Welcome back to my continuing series, for budding entrepreneurs who may be thinking of starting an escape room business? If you haven't read the first of this two-part article you may find it HERE. I apologize for the length of time between these articles, I recently had knee surgery and the pain medicine had made me a bit addle-brained and not up to the task of writing. Well, it's been a week and a half and I am itching to get back to work.
When we last left off I had dazzled you with 10 insights gleaned from a Facebook post by Escape Room Tucson owner A.J. Hughes. A.J. Was kind enough to let me use her post, which you can find in the Escape Room Startups group on Facebook HERE. The Escape Rooms Startups Group is a private group that you have to request permission to join before you will be able to see all of the wonderful posts by existing owners and people who are looking to get into the business.
Now back to the reason you are here, the remaining 10 tips for new or possible escape room owners
The Escape Room industry in the U.S. is in it's because new ones open or register a business name every single day. Let's just say this, THERE ARE WAY MORE THAN YOU THINK. In my area, I was 3rd to market in a 50 mile radius from my home in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Today, a bit more than a year after I opened there are 9 operating businesses and at least 4 more scheduled to open in the very near future. We are a pretty tight community of owners and frequently reach out to each other for advice, and exchange referrals. However, with the current growth of the business model the great relationships we have today could be negatively affected by unscrupulous owners. Leading to the next point.
11. Do the right thing, if it seems wrong, it is. If you know it's wrong, don't do it.
I have to admit, compared to many businesses and industries, the ER industry is a very cordial group of people. People who encourage and openly support each other because we know that when a player plays a game and absolutely loves it they will seek out other Escape Rooms. I did and it led me to where I am today. However, it will not take much to fracture the trust that we have as new people join the club. Shady business practices, slap-dash games that reek of a cash grab, sabotage, and subterfuge all can bring ruin to our industry. What do I mean by doing the right thing? Look, it's very easy to go to every room in driving distance and pilfer a game concept or puzzle that is actively in use. Is it illegal? Yes! Absolutely! According to Copywrightlaws.com "when an individual tangibly creates a work of art that art form becomes their property — it has an inherent copyright protection. To formalize these rights and to have them affirmed by a governing body, the individual must register for copyrights. Assuming the works aren’t already registered within a government database, the copyrights will last for a specified period of time (typically 70 years following the creator’s death) and will act as the primary evidence and mechanism to initiate a legal case if infringement or piracy takes place." (1) We at Cracked it! Escape Games create, develop, design, and build nearly all aspects of ours. I have months of man-hours invested in the build of a room and for someone who is thinking of starting their own business to come into my establishment steal my hard earned effort is plain criminal. If you are thinking of opening an Escape Room DO NOT DO THIS!
(1) Thank you to Cody Borst of Escape Realm for helping me clarify the above paragraph regarding copywright protections.
Another example is poaching in your neighbors back yard. Escape Room owners work very hard to be found on the internet. As you progress you are going to learn all about SEO, SEM, CRM, email marketing and about a million other things you currently don't know about. There have been incidences reported in the Escape Room Owners group on Facebook about ERs in some markets using their competitor's business name in their online advertising. The reason they do this is because the name they are misusing often ranks at the top or very near the top of the all-powerful Google search. Again, If you are thinking of opening an Escape Room DO NOT DO THIS! I have worked very hard to get my business name in my area to rank at the top of the Google search. I have also spent many thousands of dollars in ad money to get to the top of my local search results. Riding my coattails is not the way to success.
12. Spend the money and get a good website. Plan on about $3000.
Your website is the face of your business to the outside world. It should be functional, and somewhat attractive, but most of all it needs to be able to close the deal with your perspective customers. I can tell you from an owner's perspective that website management is a Pain in the A**. When we were looking to open I had a meeting with a wonderful local web designer who also focuses on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). After our meeting, I was presented with an invoice for $2750 to design a WordPress website with a monthly hosting charge. Let's say I was a bit gobsmacked by sticker shock. I left that meeting and had to figure it out on my own. I built a Squarespace site (which you are on now) and to be honest, I hate my website, but it is a functional easy to navigate website that closes the deal with my customers. Can you build a website, I am sure you can, but before you do, ask yourself, do I really want to? If you can afford it, let a well-seasoned web designer build your site and manage it for you. If you need to make changes for seasonal purposes or updates, have them do it for you and send you an invoice. Believe me, if you are not computer and web design savvy, your time and money may be better spent elsewhere.
13. Start small, build your brand and then grow larger.
In our business plan, you should have at least these two things among many others, your mission statement, and your unique value or selling proposition (UVP/USP). When you have these you can begin to develop your brand. And from your brand, all other things grow. Cracked it! Escape Games has one simple mission statement, We Put Fun First! What does this mean? It is one of the core driving principles of our customer service. We convey a fun, passionate attitude that is reflected every day when we meet our guests. We love what we do and our customer service shows it. Now the other part is a bit harder to nail down. What is Your UVP, or USP? Essentially, what separates you from everybody else and why should the public do business with you. Once you know this start to build your brand. Start small, Don't try to do it all at once. McDonald's grew from a one-store independent operation in San Bernardino, CA in 1954 to A worldwide power brand today with sales in the tens of billions of dollars annually. They grew slowly, methodically, and strategically. You must do the same thing. When people see me out representing Cracked it! Escape Games I am wearing a bright green shirt with my name tag. People can see me coming for miles. I carry business cards everywhere I go. My truck is a rolling billboard for my company. My building is the same color as my shirt. Every graphic or photo I put out has my company logo on it. My email signature has my logo and mission statement on it. My brand is growing and recognizable in my area. Slow, methodical, and strategic is how I roll. Business keynote speaker Seth Godin once said, "A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another." What is your brand?
14. You may not be in the black for at least a year, plan financially.
This cannot be stressed enough. The Small Business Administration places lack of financial operating capital among the top 5 reasons that businesses fail. Our first year we were actually quite lucky to have banked a small profit for the year. We poured nearly every single dollar back into our business to grow. We sustained the business with its own earnings eliminating the need for us to put in our personal capital. As a new owner, you don't understand the costs associated with running a business. The largest consumer of capital for us is employee salary and taxes followed by building rent. Better than 35% of our gross receipts are contained in just those Three expense categories. Then there's the cost of advertising, expansion and developing new rooms because the customer is hungry for a new game. You need to have a firm understanding of exactly how many experiences you will be REQUIRED to book every month. If you don't accomplish that objective you will quickly find yourself underwater with a chain around your ankle and a cinderblock pulling you down.
15. Be ready to work long, long hours.
Entrepreneurs are the only people who will quit a 40 hour-a-week job to work an 80 hour-a-week job. For the first 6 months of our business, I was employed full time as a defense contractor. I made a substantial amount of money and had a pretty plush gig. I quit my job in June 2016 to do this full time. What did I leave behind? A great paycheck working for a pretty good company around people I love, the Marines. You can only burn the candle for so long at both ends before something has to give. Running an Escape Room business is not so easy as to open the doors and it's all rainbows and unicorns and you running to the bank with a wheelbarrow full of money. It is long, grueling hours, most on your days off from your full-time job. I used to say when before I left my full-time gig, I am leaving my part-time job to go do my full-time job. Running a business is a full-time job that will require your full-time attention. In order for it to grow you have to think weeks and months down the road, not days. You will be exhausted physically and mentally, so, be prepared.
16. Get insurance!
A catastrophic loss can happen in an instant. If you don't have the proper insurance you may be out of business before you are open. Recently a well-known Escape Room in Harlem, NY was the victim of a fire in their building. Fortunately, nobody was hurt when the building caught fire. Unfortunately, their building and business were heavily damaged by water, fire, and smoke, as well as damage from the fire department opening up walls and ceilings to ensure that there were no smoldering areas that could relight. Hoodwinked Escape Room was forced to shutter their business for several weeks after the fire. Their insurance plan did not cover the damages fully and the owners took to crowd funding to get back open. Happily, they are back in business as of January 24th.
17. If this is your "get rich scheme," do something else.
So many people get into this business dazzled by the possibilities of bundles of cash at their disposal. I'll admit it, I am one of those people. Doing some simple math with two rooms operating at max capacity my business could POTENTIALLY earn $9,100 a week based on my current operating schedule. Like I said visions of buckets of cash. Don't go shopping for that Bently just yet. Then reality checks in and people aren't booking heavily for the first couple of months (especially if you are first in your town). You see your available cash start to dwindle, you have pending bills piling up and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel and you ask yourself, what have I done? But it's not all doom and gloom. Realistically for the first few months, most businesses will make enough to keep the doors open, the lights on, and employees paid. A rare few businesses open and are near max capacity. Those few businesses are power players in large markets such as Richmond, VA, Washington, DC, Orlando, FL but even those businesses had some struggles at first. It's ok to dream big, just be ready to work very hard to get there. I am not aware of many Escape Room millionaires. Nate Martin, arguably one of the best-known people in the escape room industry is the co-founder and CEO of Puzzlebreak. He wrote two very good articles covering his first two years in business on Reddit. You can read them here and here.
18. You will have to fix or repair everything, often.
If you are not handy, get handy and quick. Escape Room players are destructive. A funny anecdote on this point. The first escape room I played was at Cipher Escape in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the particular game we played, there was an object with a handle on the wall that was part of a larger puzzle. The week before we played the game another player had pulled the handle off the wall and along with it a 2X2 section of drywall. The owners had made the repairs to patch it up and were waiting for a drywall specialist to come and make the fix a bit more seamless.
Nearly every day something is going to break and need a rapid repair. This is especially true for technological puzzles. Many times we buy these awesome bells and whistles and have absolutely no idea how to fix them should they fail. I have read so many stories of players going to a room and a technology puzzle being broken and a workaround in place because the owners didn't know how to fix it.
This goes for the small things too. In my own game, we have a wing back chair in our A.I.R. In Search of Episode 1 game office and some ingenious player felt the need to tear open the upholstery on the back of the chair to see if we had hidden something in the back of the chair. The quick fix was blue painter's tape with a big note that said there is nothing inside of the chair. At the end of the day out came the pneumatic stapler and we made the repair. We didn't have another antique leather wing back chair laying around so we had to make due. Moral of the story, be ready to act quickly and creatively to make a repair during or between games to keep the customer experience as enjoyable as possible but have things ready to go when you need to make a more permanent repair.
19. Don't think you have to be all tech. Tech breaks, OFTEN! If you can't fix it yourself, don't get it.
Not to belabor the point I made above but this is absolutely 1000% true. If you are not tech savvy and you want to add bells and whistles to your game you need to learn how to repair them should they fail you, and they will fail you at the most inopportune time. There are so many possibilities with microcontrollers and we love to keep up with the Jones's, but take a true inventory of your skills and see if tech is the way you should go. The Escape Room industry is quickly turning into an arms race of who has the "better" room. Players love when a secret hatch pops open almost magically or a pillar rises out of a pedestal like in an Indiana Jones movie. I have to admit I am thrilled when I see these types of things in rooms. But when they don't work and you can't fix it it will literally break your game.
At a minimum, if you buy tech puzzles make friends with your local makers or electronics nerds and PAY THEM to be your consultant or repair man. OR, learn how the thing is built and programmed and be ready to fix it on your own.
20. Just because you played one game, you're not an expert. There are so many ins and out to this industry.
Humility will go a very long way in this and any other business. I have to admit we decided to build Cracked it! Escape Games after playing only 3 Escape Rooms. We knew it was the right move for us. However, had I known how much I didn't know about not only Escape Rooms but business in general, I might have reconsidered. There is not a day that goes by that I don't learn something either about the industry specifically or about business. The Facebook Groups are a fantastic way to get to know people who have been doing this for a longer time than you. Don't be afraid to ask questions, but, please, learn how the search function works. Google is your friend. The Facebook groups search function is your friend. Owners and Enthusiasts are your friends and will help you, but, you have to help yourself first. You absolutely do not know, what you don't know.
Bonus 21- some may dismiss combos and key locks, but players get more excited open a lock than watching a podium rise. Sure, it has a cool factor, but in reality, they get more satisfaction opening a lock.
In the words of Nate Martin, I love locks, nuff said.
Until next time...
Brian Vinciguerra is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Cracked it! Escape Games in Jacksonville, North Carolina.