This particular Thursday night in April, cold beer and thin-crust pizza were plentiful. Desks had been rolled out of the way, replaced by rows of chairs filled with mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings drinking, eating, and generally having a good time.
By coworking-space standards, it seemed like a run-of-the-mill happy hour at Benjamin's Desk on 17th Street in Center City.
Routine, that is, until the first name was called, a woman rose from her chair and stepped to the microphone, and the storytelling began.
When it was all over nearly three hours later, 13 businesspeople had stood alone in front of an audience of 40. Each had told a five-minute story on a designated theme: courage.
Thinking on your feet and communicating effectively are essential talents for StartUp Story Slam - "Storytelling for entrepreneurs," says the tagline for this new business venture from two locals with national and international expansion plans.
Modeled after barroom slams - you know, the ones where patrons share alcohol-fueled tales of their worst dates, their in-law horrors, their most embarrassing moments - StartUp Story Slam is for business owners.
The idea is to develop what founders Andy Meehan and Jim Breslin say is a vital skill in successfully starting and growing a business.
"People need to be really good at telling their story, and that's not numbers and hockey-stick charts," said Meehan, 52, of Manayunk. "It's about emotional engagement. That's why people buy - for emotional reasons."
That's especially true in his other business, greeting cards, which sell under the name Christian Inspirations. He operates that company from an office within Benjamin's Desk, where he's a member and where StartUp Story Slam got its debut in October. It takes place once a month, with all storytelling videotaped and posted on YouTube (https://goo.gl/eLuxsM).
Meehan had the idea for StartUp Story Slam after participating in a general story slam, a concept popularized by the Moth, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to the art of storytelling and featured in last Sunday's season finale of HBO's Girls. The best of the Moth StorySLAMs, held in a number of U.S. cities including Philadelphia, are broadcast on more than 200 radio stations.
Meehan enlisted Breslin, 51, of West Chester, a former producer at QVC with vast experience in producing story slams, including in Philadelphia, West Chester, and Lancaster.
"I just thought it was an interesting idea," Breslin said of a slam exclusively for businesspeople.
In telling "real stories, not pitches, you bare some of your soul," said Breslin, a writer whose novel Shoplandia was inspired by his 12 years at QVC.
As the Moth has taken its show on the road, so will StartUp Story Slam. A Chicago launch is planned for May, likely to be followed soon in Washington and abroad.
"My other business takes me to Asia, so I'm in discussions to launch a couple in Asia," Meehan said, calling StartUp Story Slam "a learning and improvement opportunity."
"There's a hunger in entrepreneurs and small-business people to learn and improve," he said. "This could be something that could play in many cities in the world."
In Philadelphia, an enthusiastic group turned out April 7 at Benjamin's Desk, where the slam admission fee was $10. Three people were selected to be judges, using a scale of 1 to 10 to score storytellers on two categories, content and presentation, for a possible total top score of 60. No notes, props, or music were allowed.
The winner would get one free month at Benjamin's Desk, a $99 value, said the hilarious emcee, Luanne Sims, 2013 grand slam co-champion at Breslin's West Chester Story Slam.
The evening's first contestant had only enough time to swig half a bottle of beer before her name was called. But Morgan Berman has faced worse pressure as founder and CEO of MilkCrate, an app to help consumers connect with local sustainable businesses and other resources.
Her story of courage involved picking up and leaving her fledgling company that "hot and miserable and terrifying" summer in 2014 for a vacation in Italy, returning just two weeks before MilkCrate's debut. And then getting a call a couple of days later informing her she had been selected from more than 100 start-ups to be among five to pitch at the inaugural Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia in October of that year.
"That baptism by fire was the thing that has given me the courage to have my name pulled first and not dissolve in a puddle," Berman told the StartUp Story Slam audience. (Score: 49)
Faisal Kahn told of leaving a secure job with one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world to start his own resilience-coaching business. (Score: 47)
Pulak Datt left a business-consulting company where he made "great money" to indulge his engineering background. He started his own firm, where the first client he took on is redesigning the internal-combustion engine. "There are points where I say, 'I should be freaking out,' " Datt said. (Score: 43)
Lisa Illman spoke of evolving from "never taking real risks, just running around hiding behind anything I could find," to leaving a job in sales with General Electric to become a business development/live-stream consultant and speaker as well as the inventor of Kritter Kondo pet enclosures. (Score: 50)
The victor was Jim Shulman, 56, of Wynnewood, principal of Elsinore Business Associates. He got a lot of laughs, starting with his very first line: "Hi. My name is Jim, and I'm an entrepreneur."
What followed was a story about a friend's "courage to go out on a limb" to get a bank to sell him at a deep discount a company it was not responsibly managing on behalf of the owner's widow.
The friend had confronted the bank with evidence he had uncovered: The late owner's son was getting friends to submit fake invoices and pocketing the money drawn from company coffers to pay those "costs." Shulman said his friend threatened the bank that he would disclose the whole mess to the widow, exposing the lax oversight, if the bank did not arrange for the company to be sold to him.
The bank rightly accused his friend of blackmail, Shulman said, but sold to him anyway rather than call the authorities.
As it had at the start of Shulman's story, the audience erupted in laughter again at his walk-off lines, inspired by his now-deceased friend's advice:
" 'Jim, there's no limit to the amount of fun you can have if you only lower your standards.' So, I hope everybody tonight has very, very low standards." (Score: 58)
The ability to communicate effectively is essential in business, Shulman, who advises entrepreneurs, said in an interview.
"I am convinced that everything worthwhile is learned through stories and examples," he said, "and not abstract principles."