Chautauqua: A terrible business model


To be clear right from the start here, Chautauqua is an awesome event. Indeed, and in many ways, precisely because it is a terrible business model.

But it is a terrible business model.


It is not scalable.

Precisely because it is such an awesome event, the demand for tickets is incredible. For 2022 we’ll be running two Chautauquas. As we limit attendance to 30 people, we had a total of 60 spots available: 30 per week. 

They sold out in 18 hours.

More Tickets?

A better business model would simply make more tickets available. 

We could probably sell hundreds, maybe thousands. That would mean far, far more revenue and far more profit. This is what most events do.

But then, it wouldn’t be Chautauqua.

Here’s the formula: 

Take a small group of 30 cool people to a cool location for cool conversations… 

…and, thank you Alan, great food!

It lasts a full week and, precisely because the group is so small, this gives attendees the chance to really get to know each other – and our host/speakers who are also there for the full week. They don’t just parachute in for a talk and disappear when their bit is over. 

Lifelong friendships and business relationships are formed. In fact, this is how I found Katie & Alan to run it. They were attendees back in 2016.

There have even been romantic relationships and marriages that have had their start there, including the conception of at least one child. 

That we know of.

Still, we could increase the number of attendees and hope for the best. After all, they wouldn’t know what it had been before and it would still be pretty damn great.

But I’d know. It wouldn’t be Chautauqua.

Charge more?

If not the number of attendees, why not increase the price? Over the years, I have had several business savvy attendees pull me aside and suggest this.

“JL,” they’d say, “it is simple business 101 that when the demand is this high you raise prices. You could be charging three, four or more times what you are per ticket.”

Typically they say this kindly, as if talking to a small and not very bright child.

This would make the event breathtakingly profitable. But it already is profitable and I don’t feel the need to make it breathtakingly so. Plus, charging, say, $20,000 a ticket would reduce the diversity of wealth represented by those who attend. 

Right now we get people early in their journey, people who are very wealthy and many in between. It is a nice blend. This diversity is what creates some of the magic of Chautauqua, and we want it to be in reach of most.

Plus, at those prices a ticket it might take two whole days to sell out.

Of course, we could then go to even more fabulous places. Mmmmm.

More weeks?

Of course, another way to scale it is by running more weeks. But all of us on the Chautauqua team are “retired” and this is a ton of work. 

A labor of love to be sure, but work nonetheless. The last thing we want is to turn it into a job.

One time we tried expanding to four events in a year.  Alan and Katie nearly had a melt down, poor dears, and it damn near killed me.

 So we have gone back to two, which is just the right level for us and which means that the people coming get the best version of us.

Two Chautauquas, two weeks ties in nicely for us the concept enough.

Primary goal.

So, as I say, a terrible business model.

But then, my primary goal was never to build a business. It was to create an event where I could hang out at cool places, with cool people and have cool conversations. Plus all that great food! 

 And that is…



The best way to have a shot at getting a ticket to a future Chautauqua is to be on the mailing list. You can sign up here.


With the market acting as it is, seems like a good time to add this…


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Important Resources

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  1. Meghan says

    “including the conception of at least one child.

    Hey that’s us! 😆 Would you believe that Jack is about to turn 4?!

    Hope you and Jane are well!

  2. MindspeaksFi says

    It’s a great event. However because I need visa stamping at US consulate every time I step out of USA, I cannot (don’t dare ) do a foreign Chautauqua. Until I get a Greencard it’s not easy for me to get in and out of the USA risking visa denial.

    If there is a domestic version, I would love to do it.

  3. Mark says

    Please don’t change a thing. One of the things that gives credibility is the relative lack of commercialization. If you had looked like a regular “Dave” I would have walked away. I’d rather know that you are who you are, even if it means I never get to buy a Cha ticket.

  4. Tomáš says

    Bit of a feedback – the amount of adds in the posts is disgusting (I counted 8). I know that a man’s gotta eat but this is so much that it turns me off from reading the content. What a shame

  5. EfficiencyNerd says

    Instead of having the tickets sell out so quickly, have you ever thought of doing a lottery system? Obviously that’s more work but might be more fair as to who can buy tickets. Just a thought!

  6. FIRECracker says

    “Typically they say this kindly, as if talking to a small and not very bright child.”

    LOL. So good.

    I’m writing this while I’m visiting Chautauquans in Europe and after I’ve lived with a group of Chautauquans for a whole month, so needless to say, the connections from Chautauqua lasts a lifetime. Yes, you could add more people but then that’s not what the “magic of Chautauqua” is about. Thanks for creating such a life changing event.

    Can’t wait for Chautauqua in Sept! It’s been too long.

      • Chris says

        I’d sign up for that. As it is, ditching the wife and kids for a 2-week Chautauqua on the other side of the world seems very self-indulgent…

  7. Ralph says

    I’m having some problems with my pursue of FIRE. Asking my wife and kids to save the hell out so we can invest more. Often we choose to buy the lower quality products and cheaper items so we can save, then my wife logs into our brokerage accounts to find out we ‘lost’ 2 grand, often north of 5 grand and the discussions and the drama starts. I’m getting tired of this

    • Mark says

      Others will disagree, but I think you have to walk the path in life that works for you. And if you are married then “you” is a collective term, not a singular. So have a talk with your wife and see what you can both agree to commit to, because the alternative is constant conflict, which makes none of it worthwhile. My wife and I could have reached FI a decade earlier if she hadn’t spent on X and Y, and if I hadn’t spent money on Z. In hindsight, we would have been better off without X, could spent a bit less on Y, and Z was of debatable value. But we all make mistakes. Just talk about what your wife would like to spend more on, discuss its value to her, and then accommodate if she does not change her mind.

      As far as the investments go, you have to keep chipping at it and give the ball time to get rolling. Stocks look overpriced now and so you will see these fluctuations. I would suggest that once you and your wife have agreed on a savings number that you automate the savings and DO NOT LOOK at the balance for at least a year. And honestly, if you guys are just getting started and are buying index funds, I wouldn’t look for ten years. We started saving seriously in our late 20s with my wife’s company stock options. I never really even thought about the money until our early 40s. We went through stages: (1) Ouch, buying these stock options pinches the budget hard; (2) Huh, we are making more money now and that looks like a nice little severance package; (3) If something bad happens we will be o.k.; (4) Shit, this is getting real; (5) Should we have all our eggs in one basket? (6) When can we retire? (7) Why haven’t we retired already? Final thought thread: the sad truth is that those stock options have been a really good deal for us – and so your growth experience will be slower. The good news is you can skip stage 5. The bad news is you will have to be a little more disciplined than we were. But it can be done.

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