Conquering the Challenges of Starting an Escape Room Business - The Unfrustrated Entrepreneur Podcast [Transcript]

Conquering the Challenges of Starting an Escape Room Business. The Unfrustrated Entrepreneur Podcast interviews Brian Vinciguerra the Owner of Cracked it! Escape Games. An Escape Room and Virtual Reality arcade in Jacksonville, North Carolina. 

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I'm Richard Keller (RK) and this is the Unfrustrated Enterpreneur. Do the titles Queen Anne's Revenge, DEFCON-1: Red Alert, and Maude's Madness mean anything to you? Well if you're a fan of escape rooms then they'll be familiar. Especially if you're a fan of Cracked it! Escape Rooms [Games] in Jacksonville, North Carolina.  This is where Brian Vinciguerra (BV) resides.

Since the mid-2010's Brian has offered these escape rooms not only as a way to be entertained, but also to learn something about teamwork. On today's episode of The Unfrustrated Enterpreneur, we speak to Brian on why he decided to make the move into the escape room business. We also delve into why he thinks it has a great future. Ready? Let's go. 

(RK) Well, I guess we'll start with the most obvious question. What is an Escape Room?

(BV) In it's simplest term, an escape room is a live action event where, I, the owner, take groups of people and I lock them in a themed room for one hour and they have 60 minutes to solve a series of puzzles and challenges to get out of that specific room. The room is gonna have a theme and a goal, or mission, or objective that the players or guests have to accomplish during that hour. They have to work together cooperatively and use teamwork and communication skills, problem solving skills, critical thinking, and general team-building skills to accomplish that objective. 

We have two rooms that we started with and we are actually building our third room as we speak. We hope to have it open here very shortly. 

(RK) One of the questions I had is, what if they can't solve the puzzles within 60-minutes? Is that it, or are they just in there and they rot to die so the next team has an example of DON'T DO THIS!

(BV) No, we allot in our games, and most escape rooms, it's sort of the business model is that you have 60 minutes alloted to you to accomplish the goal or objective. At the end of that 60 minutes, I'll speak about my business specifically. At the end of that 60-minutes, we'll come in and kind of assess where you're at and we'll ask our guests. Would you like to see the rest of the solution, or rest of the game? Then we'll step them through the things they may have missed. Alot of guests choose not to see the rest of the game, and, in that case they say we're going to come back and we're going to finish this game. In that case, for us, we offer our guests a return discount of 50% off so we're not charging them the full price of the game to come in and play something that they've already played. We give it two ways to them. We give them two options and they can pick specifically what they want to do. We're very happy to step through the rest of the game and show them all of the rest of the solution. If not, we have a fairly high percentage of people who say, hold on, we are definitely coming back. They'll actually book a return trip before they leave the building just to ensure that they are able to come back and finish the game.

(RK) Were you a fan of video games prior to this? And, the follow up question is how did you get into this?

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(BV) Absolutely! I'm a child of the 80's so I grew up at the birth and the dawn of the video game culture. In the early 90's a game series called Myst really triggered my desire to play games like this. I was really fortunate that a couple of years ago we actually discovered what escape rooms were. I was like, oh! This is Myst in the live arena. In the game Myst there's really not a lot of direction that you get. You get, your plopped into the middle of this world and you have to figure out for yourself what the importance of every single object in the game is and how to employ it. In order to accomplish the objectives that you discover over the course of that particular game. 

The follow on games, Myst II, and Riven were all sort of on the same flavor just like Escape Rooms are today. We're all in the same niche but we are all substantially different from each other because, most of us are independently owned and privately operated compaines. Most of us create our games from the ground up. My genesis into this was, I've always been a puzzler. Doing logic problems, crosswords, Sudoku, and the whole wide array of pencil and paper games. I was also a RPG (role playing game) player for most of my life. 

Again, this is one more facet of being in an escape room,creative thinking, story design, and game design. Those two interests right there coalesced into my Escape Room Business. 

(RK) Were you also a fan of games like Doom where you had to get out, just like, similar to Myst? 

(BV) Yeah, I was a big first person shooter. I loved Doom, I loved Castle Wolfenstein, and the entire Battlefield series. With Doom, specifically, I loved the aspects of the game that I loved were the haunting music, the sound effects that were basically in a 5.1 surround sound type of environment. And, just the tension that built through the entire game because you were operating in the dark. Those, again, are all facets of how I think of my Escape Room Business and many others. We think of our Escape Room business is to bring that level of immersion into our games.

(RK) In this environment, what is needed to create an escape room facility?

Learn more about opening your own escape room.

(BV) I'll just use my experience. to kind of set the stage for how I got into this. A couple of years ago, it's actually almost two years to the month. My family and I were looking for something to do in Raleigh, North Carolina. We were getting ready to go to the rennaisscance fair in Charlotte and we had been rained out by Hurricane Jorges (edit: actually Hurricane Joaquin). So we were kind of stranded in Raleigh for the day and we looked in the Google machine. We typed in fun things to do in Raleigh, North Carolina and all the normal things had come up. Museums, which we had been to many of them, there are some great museums there.  We had been to the arcades, and movies, and bowling and things like that. Right near the top of the list was this concept known as an Escape Room. We were like, What is that? What does this entail? We went and did our first escape room, and we, my family and I, we left there super excited about the idea and concept. 

We started to develop the nucleus of our business idea. Over the next couple of weeks we did several more of them. We solidified the idea that yes, we were definitely going to bring this type of concept to Jacksonville, North Carolina. 

Although, I;m right here outside of the largest Marine base in the world there's just not alot of, it's kind of like an entertainment wasteland, an entertainment desert. There's just not alot going on thta young Marines can do that don't involve alcoholic beverages and you know, loose women. We decided to bring a family entertainment attraction to Jacksonville. My wife, my daughters and I all formed this company. So, to answer your question, that's kind of a long intro to your question, What does it take to open an Escape Room Facility?

Well, the first step for us was determining whether or not we were going to do this. I had gone to, my wife and I, after we decided we were going to do this, went to our local Small Business Development Center at the local community college. We talked to one of the counsellors and we proposed the idea to him. He kind of looked at us and nodded. As we gave him our presentation, he nodded some more. Then he was like, this is the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard of, but he was helpful. Mr. Ellis was very helpful to us. He said if you're serious about this, here's some things you need to do. Start to put your business plan together. Do some projections and things of that nature.  

My wife and I and my daughters, we did alot of homework, very quickly and we put together the skeleton of our business plan. We put together the skeleton of our marketing plan and started actively looking for a building to open up our facility in. In our market, in Jacksonville, there's lots of commercial property available. None of it was kind of specific to what we wanted. I stumbled across a building on my way to my former job. I stumbled across this building that used to be a dance studio on one side and a flea market on the other side that had just currently come up for vacancy and was open for rent. I stopped in and talked with the landlord,the owner, and he gave me a very, very reasonable price for rent. I was like, shoot, definitely, we will definitely consider this.   

I brought my wife on board and we took a walk through the facility and we went from the initial inkling idea, to opening our facility in literally 45 days. 

(RK) Did that Happen?

(BV) We did our first escape room on October 15, 2015. We formed our company on November 9th of 2015. We signed our lease for our building on November 28th of 2015 and we opened to the public on January 7th of 2016.  

In all of that time span was me acquiring funding. Which we self funded the startup of our business ourselves. I took out a small personal loan. We put a little bit on credit cards. We basically opened our first experience on a shoestring budget. The money that we acquired for our startup capital, we blew through that very quickly.   

(RK) What have been the challenges you had to get this business up and running? I'm thinking finances may be one of them, what else?

(BV) Well, a couple of things. First one is time management.  My wife and I both were working full time jobs at the time. I had retired from the Marine Corps in 2008, and I was a contractor on base. I was providing service to the United States Marine Corps in one capacity and trying to divide my time into developing and launching my own business, separately. Burning the candle at both ends got old very quickly.  Also, for my wife, she was a government, civil service employee on base. We would both leave our full-time jobs and then come back to our business and work our second full-time job. So, time management, avoiding burnout. Fiscal financing and working on our finances as well as really trying to learn what being an entrepreneur or a business person is all about. Neither of us really had any clue about what it takes to start a business. 

Using the facilities at the small business center, we learned very quickly, some of the up hill battles that we were going to have to face. From founding our company. Determining whether or not we were going to incorporate, or be a self-proprietorship, or a limited liability company. Trying to figure out what all that jibberish means to an uneducated person. 

Working with our county and figuring out the governmental aspects of opening a business in the unincorporated part of our county. Who do we have to ask for permission, and who do we have to ask for inspections because there's really no handbook, or there wasn't a handbook for us to go to and say we need to go talk to the tax assessors office, and we have to register our name, and we have to develop a website. Really it's the lack of education was our biggest hurdle to opening our business. Not knowing what you don't know. 

Learn more about the Small Business Center Network at Coastal Carolina Community College.

(RK) Escape Rooms are for entertainment but they're also for team building as well. Was this something you thought of when you started the project, or was this something that you thought of later as you were building.

(BV) The team buildng aspect came from just my general research of the industry. It's something that, across the board, virtually every escape room advertises as a benefit of working in an escape room.

Over the last two years I've read alot of literature about the benefit and the value of experiential activities like escape rooms for team building purposes. After determining, really that, specifically myself, I can't speak for everybody, specifically myself, I don't have the real skills and assets to provide true team building to big companies. So, we switched our model really to team bonding. 

With team building you want an escape room experience to be part of a greater initiative in your company as far as team building goes. With your HR and work section leaders you want to determine what your goals are and then help fit those goals.

For instance, we had one local realty company, they had a real problem with lack of communication within their team and it was affecting their monthly sales. So, they scheduled a couple of sessions where they could come in and use our escape rooms and work on mixing up thier individual sales groups. Instead of having Bob, Jane, Alice, and Mary in sales team one. And, Steve, Eric, Joe, and John in sales team two. Those two teams work together every day. The owners took the two teams and intermingled them where people weren't working together previously. It started to help refine their own internal procedures. So that was a benefit for us. Now, to answer your question. Did I come up with team building as benefit of escape rooms, no, but I adopted it as a method of marketing my business as well as exposing us to whole different segment of the market that may not know what's out there for them. Most people, when they think of team building, they think of the goofy trust-fall exercise or a drum circle. There's nothing wrong with those types of events, but they may not specifically meet the objectives that the owners, or the supervisors, or the bosses are looking for. Escape room team building is one facet of the company.

(RK) What is (does) the future hold for your company? You said you were going to be building a third room. Just taking a look here you have the two rooms that you have are Queen Anne's Revenge and DEFCON-1: Red Alert. So, it has to be zombies?

Queen Anne's Revenge, DEFCON-1: Red Alert, Maude's Madness. Current Escape Rooms at Cracked it! Escape Games. An Escape Room and Virtual Reality company in Jacksonville, North Carolina. 

(BV) Close! But no cigar. Just to give a little ground work for my company. When we opened in January, 2016, we created our own game. We called it A.I.R. In Search of: Episode 1. A really long and mouthful title. That was kind of, we liked to call it like Indiana Jones or National Treasure. It had a bit of an archaeological bent to it. We kept that room up and running for about 19 months. The only reason that we shut it down and are starting to build a new room is because we got bored of it. The room was making plenty of money. It was sustaining the business. It was sustaining itself, and it was aging very well. It had actually become a real fan favorite.

Queen Anne's Revenge in April of 2016, which, again, is a game we created from the ground up. We learned a lot over those few months. As far as set design, and building the immersion factor, and just building a good quality room. Last October, at Halloween time last year we created an all new game we called New Blood, New World. It had something to do with vampires, to answer your question.

We opened up DEFCON-1: Red Alert, our 1980s Fall Out game in June of this year. Which, it took us almost a year to build that game because there's just a lot of technical aspects to it that I had to build myself. Learning to program. There's a huge tech background that is the future of escape rooms. 

Our new room that we're getting ready to open hopefully at the end of, or sometime this month in November. We're calling it Maude's Madness. It revolves around a haunted dollhouse. The genesis of this idea was, I had gone to an estate auction for a doll shop here in New Bern, North Carolina. I bought this gorgeous antique dollhouse, a three story dollhouse, that's about 36 inches wide by 40 inches deep. It is the keystone piece of our new room. The gist of the game is, the owner of this mansion has been drive crazy by her possessed dolls. The players have to create a living doll from items that they find in the room in order to squash the possession in the room. So, that's the genesis of our game.

(RK) And, hilarity ensues!

(BV) And, hilarity ensues!

(RK) Give information where people can find you on the internet as well as physical location, and anything else you want to promote.

NOTE: The remainder of the conversation discusses our plan for our limited edition Christmas experience where we were experimenting with a different pricing model and game structure. This no longer applies to current offerings at Cracked it! Escape Games. (BAV)

(BV) So, as enterpreneurs we always have to learn what our market is really looking for. We've heard some grumblings in the market that participants or guests would like to have private experiences. The general model in escape rooms is a public ticketing experience where, if I have a room that's built for 8 people and two people buy tickets for it, that leaves six tickets remaining over that other people can purchase until the room fills up. Which is a great business model for the bottom line as far as your profits go. But sometimes it's not the best business model for providing an excellent experience for our customer experience. If people book for at least three people in the room, that will lock out the room so nobody else can purchase tickets in the room. It's a private experience for them.

We're also knocking down the price a little bit compared to our 25 dollar price point. We're going to set it at 18 dollars. As well as, we are going to scale back the time jus a little bit to 45 minutes because some people would like a shorter game as well. This room itself, this experience itself, is for us to collect some data points that we can modify our business model as we move forward if we choose to expand into another market, or if I choose to franchise the business out. That's kind of what the future holds for us.

(RK) Again, that is Cracked it! Escape Games in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Brian Vinciguerra, thank you so much for joining us.

(BV) My pleasure Richard, thank you so much for having me.

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Brian Vinciguerra is a retired Marine and is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Cracked it! Escape Games in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

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