Billy McFarland, 22, was a kid tech whiz who started his first outsourcing company at 13.”I had no friends … I had my computer,” said McFarland, the CEO of Magnises, a credit-card social club for young professionals in New York City.
Today the college dropout and entrepreneur, who is also founder and CEO of Spling, an online ad platform, regularly hosts five-course meals and hotel parties for some of the city’s young upper crust.
The idea for Magnises came about in the summer of 2013. McFarland was out to dinner with friends when they started talking about their credit cards. He thought about how much better the plastics could be if they were used in more personalised ways.
His idea? “Take this thing you’re using five times a day, make it more community-based, and then build perks around it that affect your everyday life,” said McFarland.
Hence Magnises,a young and inevitably chichi club that operates through a metal credit card. And out of a West Village townhouse.
Which is precisely where I went to meet the young entrepreneurs in charge. As soon you climb the entrance steps and see the palatial main floor, you can’t deny the cool factor. With labelled artwork, funky decor, and a mash of bold patterns, it looks like a rich guy’s bachelor pad.
Open seven days a week from noon to 9 p.m., the rented townhouse is the epicentre of Magnises’ cocktail parties, elaborate dinners, art shows, and lectures. But the company encourages members to stop by anytime, to network or just hang out.
As they gave me a tour, McFarland and Trevor Gopnik, a co-founder and VP of Business Development, told me about designing the townhouse and showed me the tiny nook where most partygoers congregate at the end of the night. When we got to the upstairs bathroom, I asked if anyone’s actually used the shower. They thought about it for a second, and answered in amusement that they have never been asked that before. Later, VPO Callie Katt said, “I hope not!”
Then there’s the card itself. The black metal card is essentially a stylised form of club identification — linking to your existing bank account (but not creating a new one).
As McFarland explained, “It’s not really about some showy card. It’s about the people that have it.” Basically, it’s like dressing up your existing credit card with Magnises’ logo.
Aside from townhouse access, the membership card has other perks. A flash of the metal gives members access to last-minute reservations and deals at trendy restaurants such as ACME and Catch, clubs like Finale and Goldbar, and room upgrades at Grandlife Hotels.
Later, as we sat down to lunch at the neighbouring Rosemary’s — their townhouse literally overlooks the restaurant’s green roof — McFarland, Gopnik, and Katt describe Magnises’ 1,200 members (roughly 30% of applicants are accepted) in a more plebeian way than I’d anticipated.
They stress the diversity of their members, explaining that their jobs run the gamut from finance to fashion to technology. They want outgoing people, they want groups of friends, they want everyone from “all walks of life.” They’re aiming for those between 25 and 35, not post-grads.
But when asked what qualities their members share, they’re less specific, using labels like “experience seekers” and those looking for “community.” Friday-night Netflix binge watchers need not apply. According to Magnises’ business deck, over half their members attended top 50 schools, with 80% raking in over $US75,000 a year.
Their event photos show rapper French Montana rallying a fresh-faced crowd dressed in button-downs and miniskirts. However, they seemed visibly irked when I asked about their reputation as a “cool kids’ club.”
“It’s just not true. People who apply to Magnises don’t think they’re above it all. They want to be in the thick of things, and they’re working really hard,” Gopnik said. “If you lay something as an elitist organisation, you’re saying you accept people who are just sitting back and spending their trust funds. And that’s not what we’re going for.”
But while they say they encourage diversity and believe the $US250 annual membership fee won’t “class” anyone out, the new May members featured on their blog include a professional ski racer, a high-ranking Google employee, and a fashion model. They also dished that several Rangers players have applied.
“We definitely have wealthy members … there are a lot of wealthy people in New York,” Gopnik said. “I think we’re a very good cross section of what New York is.”
Many of the company’s services soundlike there straight out of “Gossip Girl.” This summer they’re hosting a Mariner III Yacht Party, offering private drivers to the Hamptons and all over Manhattan, and setting up appointments for members to get custom wardrobes.
The founders say that applications are now flowing in, growing from a few a week in December 2013 to about 70 a day today.
When the company launched, The New York Times reported that during the application process Magnises asked applicants to hang out at their townhouse to see if they’re “cool enough,” as during a fraternity rush. But McFarland says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
He says The Times reporter came to interview them in the fall, before Magnises was fully formed. “If that’s what we did, I would not be working here,” Katt said.
In reality, the online application is brief and asks questions like where you shop, what your favourite restaurants are, and what you like to do for fun. It makes applicants rank their reasons for applying, and asks them to provide their annual income. The next step is a phone interview (and a Google name search).
Katt said the process lasts between five days and two weeks.
Magnises is searching for a second townhouse in Midtown and ultimately wants to expand membership until New York is “tapped.” The next stop is D.C., and one enthusiastic member is already talking about Istanbul.
As lunched winded down, the trio joked about getting a club pet (maybe a black Lab) and watching HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” They pondered whether there’s anything to do with the shower in their townhouse.
After some half-serious considerations, they decide to just let it be. It was probably best left for show.
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