In March, Nate Martin, co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Break in Seattle, had to find a solution to keep his business going, and fast. That month Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announced a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses, and "our revenue went from rapidly diminishing [as people began social distancing] to zero," says Martin. The company was forced to furlough most of its 22 employees.
Puzzle Break, which Martin describes as both the United States' first escape room business and a seven-figure company, offers a variety of escape room experiences, from actual physical rooms in its two Seattle locations to large-scale team-building activities tailored to work conferences. The Puzzle Break team quickly realized that they could create a virtual version of one of the large-scale experiences to be done over teleconferencing, and that "it would probably be pretty good," says Martin.
What they didn't realize at the time is that their new virtual escape room would meet people's "real hunger for social connection" while in quarantine, says Martin. Within 12 hours of offering the experience online for the first time, the company sold out of its time slots.
Video by Jason Armesto
Here's how Puzzle Break was able to adapt during the pandemic and find great, unexpected success.
In choosing a virtual activity, Puzzle Break elected to adapt one of its classic experiences, The Grimm Escape. In it, the players have an hour to figure out how to escape "a strange and mysterious land" cursed by the witch who trapped them there. The game takes place on Zoom with a Puzzle Break employee leading the experience and sharing clues in a Google Drive folder.
The Grimm Escape, which costs $25 per person, works for groups small and large, so individuals and companies alike can take part. "We developed the type of escape room experience that a lot of people can play all at once," says Martin. "It doesn't really have a limit."
Players today include individual groups of up to six people to corporate groups playing the game as a team-building exercise.
With the immediate popularity of the virtual escape room, and because the number of experiences offered depends on the number of employees available to lead them, Martin quickly found himself rehiring staff members, all of whom are working remotely. Today the company has 24 employees and is offering as many as 55 experiences per day, with a two-week wait for anyone else interested.
"Our biggest problem now is keeping up with the demand," says Martin.
Martin also realizes that, in part, the success of the virtual Grimm Escape has to do with life under quarantine. Escape rooms are designed to bring people together to solve a problem, and "we were very fortunate in that what we normally provide, slightly tweaked," he says, "suddenly meets the deep, visceral, primal need the society has." That is, it meets the need for people to connect and feel a sense of togetherness.
Indeed, posts on social media chronicle this and people's desire to see family and friends while in lockdown. It doesn't escape Martin that, in part, Puzzle Break's recent success "is born of a terrible tragedy," he says.
If you're a business owner trying to stay afloat, Martin suggests to choose the least worst option you have in terms of letting the business survive. If, however, your business is not in crisis mode, when it comes to thinking long-term, he says, "give yourself an out." Make sure that, no matter what happens, you have some options.
One straightforward way to do that is to try to stay out, or get out, of debt. Puzzle Break was not in a lot of debt when the pandemic forced them to close — the business "never had investors," says Martin — so it was able to be creative and forward-thinking.
It was self-reliant, too, Martin says: A team of in-house designers could be nimble in a moment of abrupt change and could adapt their product to the times.
"Position your business in such a way such that if there is a crisis, you have options, you can execute on those options, and you're gonna be way better off than the majority of your competition," he says.
Martin isn't certain about what the future holds for Puzzle Break. "I'm not exactly sure where we're going to end up," he says, "but the need for human connection ain't gonna go anywhere." Puzzle Break plans to continue offering virtual experiences even when people can start reconvening in public. Meanwhile, he says, the company's still hiring.
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