entrepreneur

I am not a Serial Entrepreneur.

I’m a pretty fortunate guy. I hit a home run with my first serious startup in Puzzle Break. America’s first escape room. My team and I:

  • Opened several Puzzle Break locations across the country.

  • Forged a fruitful partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to put Puzzle Break experiences of all shapes and sizes on many ships with many more on the way.

  • Are in active conversations to create several new groundbreaking partnerships.

  • Served hundreds of thousands of players with over a dozen unique experiences.

  • Reached 7 figure revenue before our 3rd year, having doubled every year with no signs of slowing after our 4th anniversary.

  • Achieved a flattering & humbling level of fame for both the business and myself in the international entertainment & entrepreneurship community.

And we achieved all of this and more without a single dollar of debt. My team is great, our players are great. I couldn’t be happier; I jump out of bed every morning thrilled with the fresh challenges of every day.

Some of those challenges include figuring out how to plan for tomorrow and beyond. Part of figuring out a roadmap includes looking to other successful outfits in my field. As it happens, there’s a fairly common set of backgrounds you find in Escape Room entrepreneurs. The most represented folks come from:

  • Haunted Houses

  • Software (This is me)

  • Games & Puzzles (This is also me)

  • Serial Entrepreneurs (Who I’ll be talking about today)

Thanks to a number of factors, Escape Rooms and other live-action immersive experiences really started to explode in 2015. We’ve seen an enormous volume of serial entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on this hot opportunity. Today, a significant percentage of escape rooms in operation today came from these folks. This is neither objectively good nor bad. As with anything else, we find folks in the game hoping to make a quick buck with a shoddy product, and also serious businesspeople who don’t half-ass their product and create some seriously high quality product.

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I’m writing this in late 2017 when a new hot trend has begun to emerge in the live-action entertainment space: Axe throwing bars. These are establishments where you and your friends can share a drink while tossing axes at a wooden target. Violent bowling, if you will.

Pictured: Failed prototype of "Violent Bowling"

Pictured: Failed prototype of "Violent Bowling"

Now, many of those serial entrepreneurs are moving on from their escape room ventures towards this hot new trend. Logistically, there are many shared factors across the standard business models. I myself have been approached about a couple potential partnerships. They sound pretty fun! And as it stands, I have little interest. Why?

I am not a serial entrepreneur. Puzzle Break is the success story it is because myself and my co-founder have a burning, all-consuming passion for puzzles, games, interactivity, immersiveness, mental challenges, and fun. We didn’t get into the game to cash in to a trend. When we opened in 2013, there was no trend. We had to create the trend ourselves. And we knew it wouldn’t be that hard, because escape rooms are just that fun.

Escape rooms and large team puzzle experiences aren’t going anywhere, and I’m not interested in cashing in upon every opportunity that crosses my desk. I certainly do not begrudge those that do, but I realize how stunningly lucky I’ve been to live in a world about which I’m so passionate. I’m not a serial entrepreneur; I’m a puzzle addict that happens to be an entrepreneur.

-Nate

Nate Martin
Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first 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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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
Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first 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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On being everything to everyone.

The following is a short piece I wrote for a discussion group. It is targeted for folks in the escape room community, but I feel the greater message holds true for entrepreneurs of all stripes:

If I may offer some unsolicited advice on how to run your business: Don't be afraid to find a niche. Don't be afraid to ignore perfectly sound advice when it doesn't "fit".


I've been doing this longer than most everyone in the world. When we started, we got most of our room content from thrift stores. As we started to grow and our resources increased, we had a very clear set of obvious choices. Our rooms needed to have higher material quality, we needed to get more customers, etc.


As Puzzle Break continued to grow, we naturally fell into a niche of huge rooms, huge numbers of players, some awesome gadgetry, but also some stone-age puzzles, and a pretty hard difficulty level tempered by in-room monitors to enhance the experience.


As time passes and the industry continues to grow, our choices have grown less obvious. Where do we focus our efforts? What type of experience are we trying to curate? What audience are we trying to cater to?


Reading about some of the wonderful things some folks here have created, it has proven all-too-tempting to try and do it all. Be everything to everyone. And let me tell you, it’s a trap. Barring unlimited time and resources (and apologies for wasting your time if you’ve got unlimited time and resources): you please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.


Here’s some of the areas you can focus on (not a comprehensive list by any stretch):
You can focus on newbies.
You can focus on puzzle vets.
You can focus on the folks in between.
You can focus on old people.
You can focus on young people.
You can focus on millennials.
You can focus on making extremely tech-heavy rooms.
You can focus on making familiar low-tech puzzles.
You can focus on making Hollywood-caliber set décor.
You can focus on an extremely lean budget.
You can focus on small rooms for 2-4 players.
You can focus on large rooms for 12+ players.
You can focus on medium rooms 6-8 players.
You can focus on tourists.
You can focus on locals.
You can focus on corporate clients.
You can focus on bargain-seekers.
You can focus on heavy story.
You can focus on a strictly objective-driven experience.
You can focus on shorter experiences.
You can focus on longer experiences.
You can focus on rooms designed to run for years.
You can focus on rooms designed to run for weeks.
You can focus on the physical aspect of the experience.
You can focus on the mental aspect of the experience.


What you *cannot* do is “all of the above”. Time and again I see rooms and discussions where people fall into a trap of trying to do everything at once with muddled results.


All that said, don’t *not* do something if it’s a good idea and a good fit, but: There is absolutely no shame in saying “no” to something that is a good idea for someone else, but not you.

 

-Nate

Nate Martin
Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first 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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