How Saya Hillman Made A Business Out Of Dinner Parties

by Tim Jahn on February 4, 2011

When Saya Hillman was let go from her last job, she made a list of all the things she’d love to get paid to do.  Today, she’s getting paid to do those things from that list.  And it all started by having strangers over to her home for dinner parties.

In this interview, Saya shares how she’s made a business of out creating unique experiences for people to connect, from dinner parties to dance experiments, and why creating a great experience is so important.


Tim Jahn: So from what I’ve read, you get paid to eat food and drink drinks other people bring to your house. In fact, that’s not what I read, that’s what you told me. But I’ve also read that in other articles you’ve done. So you eat food and you drink drinks other people bring to your house. Explain this. What is exactly is your business?

Saya Hillman: Okay. Very complex question now. I wish I could just say — no I don’t wish I could just say I do this, I do that. One of the best things is I do multiple things. So but as far as the food and drink goes about five years ago now I was throwing dinner parties for friends with the one caveat being that none of my friends would know each other, just as a way to help my friends make new friends.

So I knew everybody who came to my dinner parties but they didn’t know each other. And they got so popular that friends of friends started contacting me and saying, “I hear you throw these dinner parties, can I come?” And so I started saying, “Yes” just because it’s fun for me to meet new people as well. But it got to be so much time and I wasn’t charging, you know, so I was spending all this time planning menus and inviting people and cooking —

Tim Jahn: Dinner parties are a lot of work when you — even with a few people over.

Saya Hillman: Oh my goodness. Absolutely. And then yeah I was spending all my time in the kitchen and it was so I need to you know somehow make this into a business. I was, I was so surprised at how many people were interested in the concept of it so I was like, oh, kind of the light goes off, I’m like oh there’s something there.

So I four years ago turned them into Mac and cheese dinner parties and they’re now called “Mac and cheese minglers” which is basically a group of strangers, right now average number is 20-30 people come to my home on a Friday or Saturday evening and stay for about four, five, six hours sometimes and it’s mingling, it’s informal, hanging out in a living room, it’s no pressure, there’s no, it’s not a meat market vibe, it’s not a stuffy, here’s my resume, I’m going to wear and suit and try to impress you. The one rule again is that you have to come solo so I have a lot of friends who sign up or husbands wives, boyfriends, girlfriends. But if you and your wife signed up, you could come Friday night and she’d have to come Saturday night.

And the thinking behind that is when you go to something with people you know, just out of comfort, you often end up spending time with them, hanging out in the corner all night long and you don’t push yourself and sometimes you also feel ike you have the be the person that you always are. You know and if there’s people — if no one there knows you, and knows how you usually are, you can be whoever you want to be. So people seem to find it more freeing to come on their own and also freeing that they know everybody else is going to be in the same boat when they come; everybody’s going to be solo.

So you don’t have to be worried about, “Oh my god, I’m not going to know anybody.” Nobody knows anybody. And so basically the structure is just kind of informal hanging out for a little bit, then I will lead some kind of discussion activity usually just as a way to help people get to know each other and there’s always you know small world connections and that’s why I kind of lead a group activity so that everybody can hear, “Oh, I went to university of Iowa too or I’m also an architect or I’m also interested in skydiving.”

And then just help people make those connections and you know it can be scary to walk into a room of 30 strangers and so I try to give people little things to get them going, conversation starters, that type of thing. And yeah, so I’ve been doing them for four years now, I’ve had over 800 people come to them, I have repeat people who have come to numerous ones. And you know people come to expand their network, that’s the main reason people come.

Tim Jahn: Do people — do you charge for the minglers?

Saya Hillman: Yeah. Well, yes I do charge. So it is now — you know for four years I’ve been charging so it is definitely part of my business but I’m very growing up without a lot of money and kind of always being in the nonprofit world or self employed, I’ve never been rolling in cash so I’ve purposely keep them really affordable so it’s $15.00 plus everybody brings a snack or a drink to share.

Tim Jahn: What fascinates me about this and I understand that you might not be rolling in cash. But it’s the fact that you have gotten 800 strangers to pay you to come to your house and bring their own food. So you’re creating something so valuable that they’re literally paying to come over to your house because of this experience you’re creating. How did you get people to do that? That’s very interesting and fascinating.

Saya Hillman: I think that there’s just such a desire of people to have nontraditional ways of meeting others. And non traditional — so something other than if it’s for romantic reasons you’re coming, something other than If it’s for, you know professional networking reasons, something other than going to the back of a the backroom of a bar or a hotel conference room and being in a suit, and like I said, passing out your resumes to everybody and not hearing anything back.

And if it’s just coming to meet new friends, you know sometimes it can hard. People don’t really talk about this as you know kind of post college, the topic of making friends is something that not every — you don’t really hear about and it could be really difficult. You know if you just moved to the city or all your friends have gotten married and moved out to the suburbs and, or that type of thing.

So people are just looking for ways to meet people in a comfortable, affordable and also fun way. And so I think that that’s why people not only have been signing up like crazy but also coming back over and over again as well. And you know, it’s a good reason to keep it affordable is that people can keep coming back. You know at $15.00, it’s not going to put a huge dent in your you know monthly expenses if you come to one every few months.

Tim Jahn: How do — before this interview you told me that you don’t do any advertising really. How do people find out about the minglers.

Saya Hillman: Everything has been word of mouth for all facets of my business really. And people are just, have been wonderful at sharing their experience with their friends and family and you know posting stuff on Facebook and forwarding on my website to other people. I’ve gotten some press and so I definitely have hade people sign up and find out about the minglers through the TV reports or the magazine articles that have been written.

But I would say the majority of people that come have just heard from friends. And actually a lot of moms too. I’ve got — I ask people, how did you hear about the mingler and a lot of people put, “My mom forwarded me the link thinking it would be a good way for me to meet people.” And I guess I’m highly mother approved.

Tim Jahn: That’s awesome. You should put like a seal on your website.

Saya Hillman: I know, I should.

Tim Jahn: But okay, so you, this has been the past four years so you weren’t always inviting people over to your house and helping them make connections. This all started with a list, right? Can you kind of walk me back and explain how this all started with that list?

Saya Hillman: Sure absolutely. So I’ve been self employed for six years now. And I was let go from my last job and I had no idea what I wanted to do except I just knew that I wanted to work for myself. I didn’t want to ever have a boss again. So right after I was let go, I — oh go ahead —

Tim Jahn: Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to catch this. Did you have a bad experience with a boss that made you want to be self employed or was there something that drove that thought?

Saya Hillman: Sure. My last job I was an associate producer at a nonprofit that made documentaries on social issues and it was a wonderful, wonderful job especially because I had no film experience. So for my then boss to give me that opportunity to break into a field with no experience, I’m very appreciative of that. And I learned a lot but he and I are very different or were very different people as far as I’m very, I’m very — I love Excel spreadsheets, if not 15 minutes early, I feel like I’m late, I’m very organized, I love calendars and he was less that.

And so we definitely butted head I think in our kind of professional styles and it was a very small organization and so yeah, so I had a wonderful experience as far as kind of all the skills that I learned and it opened, I had never considered media, digital media, and film, photography as something that I was good at or interested in and that opened my eyes. But yeah, after a year definitely the small office, I felt like the walls kept getting smaller, and smaller and smaller because he and I kept kind of seeing eye to eye. So that was a main reason why I decided I wanted to be my own boss.

But even if I had had a wonderful experience — my mom has always been an entrepreneur and worked for herself and I always thought, it was always really cool how she could just make her schedule however she wanted it. And if she wanted to stay at home one afternoon, summer afternoon, listen to the Cubs game, then she did that, but then she’d work extra hard the next day. So I think that subconsciously it’s always kind of been in the back of my head that at some point I might want to go out on my own. So six years ago when I was let go, I had no idea what I wanted to do just that I wanted to be on my own and have that flexibility.

So I just made a list of all the things that I, if the — if it was a utopia and I could get paid to do anything I wanted no matter how silly or ridiculous it sounds, these are the things I would want to get paid for. And you know things, silly things from I like wearing flip flops and jeans or I like playing board games, I like having people over, I like scrapbooking, I like talking about Chicago, I like working with inner city kids. So I made this bullet point list of I don’t know, there were 25, 30 different things on there. And it sounded crazy and it looked crazy but one thing I’ve learned over the six years is just put it out there in the universe and you never know what’s going to happen.

Because I’ve actually now encompassed everything on that list is somehow a part of what I do now for a living. So which I never — you know, if you would have asked me six years ago if it would have been possible, I probably would have said no. But shoot, it’s cliché. But shoot for the stars, right, because you never know.

Tim Jahn: I was going to say, I could think — I’m sure many people write a list whether they’re at their job or the just quit, they write a list of the things they would love to get paid to do and they wake up the next day and forget about it. What made you act on it or turn that list into reality? Or not — you know what I think I know what made you do it but how did you do it is another question.

Saya Hillman: Sure. I definitely would not have been able to turn my list into a reality without the incredible support that I had from people. And whether support means float me some money so I can pay rent for this month or whether it just means sit down with me in a coffee shop and let me ask you what camera model I should buy or what iMac model is a good one for me to start with. Or, you know, people just — the main way people helped me was just telling everybody, “Hey there’s this girl who is starting her own video production business. If you ever need video services, give her a call.”

And again, I didn’t do any marketing or advertising, I just — I had no qualms about asking anybody and everybody for help. And also, and even if I just met you, I will ask you for help because the worse thing that you can do is say no and at least I will have asked. And I also have no qualms I guess kind of putting, telling everybody about myself so I mean, in a — if I, if an article comes out that’s really cool about me, I’m absolutely going to forward it on to everybody that I know or — so yeah I basically just really reaching out to all my networks and not being afraid that’s it’s going to be overkill.

I mean, because that was the only way I could survive was other people helping me those few, I was going to say the first few months, I mean, I would say the first year, two years, that was what really propelled me and kept me going.

Tim Jahn: So when you were let go and you decided to work for yourself, you started your own video production company?

Saya Hillman: Correct.

Tim Jahn: And so that was the first two years or so? And then you transitioned to what is now — well I guess it was always Mac and Cheese Productions but kind of the new I forget the word I’m looking for, the new — I forget the word I’m looking for. Evolve, evolution, wow.

Saya Hillman: That’s a good word, evolution.

Tim Jahn: It’s such a great word, it took me ten minutes to figure out what it was.

Saya Hillman: What I’m actually really — this is so accidental that I chose Mac and Cheese Productions as you know, as kind of my company name, it was random how I came up with it. But I’m, the accidental part of it is that when I chose productions I was absolutely thinking video productions. But as my company has evolved to mean so many other things, I realized productions is, you know, can mean a range of things. And that’s what it has come to mean with me.

And so now, video is half of my business and then the other half — so besides the minglers, there’s a lot of other kind of event stuff I do. But the common thread is basically helping people create community in nontraditional, affordable and fun ways.

Tim Jahn: You know, I see this more and more I think. A lot in Chicago because I live here and I’m involved here. But this idea of people forming businesses around the idea of well you said creating community, of simply connecting people. And there’s zillions of ways to do that.

You know, you have your own ways, there’s other companies that have their own ways. I guess the hardest part, or not the hardest part, the biggest questions that I always have and because I’m kind of a logical person is how do you make money from simply connecting people or simply creating community? And you know as I said I’m not so much interested in how much money you’re making.

I’m more interested in how you can turn that into a business. Do you kind of want to shed some light on how you — because I’m sure at the very beginning you weren’t thinking or maybe you were, you weren’t thinking, “Oh lets make a business out of this.” But how did you actually — so you weren’t — how did you actually turn it into a business while still keeping your core idea there?

Saya Hillman: Sure. Yeah, I would say actually every event aspect of my business did not start out as this is going to be a money maker. It started out as, I enjoy having people come over, I enjoy dancing even though badly, I enjoy doing Improv though badly, and what’s crazy is that it turns out a lot of other people enjoly those things and are looking for ways to meet new people as well, and again in an affordable way.

So what I think that I offer is here’s an opportunity to push yourself in doing some kind of activity that’s a little bit scary and that maybe you’re not good at. But not only doing that activity because you could go anywhere, to any Improv school or dance studio, take these calsess —

Tim Jahn: Sure, especially in Chicago. I mean there’s plenty here.

Saya Hillman: Right. Exactly. So I think kind of my twist on it and what makes me unique is that first of all the people that I bring to the table, I have such a expansive network of really amazing, intelligent, experienced, well traveled, educated people who are really fun and adventurous. And so when I send out a message to my network saying, “Are you interested in this?” All the people that respond, there’s kind of a guaranteed if you join this activity you’re going to be surrounded by tons of other really fun, adventurous, spirited people.

And I think just yeah I don’t know as far as turning, like I said, everything that I’ve done does not, is not started as a, this is a way for me to make money. And I actually have learned like now with all these experiments that I’m doing, this dance experiment and Improv experiment, I’ve learned along the way, oh I’m putting in so much time coordinating all this stuff I need to put in some money for myself too. So I — each experiment has gotten a little more and more costly for participants just because the first time I did it, I didn’t put in any money for myself.

And then after spending basically you know three, four months straight coordinating everything I was like, all right, next time I do this, it’s going to be a little bit more expensive so that I can you know make a living at this and now I just did the third installment and that’s a little bit more expensive because there’s all these other yeah, parts of it that I’m coordinating and stuff. So it’s just — I’m kind of, I’m absolutely flying by the seat of my pants, trial and error, but it’s all turned out amazingly well.

Tim Jahn: What are some of these experiments for people that don’t know?

Saya Hillman: Sure. So again, back to my list that I love creating. So I have a “to do” list a life “to do” list and it just has things that I would like to do at some point in my life. And one of them was I want to dance a hip hop routine on stage in front of a paying audience. And I have no rhythm at all. So it’s like the chances that anybody’s going to pay just to see me dance badly, that’s slim to none, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

So I was like, how can I do this? How can I cross this off my list and get other people involved as well? So about a year ago, I came up with this idea called “Dance Experiment” which was get together people who fit the following criteria. Criteria being: You had to be a bad dancer, you had to be scared to perform in front of others, you had to be outgoing and adventurous and also want to meet new people. And I got together — and you couldn’t know anybody else who was involved except me. So I got together 16 people; kind of the same philosophy as the minglers. You got to do this on your own.

I got together 16 other people who fit all that criteria and for — then I hired out a choreographer, we rented out a dance studio and for three months we rehearsed for four hours a week and then at the end of the three months, we performed in front of 350 people paying audience members at Truman College, 350 people. And I thought it was going to be a one time thing and it’s now turned into a franchise. DE2, Dance Experiment 2 just started a week ago and I had, I have 22 dancers this year. Thirty people on the waitlist to participate. And I actually just started Improv experiments, going to be starting in four weeks which is the same jest. Basically you have to be really bad at acting, really bad at Improv, really bad at thinking on your feet, you can’t know any of the other participants, and I’m now combining Dance Experiment and Improv Experiments are going to be combined in one huge final show and it’s going to be called Fear Experiment.

And I’m going to start running with this idea of just picking random activities that I’m interested in doing myself, so I get something out of it and something that you’re not good at, and something that you’re scared to do and finding a community of people who also want to go on the journey with you. And I can’t tell you, it’s been one of the best things for me and all of the participants thus far. I mean, all the romantic relationships have come out of it, really amazing friendships have come out of it. We just celebrated our one year anniversary, the Dance Experiment people. We all met on Friday because it was one year ago that we all met and yeah, it’s just been an amazing ride, it really has.

Tim Jahn: That’s amazing. You got together what 16, 20 random people. Who taught you guys how to dance?

Saya Hillman: I hired a choreographer. So again, I just reached out to my network, I just said, “Does anybody know —

Tim Jahn: Okay. So you just found one?

Saya Hillman: Yep, I just found some random person through connections.

Tim Jahn: And then you trained for what, three or four months?

Saya Hillman: Three months, yep.

Tim Jahn: Now was this like weekly or nightly or every other week or —

Saya Hillman: It was every week for three months, January through March. We met on Thursday nights and Sunday nights for four hours a week. And Dance Experiment 2 is doing the same thing now. And Improv Experiments going to be meeting for five hours a week for two months straight.

Tim Jahn: Oh my goodness. And then I’m fascinated by this. It sounds to me like a reality show but a good one. So you brought together all these people, you trained — you found someone to train you included because you didn’t know how to dance. Trained you and all these people you brought together and then you had a showcase, a dance show that you had a paying audience come view this. And they knew the whole thing, right? They knew the story behind this all?

Saya Hillman: Absolutely. Because what I did, I documented, I video taped the whole thing so my goal is —

Tim Jahn: So you did make a reality show.

Saya Hillman: Well yeah exactly. When I get some free time, my goal is I’m going to make a film out of Dance Experiment 1. So yeah, so basically the show was ten minutes of video showing kind of the whole process and then we did a dance, and then another ten minutes of video and then another dance. And so it was about an hour of video and then also dance. And then another thing that’s really important to me and I’m passionate about is working with inner city kids. And that’s a lot of job too is I teach video and photography all over the city in low income neighborhoods. And I decided I wanted to bring some of the kids who are often so isolated and don’t interact with communities outside of their own.

I wanted to involve them somehow. So I — one of the other Dance Experiment participants and I taught one of the schools that I work with, we taught a group of seven kids one of our dance routines that we were learning in Dance Experiment and then I taught them how to shoot and edit a music video. And they made a music video of this dance routine and then we premiered it at the big show and we had the kids — I rented a school bus and picked them up at their school on the west side and had them come to the theatre and they all got to get up on stage in front of you know 250 people and make a speech and we gave them flowers and little Dance Experiment T-shirts and treated them to pizza and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.

You know one of the kids at the end of the night, he made his little speech that I, we knew what he was going to say, and then after he made his speech, he asked if he could have the microphone back and the teacher and I looked at each other like, “Uh oh, what is he going to say?” But he said, “Ms. Ellsworth and Ms. Saya I just wanted to thank you. This is the best night of my life.” And of course the whole audience starts crying. So it was, yeah, it was really you know. And I asked one of the kids the week after the show, did you enjoy it, what did you think of the experience? And he said, “Oh my goodness, I was treated like a king.”

And I was like, “What does that mean? I mean, how were you treated like a king.” He goes, “Well I got pizza and I didn’t have to share it with anybody and people were so nice to me.” You know if only life was that simple that giving someone pizza and being nice to someone makes you feel like a king or a queen. So it was really cool. And I could go on and on. I have so many like look at this amazing outcome that came out of you know this random idea that I had. It’s just been nothing but goodness.

Tim Jahn: That’s amazing. I could go on and on too. But I want to keep this to a good length. I could literally just be asking you questions all day. What advice would you have for a creative entrepreneur like yourself who decided that they want to work for themselves, they’ve left their job and they want to work for themselves? What’s your advice for that, few days, few months, few weeks? What’s your one piece of advice to get them going?

Saya Hillman: Sure, lets see, I’m sorry that’s my cell phone, let me just turn it off, sorry.

Tim Jahn: Oh, no problem. No problem at all. I was kind of hoping a cat or a dog would walk by.

Saya Hillman: I don’t have any animals. I’m too selfish for that. Too selfish with my time and too selfish with my money. Okay, so advice for people who are considering becoming an entrepreneur? Is that what you said so or —

Tim Jahn: Yeah, people who did the same thing you did. Who either let go or quit and said, then next thing they want to do is work for themselves, but now what.

Saya Hillman: Okay. Yeah, I get asked this question all the time about giving advice to people who are considering being self-employed and I always struggle because its been so accidental for me everything that’s come out of it. You know I don’t have an MBA, I don’t do really well, I had no business plan. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going about self employment the way I did.

One thing that I didn’t have which looking back would have been probably a good thing to do is before you kind of leave your regular job, your nine to five job, you should build up a client base and freelance for a little bit while you’re still getting a paycheck, while you still have health insurance. And then once you build up your client base, then maybe make the move. And because I was let go and I didn’t have that at all. So that just adds a lot of stress, you know that first year was very stressful for me.

But so I don’t know, advice, the main thing is I’ve just been so pleasantly overwhelmed and surprised at how willing people are to help. And I don’t just mean friends and family, I mean complete strangers that you never met before. But you know, so just ask, ask for whatever it is that you need. Whether it’s tutoring in software or how to build a website or how to market yourself; whatever it is that you need help, just ask. And more often than not people will help you. And on the flipside of that I would say not only ask but you should offer, put karma, I’m a big believer of karma and while I don’t say yes to every, “Hey can you donate your services for this or can you volunteer there?”

I just, I can’t say yes to everybody but I do always keep in the back of my mind all the people who have given me something with no strings attached and they didn’t get anything back. And so I’m always trying to kind of give back in that sense. And I — everything that I’ve done kind of out of the goodness of my heart has come back to help me in some way. Whether it’s one year I said, “Okay, I will edit that for free for this non profit organization” and the next year they decided to hire me because they liked me so — they liked the editing job that I did the first year.

And so the other thing, I mean I guess the last thing would be is trying to make a living doing something that you love. It just — it boggles my mind that so many people work doing things that they enjoy. It’s, you know 40, 50, 60 hours a week doing something that is not fun for you. I just — I — it’s hard for me to fathom that. And so you have to make — yeah, I think you have to make that choice of what your priorities? For me, I definitely took a huge pay cut and its been stressful and I don’t get to travel as much and I don’t have an amazing condo and I have a car that has dents in it and was missing a hubcap for a year because I was too cheap to replace the hubcap and blah, blah, blah, all that stuff.

All those negatives of being self employed but to me, it’s completely worth it because I can just not work on a random Wednesday and I can go to Europe for three weeks in the summer and not be worried about, “Oh, no I only have two vacation days left.” So you just have to pick and choose what’s important to you and hopefully one of the things that’s important to you is that you’re doing something that is so fun for you that it doesn’t feel like work. This is the hardest I’ve ever worked for these past six years but I don’t feel like I’ve worked a day and I cant tell you how many times I’ll say, “Oh I’m not going to go out on Friday, because I want to stay in and edit this video or, do a new issue of my newsletter or what have you.” So it doesn’t feel like work.

So I think the main advice is find something, find work that doesn’t feel like work. And you’ll make it, you’ll make it work for yourself if you, yeah, find a passion that is something that you don’t mind putting blood, sweat and tears into.

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