Founders of a Business Conference Company Reached Their Summit by Making No Small Plans

Summit Series founders.

The Summit Series conferences started with a ski trip for a small group of entrepreneurs that was put on a credit card, but they now have a permanent home at their mountaintop resort.

The Summit Conferences Began as Networking Events and Now Are Changing the World

In 2007, Elliott Bisnow was living in his parents’ home selling ads for his dad’s online real estate newsletter.

Brett Leve was selling real estate on commission just as the bubble burst.

Jeff Rosenthal was in mid-management at a New York City Macy’s store, living in a tiny apartment under a freeway on-ramp.

Jeremy Schwartz was playing in a punk rock band earning $8 a day.

They were an improbable bunch to become the organizers of global cutting-edge leadership conferences known as the Summit Series, drawing a wide variety of speakers like Richard Branson, Shonda Rhimes, Malcolm Gladwell, Arianna Huffington, Kendrick Lamar, Ray Kurzweil, and Alice Waters. Forbes called it “the Davos of the next generation.”

The long climb from sponsoring a free networking ski trip in 2008 to owning their own ski resort and hosting conferences for thousands all over the world is described in their new book “Make No Small Plans: Lessons on Thinking Big, Chasing Dreams, and Building Community.” 

“We’ve all been told that big ideas are impossible,” Bisnow told Startup Savant. “Start your sentence with ‘I know this sounds crazy…’ and you’ll be cut off before you can even explain your vision and why it’s revolutionary. The purity of our dreams gets corrupted when it meets the reality of other people’s experiences. ‘It’s not going to work,’ they say. ‘It’s not the right time.’ ‘We don’t have the money.’ ‘Somebody else could do it better.’ Yet most great businesses, products, and causes were deemed completely absurd and impractical notions at the outset.”

It all started with Bisnow, who had dropped out of college because he found homework less relevant to his dreams than reading the Wall Street Journal each day. He was undaunted by having failed with a T-shirt business and a consultancy that never had a client. Back home, he went to networking events to drum up leads and met Leve.

Leve had sold $50,000 of special knives when he was 18 and used those skills to get a job with a real estate brokerage after graduation from college. To make ends meet, he fell back on the way he made money between studies, hosting profitable parties, which is how he met Rosenthal.

Rosenthal had ADHD but started an online vintage clothing company in college and made extra money throwing parties, so he and Leve shared tips on how to make them successful. After graduation, Rosenthal helped a couple of startups while working as a buyer for Macy’s, just as the retail economy was collapsing. His closest friend from high school was Schwartz.

Schwartz’s band had sold-out shows around the US, but illegal downloads were proliferating, and the record industry was in shambles. Leve invited him to join him and the others in their networking conference startup.

Bisnow had made the first efforts at this when his own networking efforts were not very productive in producing leads. He had heard that close relationships were often formed on chairlifts and the slopes at ski resorts and decided on a radical strategy to connect with higher-level leaders. He began cold-calling those on high-achiever lists, offering free first-class tickets for an all-expenses-paid weekend skiing trip in April 2008. He managed to convince a couple, then name-dropped them to attract others. 

With no experience in doing anything like this, it could have been a disaster, but enough new relationships were formed that a Fortune reporter heard about it and called Bisnow to ask when the next event was and what his company called. Caught off-guard, he looked at his North Face jacket and read off the sleeve: Summit Series.

As for where and when to go next, he decided on a hotel near Cancun, Mexico. Now leaders who had turned down his first invitation were eager to join, even though they had to pay their own airfare. He expanded the list to 60 and set it in six months. But the first event had been put on a credit card, and Bisnow hadn’t figured out how to make these profitable or make money from the relationships.

He called Leve, who agreed to try to bring on sponsorships on a commission. After a struggle, he landed a unit of Staples targeting business for $30,000. Despite the economy being in a freefall, the event went ahead in November, this time with speakers on interesting topics and everyone sharing rooms, which led to deeper discussions about how participants overcame adversity and their passions for improving the world. The founder of TOMS Shoes led a trip to a local school where they fitted 100 kids with brand new shoes.

Pushing the Boulder Up the Mountain

Leve recruited Rosenthal and Schwartz to organize the next conference, and the four of them headed for a condo owned by Leve’s grandmother in Boca Raton, Florida, where they planned a ski weekend at the Aspen St. Regis.

“We pushed ourselves to elevate the experience, which we definitely didn’t embody,” they wrote. “We didn’t even have the money to go to Aspen to check out the hotel, and we knew there was simply no way we could offer a free event, especially with the global economy plummeting and very few sponsors were willing to chip in. We were on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars and could no longer cover losses of that scale with credit cards. But we were so excited we didn’t gut-check any of this with our former attendees.”

They sent out an email with the announcement that this time not only did attendees have to pay their airfare, there was a $3,000 charge to participate. They received an immediate backlash for their arrogant assumptions, including the impression that the four were exploiting the lists of friends that participants had given based on the events being free.

President Barack Obama saved them in February 2009. Elliott received a call from a friend in the White House tasked with bringing together a symposium of 40 influential CEOs under 40 to help him understand the issues faced by entrepreneurs and tech companies during the economic crisis. It was to occur in a week, and there was no budget to get this done, so in desperation, he turned to Bisnow for help. Recognizing the enormous risk and reward opportunity, he agreed to take over the project and Summit pulled it off, recruiting attendees that included Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter, and Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos. 

With more credibility, Summit turned to those who had signed up for Aspen and asked them to help introduce them to their networks, gradually building up more commitments. They were also referred to Elizabeth Gore, who was head of global partnerships for the United Nations Foundation. She helped them make two critical changes in their approach to the events: getting more women involved and using auctions to raise money for great causes. With 120 in attendance at Aspen, $250,000 was raised for charity.

Barely making a profit, the Summit founders decided they needed to do an event in New York City to get more traction and took a tiny apartment in Lower Manhattan with children’s bunk beds. They set up to seven meetings a day and hosted dinners, where they had to pass the hat to pay the bill. Former President Bill Clinton’s foundation had heard about their White House miracle and was open to having him be the speaker at an event in June 2009, if a $250,000 donation was made. 

The catch was that to get 80 people to attend after the email fiasco they felt they needed to make it free. They planned to meet their financial obligation through a combination of getting backers to donate and doing an auction. The night of the event, they were still $150,000 short. After Clinton spoke and took questions, he left and some of the crowd started out the door, so the founders frantically started the auction to get their attention and it just managed to cover the goal.

To try to provide a setting that would draw more women, Summit set its November 2009 conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami’s South Beach and set the limit at 250. Elizabeth Gore helped with the programming that included “Empowering Women Right Here, Right Now.” 

The May 2010 event was in Washington, D.C., and with 800 attendees and speakers, including Mark Cuban, John Legend, and seven astronauts, Summit earned enough profit to make another bold move.

Despite zero experience working with a cruise ship, they booked one for the first Summit at Sea, leaving from Miami Beach in May 2011. They booked Branson as speaker, but the logistical problems kept getting bigger before the ship left the harbor. Among them, its Internet service was extremely slow and would cost $300 per person. Satellite service was far too expensive, so they installed servers to create an onboard intranet, but it was a nightmare process, and on the cruise, it didn’t always work.

“Then something unfolded that none of us could’ve expected,” they reported. “Participants realized how much their phones distracted them from real human connection, and they loved that they could be fully present, surrounded by strangers who were quickly becoming friends.”

Building a Community on the Summit

While continuing to plan conferences, the founders had begun thinking about a permanent home where they and their friends could rear families and create an intentional community around their values. They were told to check out Powder Mountain, an obscure ski resort in the small town of Eden, Utah (west of Salt Lake City —Park City’s resorts are to the east). Its residents had resisted having it developed into a major commercial skiing destination under prior owners and had sued the new ones in a case that had reached the Utah Supreme Court.

“It felt like we were entering a national park,” they wrote about their first visit. “Thousands of aspen trees crawled up the mountains on both sides of us. A rushing creek with crystal clear water flowed past as we snaked up the meandering road to the top.”

What made Powder Mountain unique was, while at other resorts, one has to take a lift to the summit to ski down, its topography is inverted — you drive to the flat top of the mountain and ski down. That meant it would be possible to build homes on the summit that would have amazing panoramic views as far away as Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming, on land that covered 10,000 acres.

They learned that three huge companies controlled most US ski resorts, and they wanted to create something different so that if the court blocked the development, they could have a plan the town would support. They were told that the current owners were willing to sell it for $40 million, but everyone they knew said it was far too risky, no bank would give them a loan, and no one was likely to invest. 

“Our idea seemed so audacious we weren’t worried about anyone stealing it,” they wrote. “We’ve long believed that entrepreneurs lose a great deal by not sharing ideas out of fear of having them ripped off. Nobody is really thinking about the same thing you’re thinking about, let alone plotting to steal your idea to monetize it. Even if they tried, could they be more successful at it than you? There’s a great observation from physicist Howard Aiken that ‘if your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.’”

They learned of a way to raise money without yet owning the property by copying the way some golf communities were started: having founding members who are entitled to home site credit for putting money into an escrow account. But they needed $20 million to get this started and they only had $1 million in the bank. Their letter of intent to buy Powder Mountain gave them six months to raise it and, while planning and holding their conferences, they began jumping through a thousand hoops to meet all the legal requirements for becoming developers, while convincing prospects to become founding members.

Initially, everyone they approached turned them down, but in March 2012, Matias de Tezanos, who was named one of the top 10 Hispanic entrepreneurs by Inc. magazine, visited and was immediately won over. To their great surprise, he offered to put up $2 million and told them it didn’t need to go into escrow, so they could use it right away. Later that year, Branson signed on, which attracted other big names. 

However, they kept needing to extend their contract to get to the goal, each time requiring another deposit that could ultimately have to be forfeited if they failed. Finally, April 24, 2013, was given as their last possible deadline. They made it, raising $10 million more than the $20 million needed, which is where their book ends.

The View from the Top

Bisnow says they wanted to focus on the arc of their story, from barely being able to pay their bills to the view from the top of the mountain. The following four years were the slog of installing horizontal infrastructure that comes when you buy a piece of land: they built a 5.5-mile road, dug wells, put in power, sewer, and a fiber-optic network, as well as completing the entitlements and zoning. Then they had to fund the process of designing and building homes, nearly 50 so far, with a vision to eventually have 500, along with a core urban village that has hotels. This part of their business has been healthy, as people from all over the world have visited to consider Summit as a second or even their primary home. 

Until the pandemic, the Summit conferences continued on land and sea, each attracting an audience based on the theme, speakers, and location, and the next public one has been announced for November 2022 in Palm Springs, with another voyage next year. They have been holding some small events for families.

During the past two years, they launched Junto, which created virtual groups of seven with a facilitator to help “entrepreneurially-minded people” with their professional and personal challenges. Anyone can apply to become involved with any of their projects, whether by becoming a resident or participating in an event.

“The really big surprise has been that the ski resort has done mind-blowingly well during winter because people were really eager to get out and do something safe outdoors,” Bisnow said. “We added three new chair lifts, expanded the terrain, and renovated the restaurants. It used to take a year to sell out of season passes after the end of the season in April; now it takes five minutes.”

Their most important lesson from all this experience: make no small plans.

headshot of Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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