In the process of picking up the pieces of his own broken heart, Thomas Edwards stumbled upon a business helping others fix their love lives.
After a college romance ended badly, Edwards' confidence tanked and his social life disappeared. Upon graduating from Philadelphia University, a still distraught Edwards moved back home to Boston to live with his parents and regroup.
While looking for a job in the video gaming industry, he started blogging about his life: from dating a woman almost twice his age to the struggles of getting in shape. His musings quickly found a receptive audience.
One follower, a divorced 38-year-old Chicago man, asked Edwards to help him recover his self-esteem. Over email, Edwards provided free advice, setting goals such as connecting with old college friends, running and working out. After three months, a light bulb went on for both of them.
"He said, ‘If you had charged me for this I would have paid you anything,'" recalled Edwards, who has no professional training in psychology or personal development. "I would offer my advice and they would come back and say, ‘Thomas, man that was spot on.'"
Nearly three years later, Edwards, 25, has turned his social acumen into a thriving personal coaching business - The Professional Wingman (www.theprofessionalwingman.com). His clients, men and women, gay and straight, vary in age from their early 20s to late 50s - some as far away as Australia. His services range from guidance in social settings to style makeovers.
"I'm in it to help people find love and really grow," said Edwards, adding he has turned down applicants seeking short-term, sexual hookups. "I give them feedback on what they did right and things they should change."
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES
The shift from part-time hobby to full-blown business was aided by social media, momentum and a bit of luck. Edwards started studying others who had turned their passions into bonafide businesses, among them wine aficionado and personal branding expert Gary Vaynerchuk.
Edwards reached out to Vaynerchuk, who, along with his younger brother, encouraged him to attend the popular South by Southwest (sxsw.com) annual music, film and interactive festival in Austin, Texas - rife with entrepreneurs that could prove helpful. They even put him up when his accommodations fell through.
"I saw him and I liked his hustle," said Vaynerchuk via email. "That's why I invited him into my home."
In addition to making valuable connections, the trip tested Edwards' real-time coaching skills. During a night out, a friend asked him to serve as personal "wingman," helping make an introduction to a woman in a bar in exchange for free drinks.
His success on behalf of friends led Edwards to launch his service in March 2009, holding onto a job as a hotel manager during the first few months. At the same time he continued to build buzz for his blog, posting grassroots advice videos shot on a Flipcam and tapping his network for referrals. He eventually caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which mentioned him in an article that led to other media opportunities.
"My phone is ringing off the hook, I'm getting text messages, IMs, tweets," said Edwards, who relocated to New York in January. "People were contacting me from all over."
$150 AN HOUR
Long-time practitioners said assisting people with dating skills is a thriving subset of an industry that includes everything from business coaching to personal training.
"There is more permission today to be self-expressed than ever before," said Alix von Cramon, a relationship coach in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I do think it's growing."
These days, Edwards offers a variety of services, including a two-day immersion boot camp, remote coaching by phone and email, and Wingman University, which provides group courses on topics such as body language and the art of conversation.
By far, his most popular call still remains that of a for-hire Cyrano de Bergerac, often hanging back, unobtrusively observing his subject's maneuvers, and offering useful tips for which he commands upwards of $150 an hour.
"It was the final push I needed," said Leo Newball, a 29-year-old Web designer in Brooklyn, New York, who said his time with Edwards led to a long-term relationship. "I don't think I would have been able to go through that experience, actually have a girlfriend, find the right girl, without his motivation."
As to his own personal life, Edwards has been dating a professional coach he met on Twitter and said he has stopped looking.
"To be honest, I'm done."