WEST HARTFORD — When Stan Finch was at Harvard Business School in 2011 and 2012, everyone wanted to launch the next Airbnb.
Finch, now 31, also thought about launching a firm that connects customers with people offering short-term rentals, even going so far as to conceive of a boat-sharing business called Float My Boat.
But Finch, who had worked for a prestigious management consulting firm before moving to Boston for his graduate degree, went a different route after graduation. With backing from a marketing professor at Harvard, and in partnership with an artist that professor knew, he opened Muse Paintbar in Manchester, N.H., in 2012.
At Muse Paintbar, kids or adults are led step-by-step through the process of making a painting on canvas. If they like, the adults can order wine or beer, and there are appetizers at the original location.
After the first Muse had been open 11 months, he opened Muse Paintbar and Eatery in Blue Back Square in West Hartford, in a former oriental rug store across from REI. At that location, he contracts with a Manchester caterer to produce the appetizers, a handful of entrees, and a warm brownie for the menu.
"We raised enough [money] for three to five studios before we even opened our first one," Finch said.
Now he's working on opening locations in Providence; Portland, Me.; and South Norwalk in the next three months. A Simsbury architect is designing all the interiors.
The West Hartford Paintbar has eight employees: two full time and six part time. All the waitresses and waiters can also teach painting techniques.
Before the business launched, Finch said the partners didn't know how much of the revenue would come from admission fees — which range from $29 for children to $35 to $39 for adults — and how much from alcohol and food sales.
"It actually varies quite a bit by location," he said. In West Hartford, Muse sells more drinks and food than in Manchester, even though Manchester is larger. West Hartford has 66 seats, and frequently sells out its Friday and Saturday night sessions.
"They tip better here, too," Finch said, over 20 percent more than in Manchester.
On a recent sold-out Monday night, dozens of women and a handful of men worked on a painting of a full moon shining over a bridge and lake. They added strokes of varying shades of blue and white with Southern-accented guidance from Jeremy Jordan, a handsome young man in a cowboy hat and an apron.
Allie Juchniewicz, 23, and her mother, Karen, 53, came out that night, even though they wanted to try a different painting. Allie said the nights when they offer that design are sold out all the time.
She said she spotted the business when she was walking to The Cheesecake Factory. "I thought it was the most amazing idea."
Melissa Ruggieri, 33, of Suffield, came out with two of her child's day care teachers.
"It's something anyone can come in and do," Ruggieri said. "You don't have to be ashamed of your artistic ability or lack thereof."
In addition to the aggressive expansion, Muse Paintbar's strategy is to recruit more corporate team building events during daytime hours. He suspects each location could do $300,000 to $700,000 annually in business, though neither spot has reached the top of that range yet.
On that evening, that was happening organically, as a group of Keller Williams real estate agents from Farmington painted together with a bottle of wine.
"I love this," said Joe Smith, 33, of New Britain. "Can't wait to come back."
Finch said that, like most of the customers, he's not that artistically inclined, but now he paints frequently. Each new hire teaches the current employees as part of the interview process.
He hung so many of the works in his Boston home that his wife banned him from doing that any more, he said.
Muse Paintbar is similar to a national chain called Painting with a Twist chain, which has 126 franchises around the country, but unlike that chain, all its locations have liquor licenses.
There is a Painting with a Twist in East Longmeadow, Mass., and a home-grown competitor in New Haven called Art Plus Studio. Both are bring-your-own-bottle operations.
Finch said he isn't avoiding New Haven because Art Plus Studio got there first, he's just looking for the right location. Art Plus Studio recently expanded into South Norwalk.
Although Art Plus Studio's South Norwalk outlet is very close by to the South Norwalk storefront the Muse has leased, Finch said he thinks there's room for both businesses.
Finch said if you don't assign the expansion costs to the existing stores, they're already breaking even. While he didn't pay himself at first, he is drawing a salary now, but it's nothing like his paycheck from Boston Consulting Group, he said.
How many hours is he dedicating to his startup? "Too many," he said with a laugh. "Probably, realistically, 80."
Muse Paintbar and Eatery takes reservations at events.musepaintbar.com or by phone. It's at 69 Raymond Road, West Hartford, 888-607-6873.