Puzzle Break was one of the first companies in the US when it opened in Capitol Hill, Seattle in 2013. Since then cofounder and CEO Nate Martin has opened numerous other Puzzle Break locations, including in San Francisco, CA, Long Island, NY, and aboard multiple Royal Caribbean cruise ships. His newest facility recently opened in Belltown, Seattle.
We recently spoke to Nate about the lessons he’s learned from openings, closings, and experiencing the growth of a whole industry. Here are a few important takeaways.
1 – The lobby matters.
According to Nate, the original Puzzle Break location was in a “bizarre warehouse/basement hybrid.” It was entirely focused on the escape rooms. However, customer experience extends beyond the escape room itself. Not only that, but the staff need the out-of-game space too. The newest Puzzle Break location includes multiple lobbies, dedicated conference space for corporate clients, office space, lots of storage, and a fully equipped workshop.
2 – Tourists like to spend money.
In order to capture the tourists, the newest Puzzle Break location is 3 blocks away from Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Escape rooms are a big draw for tourists and locals alike. Additionally, “escape room tourism is on the rise.” There are now people traveling to Seattle specifically to play escape rooms and they are also likely to appreciate the new location’s proximity to traditional tourism.
3 – A viable business needs more than one product.
When Puzzle Break opened a second location in San Francisco in 2014, they only had one escape room in the facility and no room to build another. “Without multiple offerings, we’d acquire customers only to lose them immediately after they played.” Puzzle Break closed the San Francisco location after only one year because they realized that this wasn’t a sustainable business model.
4 – Hire partners and contractors.
You won’t be the best at everything. Nate tells us that “one of the longest weeks of my life involved building a simple wall (extremely poorly) that an experienced carpenter could knock out before lunch.” While the team behind Puzzle Break could learn every skill, including carpentry, that business model wasn’t efficient, and it certainly didn’t scale. Now Puzzle Break hires talented partners and contractors in the areas where they are weaker.
5- Continue to iterate and improve.
In the past three years, the escape room industry has grown and evolved. Nate says that “to thrive in the escape room industry, you must always be iterating and improving.” While Puzzle Break now maintains multiple locations, that wasn’t always the case. In 2014, it was a challenge to split their focus between Seattle and San Francisco. When you begin to scale the business, you can’t stop improving the core product.
6 – Join the community.
When Puzzle Break opened, they were flying blind, figuring out everything on their own. When Nate says, “there was no roadmap, no resources,” he isn’t just talking about escape room design. They were also on their own for operations, marketing, and everything else. Today, there is a vibrant owner community both online and at the escape room conferences. Join the conversation.
7 – There is opportunity to fill a need.
Today, Nate tells new owners to “find a niche.” In most markets, there are now multiple escape room operators. However, that doesn’t mean your opportunity in this industry is gone. “Identify the gaps in your market and fill a need.” Maybe you have the skills to open an escape room that caters to an untapped market or maybe you have the skills that an established company needs to hire.
We agree with Nate that there is opportunity in the escape room market. In the few years since he opened the first Puzzle Break location and we started playing escape rooms and writing about them, a lot has changed. We expect the industry to continue to change, diversify, and grow. To that end, these 7 tidbits of wisdom ring incredibly true.