What an Escape Room Owner Learned from another niche shop.

5 lessons every Escape Room owner can learn from another niche small business. Key takeaway. Being small doesn't mean you can't compete with the big boys.

Continuous improvement is essential to establishing an Escape Room business, or any other business that operates in a specific niche. Learning from others is a reason that some businesses thrive and others wilt on the vine. During some much needed down time recently I was perusing the marketing subreddit and stumbled across this video of an independent grocery operator in California. The entrepreneur profiled was a striking individual with a fantastic story. John Nese is the proprietor of Galco's Soda Pop Stop. "His father ran it as a grocery store, and when the time came for John to take charge, he decided to convert it into the ultimate soda-lovers destination. About 500 pops line the shelves, sourced lovingly by John from around the world. John has made it his mission to keep small soda-makers afloat and help them find their consumers. " (Palacio, Marketplace.com, 2017)

After watching this video I was struck by Nese's story, and more importantly, I learned some great lessons about operating a niche business in a very short time. Here are my 5 key lessons learned from Obsessives - Soda Pop.

1. Honesty and integrity is a key in keeping your customers. 

“My customers are going to be happy that I was honest with them and sent them down the street”

Mr. Nese would rather send his customers to another location where a product was available at a much cheaper price than he could afford to charge. Customers appreciate genuine honesty. The Escape Room entertainment genre is an expensive option. When someone mentions to me that my price is high, I mention that we have multiple discounts available and cooperative promotion agreements with other escape room businesses in the area. Customers appreciate that we mention these to them and are often surprised when we apply our GIVEBACK discount without them even mentioning it. Your Integrity, at the end of the day, is something only you can destroy. All too often today, it seems that people are willing to compromise their integrity to make a quick buck. The Escape Room industry is experiencing a literal gold rush at the moment. In a niche business like this, the public's fascination can be fleeting. As quickly as customers have come to find our industry as a great form of entertainment, they can find something new. 

2. Be enthusiastic, be happy, smile. 

“If I were going to define it in one word I’d say happy, or smile”

Watching this video, I was struck by Mr. Nese's pure enthusiasm for his product, and his customers. His effervescent personality shined through and I am sure is communicated daily to the people who come to visit Galco's Soda Pop Stop. There are many enthusiastic people in the Escape Room industry, likewise, there are many who view this industry as a gravy train and it shows in their business. Every day I wake up and am extremely happy that I found this industry. There are days where I don't feel as enthusiastic as others. There are days when I am not happy. There are days when I don't smile. My guests will never know those days because I cherish each and every person that chooses to spend their money at Cracked it! Escape Games. 

3. Be knowledgeable, know your product, know your market. 

“I own my shelf space and I can do anything I want...When I got to 250 [small brand sodas], it became where are you finding them” 

Mr. Nese was reminded of this simple fact after being bullied by a sales rep for a major soda manufacturer. This realization drove him to put the first niche soda's on his shelf and grow it into the thriving business that it is today. Mr. Nese is striking in that, he has a deep, almost encyclopedic, knowledge of his niche. He knows the history of his product. He knows the origins of certain bottlers. Mr. Nese is a resource in his industry and because of that, he is an expert in the small scale soda production industry. Likewise, the Escape Room industry is a niche that is in its nascent stages in the U.S. There is a never ending process of learning that is occurring across the industry. Escape Room owners have the luxury of defining what we are going to offer and how we will present it to our guests. While there are some large scale operations in the U.S. most of us are individually owned. There are a number industry "thought leaders" who are helping to grow this industry.

4. Build your niche. 

“Set yourself apart and provide your customers with something that nobody else has...When the American public has the choice, they are going to buy it, they’re going to try it.”

When I opened Cracked it! Escape Games in January of 2016, I was one of 3 locations in Eastern North Carolina. Today, there are more than 13 locations with more scheduled to open in the next several months. It is becoming harder and harder to differentiate one escape room from another. Establishing a unique value proposition is what will help me set myself apart from all of the others in the area. Communicating that difference is the challenge. 

5. Fight for small businesses. 

“Do business with other businesses my size and help them become unique businesses” 

The Escape Room industry is like no other business that I am aware of. There is a sense of healthy competition bolstered by cooperation among owners that choose to support each other. The prevailing attitude is that a guest will only play an escape room one time. Each and every one of us is a small business owner with a limited customer base. The vast majority of Escape Room visitors are first-time visitors. Inevitably, after completing a game they want to know if there are others. We readily promote our "co-petitors", those are the other people whom we have met, played their games and gotten to know on a personal level. When we vouch for each other's businesses it is in the sense of community and growing our businesses cooperatively. We are also lending our reputation to supporting each other.

Unlike other industries, the Escape Room industry readily shares knowledge, best trade practices, marketing tips and information, and in some cases technological information, all in the sense of improving our niche. The Facebook groups Escape Room Startups, Escape Room Owners, Escape Room Technology and Props, and Escape Room Marketing are all excellent resources for people who are wanting to, or already are a part of this industry. 

Galco’s motto is “Freedom of Choice,” Nese’s strong belief that customers have a right to choose from more than just big-business products.
— -  Daisy Palacios/Marketplace