Jemal “Jay” Swoboda developed two critical skills growing up with a dozen brothers and sisters on a midwestern farm: how to learn to do new stuff and how to get along with people. Both serve him very well as the Chief Dabbler of Dabble.co, a Chicago-based city exploration and local adventure platform now launching in San Francisco.
“You had to learn how to fix stuff,” Swoboda says about his childhood. “A lot of skills my family shared with me were ones I didn’t think twice about. Our limited resources made being resourceful a daily requirement. We reused the bath water for three to four kids to save water and money and when the hot water heater broke - we boiled water on the stove until we fixed it. There is a confidence that comes with the knowledge that I can fix something broken or take care of an animal that is sick and not have to spend a bunch of money for someone else to do it for me. Gardening, welding, plumbing, word-working, you name it, these are useful skills I learned just because of my upbringing.”
Dabble is all about creating shared experiences with people learning new skills or talents. Users purchase tickets to learning-based events that redefine the meaning of “diverse.” Classes range from important skills like welding and cooking, to more intriguing offerings like knife throwing, archery and how to dance like Beyoncé.
“For the price of a round of drinks or your monthly cable subscription, you can learn new things, meet new people and have a great local experience. Anyone can dabble,” Swoboda says.
Born to Dabble
Like all of the Dabble staff, Swoboda started out as a consumer.
“We’re dabblers and travelers ourselves. The team is made up of people who share their skills and experiences already. They are creatives who are inspired by the work and time shared with others. We created a platform we wanted to use,” he says.
The freshly launched startup that began in 2011 made a splash in Chicago, quickly emerging as a go-to site for finding new things to do, new hot spots or new talented people willing to share their skill set with others.
Swoboda, then a St. Louis resident with an entrepreneurial bent, helped Dabble expand. Beyond the viability of the business, he connected with it on an emotional level, seeing people dabble in learning new things, making things and connecting with others. It reminded him of home.
“There is a very clear connection in that world between what your hands do and how you live. This is important life stuff that we could really lose touch with if we’re not careful,” he says.
Swoboda had spent more than a dozen years as the founder and editor of What’s Up Magazine, a nonprofit publication written & sold by the disadvantaged and homeless of St. Louis. If he were a football player, he’d be described as having a “high motor.” His relentless energy kept him busy with St. Louis startups, building LEED-certified homes, teaching as an adjunct professor and racing in ultra marathons. Despite his full dance card, he dove deep into Dabble when the opportunity arose, heading up the company’s St. Louis expansion before moving to Chicago.
When Dabble’s founders shifted focus to other opportunities, Swoboda was ready to up his involvement. As the new CEO--or Chief Dabbler as he calls himself-- of the company, he won an Arch Grant for $50,000. He brought in new investment funding and continued the bootstrapping effort to bring the site to more people.
Fans of the site are thrilled.
“I love me some Dabble,” frequent user Elise Taylor said. “A friend introduced me to it a few years ago, and since then I've done a class every couple of months. For couples it makes a great date night--our last Surprise Date Night was an archery lesson--for individuals it's great to learn a new skill.”
Taking the next steps
The next steps will be the most challenging in the company’s five-year history.
In addition to its strong Chicago base, Dabble has grown in Denver and St. Louis with pockets in more than 10 cities. With the next round of investment funding looming, Swoboda knew growth would be imperative to the site’s success. He targeted San Francisco and spent a couple of weeks in September making the rounds in search of the best teachers, classes and experiences in a city full of them.
“We want to dip our toe in the water of this Bay, because we know that is an unending limit of people and experiences here that we want to help share,” he says.
Soon San Franciscans will experience what Chicago resident Sara Omary talks about to friends all the time.
“I already love flying solo at Dabble classes, making new friends, and telling new Dabblers about the other great experiences I have," Omary said. “I am down to try literally anything and have a good time doing it. Dabble has been an amazing way to learn new things, meet new people, and discover more of Chicago since I moved here in January.”
This, to Swoboda, is the other thing that drew him to Dabble beyond just learning new things. The People. Especially in urban centers that can seem isolating when compared to his upbringing. Swoboda loves the urban life but knows human connections are critical.
“What’s this pull to cities?” he asks “Why do we live in the middle of the bustle? We live here because of the energy, because living in cities collides us with this unending list of experiences and people.
“This is what makes a big city feel small,” Swoboda says. “We’re not just schelping classes.”
Calling all creatives, small business owners and artisans. Sign up your classes on Dabble now by clicking here. It’s fun, easy and doesn’t cost a thing.