorable thing. That is why the title of this post is about what the best NYC team building companies do, and don’t do; I strive each and every day to achieve the former.

For another useful article on how team building boosts the bottom line, visit www.bcbusiness.ca/Team-building-can-improve-your-bottom-line