How Twitter Got Me into the White House and Saved My Son's Birthday

It's clear that if you use Twitter wisely it can have an impact on how youphysicallyexperience your world. You have to put effort into building meaningful connections and contributing back but if you do the rewards can be handsome.

Here's my story.

Every year I spend the December holidays in Annapolis with my in-laws. My second son Andy's birthday is December 28th so we spend his birthday Back East every year. He was turning 5 and my elder son Jacob is 7 so I decided to tack on a trip to New York City this year. We billed it as "Andy's birthday trip" to New York and for weeks all he spoke about was, "going to New York for his birthday to see the Statue of Liberty."

I always start my annual trip on my own with a bit of an East Coast tour to do business meetings with other investors and startups and meet my family at BWI on a Saturday. This year was no exception so leading up to my vacation I spent time meeting people in Philadelphia. I was there until Friday night and my family arrived on Saturday evening so I had a rare night on my own to kill.

So with an evening to myself I had to do the usual trek to eat a "proper" Cheesesteak at one of Philly's renowned institutions. Last time I was there we did Pat's after an Eagles game and my buddy picked the spot so I didn't give it much thought. He told me he isn't allowed to eat at Geno's or his family would disown him. There's a sort of Crips vs. Bloods fight between people over Pat's vs. Geno's and I now that I was going to go on my own I wanted to find out which was the "real" one to go to.

So I asked Twitter a simple question:

The results were clear. 17 of my Twitter follower told me to go to Pat's and only 5 told me to go to Geno's. Clear. Except that without providing the Twittersphere any scope for write-in votes 9 people actually said to go to Jim's instead. I had never heard of Jim's so here was Twitter driving meaningful discovery. And that's where I went and had a great cheesesteak with Cheez Wiz. Awesome.

The next day was Saturday and the family didn't arrive until 5pm or so at BWI. I had a free day. And a guy that I had seen several times comment to me on Twitter & my blog, Brian Sierakowski (from the Greater Baltimore Tech Council)had sent me a Tweet asking if I'd come to meet entrepreneurs in Baltimore. Perfect! So I Tweeted him that I'd be delighted to meet a group of startup entrepreneurs and I'd even buy them all lunch. And I did. And it was a really enjoyable experience where I met some great folks. 2-for-2 on Twitter serendipity.

Then I went on "vacation" in Annapolis. One of the funnest days for me was the day we took the train into Washington DC and I took the boys for their first tour of the city to see all of the historic sites they were familiar with: The Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and, of course, the thing they asked about most--The White House. It was "man cave" day so no girls were invited--just me, the boys and my brother-in-law (even though he's a Cowboys fan). Fun. Of all the things we did in the city the one that stood out that most was The White House although the boys were kinda hoping to meet Obama.

When we came home and my wife & MIL asked what their favorite part of the day was they responded, in order: playing tag, eating hot dogs and riding the train. Go figure ;-) When pressed harder they said they liked seeing The White House.

A few days later I started planning my son's birthday outing in NYC. Naturally I asked Twitter, "what would you recommend for me to do in NYC for my son's 5th birthday." 14 great suggestions came in including one from Semil Shah to go to Nintendo World. My son is addicted to Mario Bros. so I was delighted to learn of this store that I had never heard of before. From this list and one email that came in forwarding me a blog post by Joanne Wilson on what to do with kids under 10 in NYCI formed my "to do" list.

And then the snow storm of December 2010 rolled in ruining everything. I was set to leave on December 27th--the day after the storm had hit. Being a Californian I thought, "Who cares, let's go anyway. Snow is fun! We'll have a ball." And I confirmed that Amtrak was still running (it was). And then my wife said NFW. Ruh roh. She was online on NYTimes reading stories about people getting stranded on trains for 6 hours. 5 hour taxi lines at Penn Station. We were not only taking two kids plus too much luggage but also my wife's parents.

Who should I listen to? Amtrak said fine. NYTimes said the world was ending. Was it? I put it out to Twitter. At least 15 people told me to put it off by a day including people who I know well and are true New Yorkers. So we postponed. But I figured they could scoop up the city within a day, right? I guess I hadn't planned on the sanitation workers deciding to have a budget cut retaliation so I thought I could still make it there by little Andy's birthday.

Nope. A day later more stories in the NYTimes about stranded people, abandoned cars, snow & slush in the road, long lines at Penn Station. Again I went out to Twitter. About 6 people said, "don't come, it's a mess" and a couple said, "you can get around OK." But as I looked at the map of getting from Penn Station to Union Square it didn't look very attractive. So we punted again. But by now we weren't going to get to NYC for Andy's birthday.

So I went out to Twitter and asked, "what special events could I do with my kids in Washington D.C. today?" and got back about 10 awesome recommendations. We started the day with birthday presents and a movie he had been dying to see "Gulliver's Travels" and we were going to go into the city later in the day. And then the coolest thing ever happened. I got an email from my friend Dustin Rosen who said he had seen that our NY trip was cancelled and knew I was looking for something special to do with my son. He had a friend in The White House and would we like to get a private tour?

Holy cow. Of course I'd love to see The White House. So our family shuttled into DC that night and got a private tour of the West Wing including a close-up look at The Oval Office, The Rose Garden, The Roosevelt Room, etc. So effen cool. And I was able to tell Andy that we were invited to see Obama's office just for his birthday. And he was reallychuffed. Dustin, man, I really owe ya!

We did eventually make it to New York late on the 29th and ended up having a day-and-a-half in the city. My in-laws didn't get to come and we had to cancel a long standing reservation to surprise them and take them to Per Se restaurant. Oh, well. When we arrived at Penn Station the place was a nightmare. 3-4 hour taxi line even 3 days after the storm. We hoofed it over to a subway station. We had dragged bags up & down stairs and a considerable distance in the cold. We walked through slush to cross streets.

When we got there the lines to get a ticket were 15 deep. I finally got to the front and you could only top up a ticket if you already had a Metro Card. I did not. Back of the next 15 person line. Fun.

Anyway, we got there. I can't imagine what it would have been like 48 hours earlier. We made it to Top of the Rock. We saw a Broadway show. We got some great meals out. We rode the subway tons. We even made it to Nintendo World! And of course we saw The Statue of Liberty. We did the drive-by version. We took the Staten Island Ferry across and back, which passes by Lady Liberty and only take an hour round trip. The kids were so excited as we passed it. The trip was short, but salvaged.

On the way back we passed The Statue again. But this time they were more interested in playing the holiday edition of Angry Birds on my Android and my wife's iPad. The had been there. Done that. Kids.

That night we went to dinner at Piola near Union Square. I checked in on FourSquare. Apparently Tara Hunt had seen this.

I had never met Tara but I had seen her Tweets several times so I told her we were there and to stop by and say hello. She did. We talked about her business, she sent me an email, and now I plan to have a call with her to learn more.

Reprinted from Both Sides of the Table

Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.

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