Playing Business vs. Doing Business

Right around the first and second anniversaries of Puzzle Break, I made detailed posts to the Entrepreneur section of Reddit discussing the history of our business, milestones, the evolution of the industry, and all sorts of related topics.

Between the exposure of these posts and general press/word of mouth, I get an enormous amount of email questions from budding entrepreneurs of all stripes. The questions run the gamut of size/complexity/industry (I'd wager less than 2/3 are actually from potential escape room owner-operators), but I'm beginning to notice a trend that I'm not tremendously happy to see:

People "playing" business when they should be doing business, and failure to recognize the difference.

I saw this all the time at Microsoft and EA (this post's image brought to you by someone who wanted to make a sweet "business" graphic with no desire to understand how gears work), and it is disappointing to learn that this disease is agnostic to sector and industry.

Note to folks who have never created a business before: Creating a successful business is fundamentally no different than creating a successful product or service within the framework of an established company. Size/scale/complexity/risks will vary wildly, but at its core, we're talking about the same thing.

The metaphor of which I am most fond is successfully preparing a delicious meal. People who know me will immediately recognize the humor in this being my go-to metaphor (I'm not sure I've cooked a complete meal in my entire life), but bear with me:

Imagine your ultimate goal in this hypothetical exercise is to make a great meal. Before you begin, what are your primary areas of concern? Where are you focusing your energies? If you've never cooked anything before in your life, you might turn to videos of highly famous chefs working their magic. At the end of the video, you would see a beautifully plated dish in the most beautiful dining area you've ever seen.

You might be forgiven, then, if you are tricked into believing your efforts are best spent on the aesthetics. You might focus on the presentation of the dish. You might focus on how best to plate it. On how to get the word out about your amazing meal. On how to make the lighting in the dining room just so.

Congratulations, you're playing chef.

The correct things to focus on (I'm told by people who have actually prepared a meal before) are ingredients and preparation. I know some folks who would go even further: just focus on the ingredients, and the rest follows. That's it. Focus on making the damn thing taste good, as uninteresting as that is. The problem is: finding the right ingredients is a lot less sexy (and makes for a lot worse television) than preparing the final product after all the groundwork is laid.

Here's a paraphrased email that I see every day.

"Hey, I'm thinking about starting an escape room business and I love what you've done with Puzzle Break. I don't know anything about puzzles, or experience design. I don't have any business experience. I don't know what my budget is, or where I'm going to get it. My questions for you: Do you think I should use Groupon when I open? What sort of social media strategy would you recommend?"

Where to begin? This poor soul wants to jump to the end of the process without any of the hyper-important groundwork. There's one million things they don't yet know, and they are only asking about the least-important parts. They are playing business.

How to avoid this trap? My two pieces of agnostic advice:

  1. Be aware that you don't know what you don't know. Seek to reduce this gap.
  2. Making anything of quality (in any business, industry, or sector) requires a disappointingly high level of work on decidedly un-sexy areas that you rarely see on television.

NOTE: For anyone inside the escape room industry reading this: For long term success: No, you should not use Groupon or any other daily deal service.

-Nate

Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the oldest American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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