At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March, Nate Martin, CEO of the Seattle-based escape room company Puzzle Break, was faced with a heartbreaking reality. Washington State had ordered all nonessential businesses to close, and the company's revenue was "rapidly diminishing to zero." Martin realized he'd have to lay off most of his 22-person staff.
Puzzle Break was the first U.S. escape room company and a seven-figure business, according to Martin: How could the team keep it going despite the lack of customers?
Some of the escape room experiences the company offered could actually be enjoyed virtually, he realized. The company created a digital version of one of their classic experiences, The Grimm Escape, and within 12 hours of offering it to customers, all of their time slots were booked.
The experience taught Martin about how to pivot in a crisis and reaffirmed a crucial decision the company had made early on that set it up for success: Don't take on debt if you can avoid it.
Video by Jason Armesto
"Modern business common knowledge," says Martin, "is, 'Money's cheap, leverage yourself as hard as you can, grow as hard as fast as you can, and live paycheck-to-paycheck to acquire users and just demonstrate growth.' And we've never really been about that."
For any business owner looking to the future to prepare for inevitable challenges, Martin's advice is simple: Instead, make sure to "give yourself an out."
Martin's philosophy from the beginning was to be conservative with the company's money and to keep debt low. He put in $7,000 of his own money at the outset and never took on any investors.
"We did not have insurmountable bills and debt that crippled our ability to do things," he says. That gave Puzzle Break flexibility and freedom in March when they had to pivot and make important decisions quickly.
As much as possible, Puzzle Break relies on on its in-house team. "We do all of our own designs," Martin says. He and his staff conceive of the ideas for the company's escape rooms and scripts themselves.
That also gives them an advantage. When it was time to reconfigure the experiences it offered to make them digital, for example, the Puzzle Break team didn't need to rely on outsourcing to get it done. They had all of the tools and know-how at their disposal and could make swift changes.
That meant even in that moment of crisis, "we had a lot of options," says Martin.
Sometimes, especially in a crisis, a company won't have good choices to work with. "My advice for anyone in the thick of it at any particular moment," says Martin, is "figure out what your options are and just choose the least worst one."
However, he says, if you're not facing an immediate crisis, take that moment to figure out what you can do now should one arise. With the popularity of the virtual version of The Grimm Escape growing, for example, Martin has been able to not only rehire those original 22 positions but also add two new employees. The company is still hiring.
"Position your business in such a way such that if there is a crisis, you have options," he says. "You can execute on those options, and you're gonna be way better off than the majority of your competition."
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