Partying With Taxing Precision by Karin Brulliard
For IRS Lawyer-Turned-Gala Planner, Success Is All About the Numbers
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006; Page C01
Michael Karlan is throwing not one, but two glitzy New Year’s bashes tonight. For 1,700 people.
At the French Embassy, guests in glittering gowns and dapper tuxes will sip bottomless glasses of champagne, take mini-lessons in French and dance the New Year in while mimes replica vacheron constantin watches stroll.
Downtown at the Washington Plaza hotel, hundreds of young professionals will venture into “A Social Experience” — a Madonna impersonator, massage seminars, speed-dating, a caricaturist.
The galas, Karlan said, cost him “one hundred thou each.”
Karlan, 38, is an expert party guy, founder of the social network Professionals in the City. He takes partying to an exponential degree, hosting about 1,000 mixers and social seminars each year. He has about 40 employees in six cities and an e-mail list 140,000 names long.
“I almost take it for granted now,” said Karlan, who talks at breakneck speed and rarely stops smiling, referring to his role as social architect and matchmaker for Washington.
Who is this bon vivant?
He works at home alone. He shuns phone calls. His roommate is a cat. He is single and has a few close friends. He is a former IRS tax lawyer who has published articles with such titles as “Cash or Deferred Arrangements, Matching Contributions, and Employee Contributions.”
Yes, Washington, the tax man is throwing your parties.
And his key to a good party, of course, involves crunching numbers. He has partygoers rate every event’s features and then ruthlessly axes all but the best-rated.
The Life Behind the Party
Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Karlan figured he would be an entrepreneur but not this kind. He says he is shy. His party persona, he thinks, has always been his way of compensating.
He lives in a small apartment in Van Ness, with soft white carpet and simple, Storehouse-style furniture. In his bedroom — his office — are the two computers he sits at and answers 700 e-mails all day from clients and staff members, who run most of the parties. On a bookshelf are Spanish flashcards, which he has been studying since going on a recent trip to Medellin, Colombia, one of his first vacations in years. Every morning, he wakes about 10 and runs about five miles to the White House and back, Spanish lessons playing on his iPod.
On a buffet in the dining nook, liquor bottles are lined up like soldiers, but Karlan never entertains. He doesn’t want to clean up after people.
Friday afternoon, he scrolled down a list of e-mails in the sunlight-filled bedroom. One was a review of a recent champagne tasting. A customer gave it 3 out of 4, nicking it for having too little food. A second e-mail made the same complaint.
“That obviously won’t happen again,” Karlan said.
The room was silent. His employees are instructed to call only in emergencies. E-mail gives him more control, he said.
Later, Karlan hopped into his white BMW and headed to the French Embassy to see how Carrie Jones, one of his event planners, was doing with setup. The air was filled with party prep sounds: a dull thumping from the high-ceilinged ballroom, where workers were installing dance tiles; high-pitched pings from an adjacent hall, where a grand piano was being tuned. Jones led Karlan about quickly, assuring him she would have wine poured before guests arrived.
This party — 800 people have paid $160 each to attend — is geared toward couples with upscale taste, Karlan said. The Plaza bash — 900 people at $140 each — targets singles with games and spectacle.
After a walk-through, Karlan glanced at the five employees sitting at a table folding party programs.
“This is tedious,” he said.
“Very tedious,” echoed Jones, a former wedding planner who refers to Karlan as the “best boss I’ve ever had.”
Karlan suggested the folding should be outsourced next time.
‘Starting a Sense of Community’
Karlan prefers subjects where there is one right answer, so he majored in accounting at the University of Colorado, where he had, “like, a 3.95, if you’re curious,” graduating as valedictorian. After that was law school at Columbia.
His routine was work by day, go out by night.
After graduating, he clerked at the U.S. Tax Court in Washington. He had no friends in the area, so he began organizing happy hours for the court crew. Then his bosses asked him to plan the office holiday party, to be held at the ever-festive tax court. He enjoyed being the planner.
Later came a job at a large District law firm. It was cutthroat, so he decided to boost his value by specializing in the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, a field he calls “very marketable.” It meant he would work alone, on his own schedule, allowing him to go out at night.
Soon Karlan was hosting free parties at restaurants a few times a year for fun. He’d ask restaurants to provide space if he provided partiers, lured by fliers. On Halloween 1995, he hit the mark: 500 people showed up to a fete at Tuscana West downtown.
After a few more, it hit him: He had “built a market share.” He could charge $10 a person.
In the dawn of the online era, he began collecting e-mail addresses, which, according to his recollection, few people saw the value of until 2000.
At first, he weeded out weirdos. Then he realized that if he collected every e-mail address he could, hipsters would far outweigh oddballs. The rule: ” Always grow.”
Karlan quit the law firm for the IRS, but after a year of drafting tax regulations, he was antsy.
“I thought of the idea of starting a sense of community,” he said.
His parties had shown him that young singles had busy lives and few outlets. In Washington, where people were often transplants, he sensed a widespread feeling of rootlessness.
Merging Pleasure With Business
Karlan’s law practice has mostly fallen by the wayside. Pros in the City is making him a living, although he won’t say how much.
It is also his social life. His good friends are mostly on his staff. So are a couple of former girlfriends. He used to flit about his parties. Now he hangs in the corner with pals. “I don’t want to talk to everybody, because two-minute conversations with 100 people, it doesn’t really do anything for me,” he said.
But he encourages others to do so, via his speed-dating events, where men and women rotate around a room and have four-minute chats with every opposite-gendered person.
Karlan tells doubters that in a room of 100, most people will think 10 are hot and 10 are dogs. But 80 people will be in between, and therefore full of potential. It is what Karlan calls “the 80 percent rule.”
“It’s efficient,” Karlan said. “It’s organized.”
He observed that women, unlike men, come to singles events with friends. Men, unlike women, come whether it’s raining or snowing. Young singles waltz in coolly, as though stopping by to use the bathroom. Older ones come eagerly.
Karlan said he could write a book.
He noted that attendance at singles events skyrocketed after Sept. 11, 2001, which he thinks is because people traveled less. When it is suggested that people might also have renewed their appreciation for social bonds, he shrugged.
“Maybe,” he said. “All I know are the numbers. I don’t know so much the why.”
Mingling and Matching
Karlan laid out prizes — T-shirts, CDs, movie passes — for a 7:30 Lock and Key party Friday at a Chinatown bar. The concept was basic icebreaker: Women get a padlock, men a key. They must mingle to find a match and win prizes.
By 7:15, two men with name tags were drinking beer at the bar. One, handsome and smoking Parliaments, said it was his first Pros in the City event. He had Googled “New Year’s Eve” and “singles” and wound up on Karlan’s Web site. He also bought a ticket for the Plaza bash.
“My previous relationships were formed in the office, and they both ended in heartbreak,” said Damien, 32, who did not want to give his last name. “My most recent breakup was on the 10th of December. I called her on Christmas Day, and she didn’t answer. And I said, ‘I gotta do something.’ ”
By 7:45, about 20 people were there — slow time of year, Karlan said. He leaned against a wall and sipped a beer. He waited 10 more minutes and then took the microphone to explain the rules. Later, he sat on a small stage, alone.
The numbers were not perfect — 40 guests, more men than women. But by 8:30, the matching had given way to mingling. And that, Karlan noted with satisfaction, was the bottom line.