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You’re Rafting Down a River without Control

A Slice on Vince Kadlubek, Co-Founder and Director of Meow Wolf

Immersive, multimedia, storytelling, art, psychedelic, colorful, photographable. These are just a few of the adjectives Vince Kadlubek used to describe the phenom that is: Meow Wolf. As a co-founder, Kadlubek has been with Meow Wolf since the start. After witnessing a void in the art space for creators to actually create, Kadlubek and team set out to give themselves a venue for expression. Meow Wolf exhibitions are the first of their kind and are disrupting the art, entertainment and media industries with each ticket sold (editor’s note: if you can get a ticket… they are always sold out). Just shy of $190 million dollars raised, Meow Wolf has exceeded even Kadlubek’s wildest dreams.

Born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Kadlubek graduated high school in 2000 and decided to stick around his hometown sans a college degree. “I think what happened for me was, I went through a lot of transformational work, learned about who I was, how I was and why I was. Then, kind of transitioned that into who I wanted to be. I really anchored to social gathering as the core piece to my existence.”

With his newfound passion for social gathering, when he wasn’t working his full-time jobs in the food and beverage industry serving, bussing or delivering food, he was honing his social gathering skills by hosting and coordinating parties, (i.e. it was the early 2000s, think rave dance scene) and booking music (rave) shows. It was this early exposure to the world of events and entertainment that helped him develop an aptitude for business. Having to coordinate with artists and clients he was learning about budgeting, profit and loss, just how important ticket sales were, and ultimately what he could do to ensure each event was a success. “I was always the leader, I never had the title CEO because, you don’t have the title CEO of a social group, but I was always a planner.”

Armed with his newfound business acumen and inherent passion for planning, Kadlubek took his first steps as an entrepreneur and co-founded an art collective that also served as a venue and called it Meow Wolf. The name, arguably on the more unique side… was pulled out of a hat. Meow from one hat, and Wolf from another. The venue was basically just a large warehouse, the intent was to host music shows primarily, but in time, shifted to also doing art shows. Filling the venue with art became a large part of their practice. This operated for seven years with about 20 shows within that time frame. Each show was just temporary however, a month or two, pop-up shop style. Kadlubek likens the shows to fun social experiments, with a clubhouse feel. After seven years though, Kadlubek and his co-founders were worn out. “We were all getting kind of tired of the work and it was expensive, it took a lot of our time and it wasn’t really going anywhere. So, all the energy that had been built up and all of the love and pride that we had was on the verge of getting shut down, but I decided we should take one more stab at it and try to keep it going.”

Kadlubek knew that in order for this second (and last) attempt, his revamped business model needed to be sustainable, he needed a business plan to keep them all afloat. He landed on the idea of a permanent exhibition, one they could charge a set admission fee for, instead of the month-long pop-up ones they’d been doing. New plan set, Kadlubek called on a previous boss he had when he worked at a movie theater. His boss was none other than local resident and author of Game of Thrones, George RR Martin. Kadlubek courageously emailed Martin and pitched him the idea.

“I just said, ‘Hey George, I know you’re looking at a lot of properties in Santa Fe. We have this property that’s an old bowling alley, it’s 30,000 square feet and right in the middle of town. Would you be interested in buying it? And if you do, we’ll build a really crazy exhibit in there.’”

Luckily for Kadlubek, Martin liked the idea and bought the building, so, with a newly purchased building in tow, Kadlubek started raising money for the exhibition. The exhibition was officially opened in 2016 and named House of Eternal Return, an immersive multimedia experience, colorful and psychedelic in nature. Without the help of Martin, Meow Wolf would most likely not exist today. Kadlubek explained, “When you’re proving something out for the first time, you need someone to take a risk on you. You don’t have any way of mitigating the risk or any way of securing their investment. You basically have to hope for somebody who’s going to come along and take a big risk, and that was George.”

After anticipating only 100,000 visitors a year, and ending up with about 500,000 in their first year, Kadlubek and co-founders had to adjust. “We had to deal with that from an operational perspective and adjust to the amount of popularity we were receiving. With all this humming along, we decided we wanted to expand beyond Santa Fe.” 

Traveling to cities across the U.S. looking for expansion opportunities, they ended up signing two leases: one in Las Vegas and another in Denver. Meanwhile, the company had grown to about 500 employees and boasted a production facility now, with Kadlubek and his co-founders still hard at work raising money for the projects.

Fundraising has been risky for Kadlubek and his team, always aware of the trust their investors place in the business. Kadlubek, as a natural problem solver, finds that trusting in this ability is essential to his success within the investment community, even when faced with a problem he himself cannot solve, he finds someone that can. From taking out big-ticket loans to enduring unsolicited corrective criticism… the Meow Wolf team remains unwavering in their conviction that they are building a “premium, game-changing, paradigm-shifting type of company.”

Kadlubek expressed that consumers today tend to be “bored” with the content they are being served on social media platforms, and even more so, their outside worlds. He feels that money, skill sets and creative efforts are poured into the digital space, leaving a gaping hole for interesting content in the physical world. As Meow Wolf continues to expand, Kadlubek cautioned that the journey of an entrepreneur isn’t always fluid.

“You’ve got to be able to know where you’re going, you’re rafting down a river, and you’re not controlling the river. You need to understand what’s happening with the river and be able to adjust your raft accordingly. We can’t pretend to have control of the river.”

Founder Bio

Vince Kadlubek is a native to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He attended college for a short time before dropping out to focus his time on the entertainment space. It was here the idea for Meow Wolf originated, where he now acts as a Co-Founder and Director. Connect with Kadlubek on LinkedIn.

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