Can I Make it in the Room Escape Business?

If a dream is going to live or die, I think it should be based on reason.

It’s a weekly occurrence that a hopeful escape room owner posts on the Escape Room Enthusiast or Startup Facebook groups with something along these lines:

Hi… I played a bunch of escape rooms and I’m thinking of opening one up. What does it take to succeed?

The Facebook communities promptly respond with a series of blunt answers along the lines of, “if you’re asking this question, you probably don’t have what it takes.”

While I understand the community’s reflexive sentiment, I want to help you think things through.

An assortment of locks, keys, pirate treasure, a blacklight, and a cryptex in a stylaized image.

Some of the skills you’re going to need to create a successful escape room business

And by “you” I mean you and your team…

  • Puzzle design
  • Game design
  • Set design
  • Sound design
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Software engineering
  • Hardware engineering
  • Writing & storytelling
  • Editing & proofreading
  • Lighting
  • Fabrication
  • Graphic design
  • Play testing
  • Web design
  • Web development
  • Accounting
  • Insurance
  • Real estate
  • Finance
  • Contracts & other legalities
  • Customer service
  • Marketing
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Search engine marketing (SEM)
  • Advertising
  • Public relations
  • Social media management

Each bullet in the list above represents an entire profession. There are tons of books on each subject. You can earn a college degree in most of them and make a fine living only practicing that one. Some of these bullets involve one-off things; others are ongoing within the business. It’s worth noting that different escape room companies excel and fail at each of these in different ways.

A series of questions to ask yourself

  • How much of this process can you honestly take on?
  • How much of this process can you bankroll?
  • How competitive is your market? If there are other escape rooms nearby, will you be able to meet or beat the expectations set by your competitors?
  • What will make your games special? The best companies don’t necessarily excel at everything, but they do know how to shine a spotlight on the things they do better than everyone else, and limit the exposure of their weaknesses.
  • Where are you willing to compromise quality? You’re going to compromise somewhere, you might as well make it a conscious decision.
  • Have you visited a city where you can see truly high-end escape rooms? Do you feel that you’ll be able to get to a place where you can compete with the high-end of the market down the line?  If you can’t compete now, you’ll have to eventually.
  • What are the stakes for you? If you fail, can you survive? Are you going to need to turn a fast profit to feed yourself or your kids?

Only you can answer these questions for yourself, but while you’re reflecting on them, do your homework and read up.

Some resources

We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past 3 years and >550 posts. These are a few good starting places:

There’s a lot more where those came from in our Room Design section.

Additionally, there is a lot of knowledge on the Escape Room Enthusiasts and Startup Facebook groups. Please, please, please do a search before you post a question. The odds are incredibly high that your question has been asked and answered in detail more than once.

Some history

If you’re looking to dive into the escape room business, I encourage you to take a moment to get a sense of where the industry came from and how it has developed:

A Quick History of Escape Rooms

You almost certainly aren’t going to find success in escape rooms with $10,000, a dream, and some gumption. It absolutely used to happen in the distant days of escape rooms (a whopping 3 years ago). Times have changed. Escape rooms have grown more complex. With greater competition, it’s far harder to grab consumer and media attention than it was when escape rooms were this new and mysterious thing.

Some advice

If you’re seriously thinking about taking out a loan or committing your savings towards creating an escape room, take a vacation. I’m serious. Buy a plane ticket to Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York City (you can come to our tour of NYC!), and spend a few days playing some killer escape rooms. Then go play some terrible games too. Learn what you can from the amazing and terrible things that you experience.

After that trip is over, reflect on the questions that I have listed above. If you think you can do it, draw up a business plan that accounts for the different angles. If the plan seems achievable, start designing your games in your home. Design, build, test, and sort out as much as you possibly can before you sign a lease because that’s the point where things get real.

I can’t tell you if you’ll be able to make it and neither can the various online communities. There is room for success, but it takes the right team in the right location.

Do your homework, and if you open up… Let us know and we’ll add you to the directory. Good luck.

9 thoughts on “Can I Make it in the Room Escape Business?

  1. Quite a fine post on the realities of the business. Another profession I can think to add is Search Engine Optimization (which is extremely important.) Maybe Surveillance System Installation and Maintenance and Janitorial Service, too.

    Further, if all that isn’t intimidating enough, you’ll find that almost every market is already crowded, and it will be very difficult to be noticed. All the existing operations will have a large head start on search engines and review sites, none of which are particularly fair to new entrants. (And, no, quality will not help; everyone has 4.9 stars.) The press will already be bored with the concept. And except for a few locations, there’s no sufficiently connected player base or industry media to spread the word.

    If you’re intending to start an escape game company, take great care in examining your market and your value proposition. You had better be in the rare underserved area (some suburban locations may still be plausible) or really stand out in some way (quality, price, novel approach)… and be able to explain it clearly and quickly. A new average escape room in most cities will simply not exist.

    1. Simply put, an Escape Room is easy to do, but hard to do well. The difference is well explained in this article. Unfortunately, many “entrepreneurs” only get as far as the first half of my first sentence and when combined with access to some $$ and lots of passion/enthusiasm there is the beginning of a sad story. Planning is free and it is the most important part of starting and maintaining a profitable business. Please send this article to lenders/underwriters in the finance world so they can educate themselves and their prospective borrowers to reduce the calamity of a failed small business.

    2. @J Cameron Cooper – These are excellent points. Search engine optimization (SEO) & search engine marketing (SEM) are critical skills as well.

      And I wholeheartedly agree with you about the crowd review problems. A sub 4 star rating on Yelp/Trip Advisor/Google is an indicator of a terrible game, but damn near every escape room has more than 4.5 stars at the moment.

      1. Very few people who come and do an escape room for the first time become escape room enthusiasts who go to every room in their city; most are just “civilians” who come to do one with friends. Maybe they’ll do another, but it’s unlikely that we help them discover a new passion. This is true for most any recreational activity. We’ve all played mini-golf, but few of us do it on a weekly basis.

        The problem with online reviews is that most are by this type of consumer, and therefore they are reviewing a business with no basis for comparison. We in Strange Bird Immersive have observed that they are reviewing the GENRE, not the individual purveyor. Everyone has fun at their first escape room because even if an experienced player would know the room sucked, the reviewer has never experienced anything like it before.

        If only Yelp and Google had a way of “weighting” reviews…

      2. This is spot-on. The way we explain this phenomenon is:

        Imagine that you’ve only ever eaten food in your home. You’ve always had to buy all of the food, cook, and then clean it up. Then one day you walk into a McDonalds. You ask for food and it arrives immediately. 5 stars.

  2. Well said. We have an escape room in Hawaii – and are just thinking of paying ourselves after a year of being in business. We’re lucky that as a couple, we have almost all of the skills needed but there’s still a learning curve if you want to make something great.

    1. It’s a tough business if you do it right, but there are folks out there with the skills, resources, and determination to make it work. I’m glad to hear that you’re able to pay yourself now!

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