James Touchi-Peters, the former conductor of the Minnesota Philharmonic, started a social network for wealthy socialites. Membership costs $9,000, plus an annual fee of $3,000.
If there’s one thing rich people love more than having money, it’s talking about money with other people who also have money. Thus the existence of country clubs, golf courses, gentleman’s clubs, and now, an exclusive social network that costs $9,000 to join, plus $3,000 a year thereafter, called Netropolitan. There you can discuss “fine wine, fancy cars, and lucrative business decisions without judgment," which sounds more like what regular people think rich people talk about than what they actually do.
The social network is the brainchild of James Touchi-Peters, the former conductor of the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra, who I was surprised to learn rakes in enough dough to qualify as wealthy. The site’s biggest draw, besides its exclusivity, is its promise to be ad-free and totally private to outsiders, although a list of members is readily available once you get into the site. I gave James a call the morning after the site finally went live to figure out if this is a great idea for rich people, or an even better idea for bilking the middle class out of nine grand.
VICE: So you guys launched Netropolitan yesterday, yeah?
James Touchi-Peters: That’s correct.
How’s the response been?
It has exceeded our expectations. I mean, our business model is relatively unique, and because of that we knew we were going to get some attention, but we did not expect this. We really didn’t.
Very cool. What about your business model will lead to success?
This whole thing started because when I was traveling in my work, I wanted to get in on a social event where basically I could meet people like myself. I know this is a very arrogant thing to say, but I’m an orchestra conductor and I finally had to realize, my life isn’t like most other peoples’. It isn’t. So I was looking for a place online where I could socialize where people kind of have the same experiences I have had, and I couldn’t find it. Then as I did research to decide whether this would maybe be a viable idea, the one thing that really shocked me—and I’m still shocked by this—is that [no social networks have] used the one model that everyone’s been using in the real world for at least the last 100 years, and that is charging a fee substantial enough to vet the members when they join. I’m still astonished that no one had tried this previously.
So why $9,000? Why not, like, $50,000?
We spent two years dealing with the answer to that question. This was ultimately our logic: We wanted to come up with a figure that was high enough that would discourage most of the people who aren’t in our target demographic, but at the same time, low enough so that those people wouldn’t be intimidated because the business model is new. I’ve had several people tell me—this may surprise you—I’ve had several people tell me they don’t think the fee is high enough. I don’t know if you’ve researched or know anything about fees to real world social clubs or country clubs, most of them charge many multiples of what we’re charging. We thought, because the business model is new online, we couldn’t really go that route. So there’s other minor adjustments in there, but that was the basic formula of coming up with the $9,000 figure.
I see. So, I was reading through it and you have a big emphasis on privacy. But if the membership is private, how will I know which of my friends are on the site before I want to connect to it? Or is it just like, you go on and there’s other rich people there and you connect with random rich people?
The idea for the site—and this occurred to me just this morning, I have to go check the sales site because I don’t know if it says this—it’s your standard, typical social network, except the one change we made is that instead of using the friend method that people are used to usually reciprocally confirming relationships, we’re using the follower method. We assume that most people are going to join the site to meet other people.
So it’s more like Twitter.
We’re assuming most people are going to join not to talk to their friends, but actually, to engage with people they do not know.
It said online that you started with a pool of members. How did you choose those members?
Those were friends of friends of friends. We also contacted various organizations, too—some real world social clubs, that sort of thing. Essentially, we gave them free memberships to start. Those people are all basically pre-qualified and pre-vetted, so we were comfortable with them being in the service. Now that we’ve actually opened for sales yesterday, from this point on, we’re not going to even talk about the number of people in the network. We were before Tuesday, but not now.
Isn’t there sort of a risk that anybody who can pull together $9,000—like, if TMZ or something pulls together $9,000 and gets a membership—they could just see all of the members and post a list or something. Isn’t that a security fear?
That could happen. But they’ll never get any confirmation or denial from us about who the members are. So, yes, we are aware that that could happen. Also, some people said, “Well, $9,000 might not vet your target demographic.” But my feeling about that is, as long as somebody pays the initiation fee and as long as they get in the network and actually behave themselves and don’t act like an idiot, we’re happy to have them.
I see. What kind of demographic are we talking? I imagine that billionaires don’t especially care about millionaires. What’s the lowest income level that should be joining this site?
The answer to that question is a little long, but I’m going to answer it. OK, so in my research, what I discovered when I actually started to do research about whether this was viable, I did not know much about affluence worldwide. So here are a few figures for you: One out of every 200 people on the planet makes more than a million dollars a year. That’s one half of one percent of the world population. In the United States, it’s one out of every 50. It’s actually people talking about the one percent, but it’s actually the two percent. And then the other thing I learned in studying this is that there are different strata of affluence, and they’re really quite distinct. Going from the bottom, you have the “mass affluence,” which are people who are making under $1 million but who are doing very well and like to spend their money. Then above that you have what I have called—there’s no actual term for this—I call it them the “working rich.” These are people who make over $1 million a year, but don’t actually have any substantial assets, either because they’re new to it or they just aren’t saving their money. One or the other; they spend a lot of it. Then, after that, you have people who have liquid assets of over $5 million. Those are what most people call the “true wealthy.” Then the “ultra wealthy” are people who have over $30 million in liquid assets. There are 200,000 of them worldwide, and part of that, there are 15,000 billionaires worldwide.
We decided our target market is two groups: that group that’s in the “working rich,” because most of those people, even though they have large incomes, they still have to show up for work every day, and most of them are working really hard. There’s that, and the other thing we discovered in our research is that there seems to be a pool of fairly wealthy people, not just in the United States but worldwide, that live in smaller towns and smaller cities that may not have any local social network at all. I mean, in the real world. There are very few people in their income stratum in their immediate local area. We think this is a market where these people can particularly benefit from our social network. It would give them a social outlet that they don’t have in their daily life. So those are actually the two groups we’re particularly targeting.
So we’re talking at least millionaires.
Yes, right. And there’s 30 million of those people worldwide, who make over $1 million a year. I do hope you see now, when you look at these figures, I came to the conclusion that there’s an untapped market here. When you take, on top of that, the fact that like I said, nobody has ever tried to use online this one business model that seems to work offline, at some point, it became a no-brainer to me.
Could a person deactivate their account and get a refund if they weren’t satisfied with the site?
This is the way this works: We don’t give any refunds on initiation fees under any circumstances. The reason is, we want to avoid the problem of people paying the money to get into the network to look around, and then deliberately goofing off so that we kick them off and they get their money back. The way that we’re doing this is this: Once you join, if in a subsequent year you do not want to pay the yearly membership fee, your membership can be suspended. It’s never really canceled. Once you pay the initiation fee, you’re a member forever. So you can suspend your membership by not paying from that point on, but if you want to pick it back up again, we’re happy to do that too. So once you pay the initiation fee, you’re a member for perpetuity.
Why the 21-year age limit? I mean, rich is rich. Have you heard of the Rich Kids of Instagram?
Oh, yes, I have. But the reason for that is because different laws worldwide are different for the age of minors. Also, one of the staff members brought up too that it would be weird if we had 18- or 19-year-old people around and someone was talking about drinking, you know. That’s, of course, illegal in the United States if you’re in that group. So those two things put together, we decided to just set it at 21.
Do you guys allow adult content? Like, beyond drinking—something pornographic or something like that.
We’ve never really dealt with that, but I would assume no. I have to tell you, that question has never come up before. I’ll have to deal with that now. But no, we’ve never talked about that, but I would assume we would not because I think pornography can be intimidating to other people.
How long have you guys been working on the site to get it live?
I did two years of research, personally, to decide whether I thought the concept was viable. From when we decided to move forward, we’ve been working on it technically for two years. It’s been a four-year process.
I was just running through the back-end of the site and it seems to be set up in WordPress, which is… I don’t know if that’s of a concern to the people using it. Is WordPress secure enough? WordPress seems like a very common blogging platform to put a millionaires' social club onto.
I can’t comment on the platform we used to design it but I will say we’re extremely confident in the security of the whole thing. That’s all I’ll tell you.
A screenshot of the back end of the site, which was very obviously made in WordPress
You put yourself in this category of the wealthy socialites. I wanted to ask, what is the most expensive thing you own?
See, I’ll tell you: You’ve asked the wrong person that question, because I don’t like stuff. [Laughter] I’m one of those people who likes to buy experiences. I don’t like stuff at all. I hate stuff. [Laughter] That’s just my personal thing, though. I’m a musician and I really, really like to buy experiences. Relatively speaking—everyone talks about this in relative terms—but I live relatively modestly by choice. I do not like stuff. But I have nothing against people who do. I had a large argument with my wife a couple of years ago about whether Aston Martins should exist. I don’t want one, but I’m happy they exist because people buy them. I think they’re rolling works of art. She doesn’t think they should exist at all. So if you want a good bar conversation, bring that up sometime.
I was reading up on you, because you used to be a DJ and you were this very well-known composer and were apart of a controversial sort of situation with the Minnesota Philharmonic. Where did this shift to entrepreneurialism come from?
I’ve actually owned a small software company for 20 years. It’s not really involved in my publicity and I haven’t mentioned it in my personal career publicity because I kind of think it gets off track from my music work, but I’ve actually been doing this for quite some time. I’ve done several projects that were relatively prominent but you didn’t know I was attached to them, and I won’t tell you what they are either. So this is not new for me, actually. I’ve been doing this for quite some time.
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