Starting An Escape Room Business: Is It Right For You?
9 Important Roles You'll Perform As An Escape Room Entrepreneur (That Have Nothing To Do With Cracking Puzzles!)
Escape room puzzle designer sounds like a dream job, doesn’t it?
People who play escape rooms like puzzles. They’re imaginative and curious people who are excited by mysteries.
Obviously, an opportunity to apply that imagination to an endeavor like escape room design is particularly appealing. The prospect of making money doing it almost seems too good to be true.
Additionally, people who like puzzles and mysteries often struggle to figure out what they want to be when they grow up . . . even once they’re adults and the time to make that decision is long past.
Storyteller, experience creator, fiendish mastermind . . . these job titles don’t show up on Monster or Indeed.com (trust me – I’ve looked!).
You’re not alone if you’ve found yourself thinking, “If only there were a job out there that allowed me to make stuff up, confound people with diabolical schemes, and pretend the stories in my head are real!”
But . . . you knew there was going to be a “but,” didn’t you?
Here’s the catch:
Designing an escape room is fun.
Watching people play your escape room is fun.
But running a business involves a lot more than just making up creative scenarios and puzzles and gleefully watching as players attempt to figure them out.
It involves hard work.
Before you quit your day job, it’s a good idea to really evaluate whether being an entrepreneur is what you want.
Just as you wouldn’t assume someone who loves watching movies would be good at running a movie theater, you can’t assume that a love of puzzles and escape rooms will automatically make you good at running escape rooms for a living.
However, it won’t hurt! In fact, if you didn’t love puzzles and escape rooms, opening an escape game business would be a terrible idea. But you also need to enjoy the business-running parts, or you risk becoming disappointed and burned out at some point, and that’s not where you want to be.
Escape Room Business Owner Roles
Explore each of the following positions and ask yourself if you’re prepared – even if not overly enthused – to do that each role.
Escape Room Business Plan Writer
In this position, you will sit down in front of a computer and – probably with the help of a template – compose a thorough, detailed business plan.
Your business plan will include a description of your company and well-researched details about how you will go about financing, building, managing, maintaining, and marketing your escape room business.
You will need this business plan to get financing, so it should be clearly written and well organized.
For some people, the thought of doing a lot of research and writing a 15+-page document causes horrifying flashbacks of being in school, so this is a good test of your resolve. Since research and business-plan writing are the first steps in your entrepreneurial journey, you’ll know pretty quickly if this is going to be a deal breaker.
Business plans take work
A lot of people who hate writing still successfully complete business plans and open escape room businesses. But as you’re dreaming of your future life as an escape game operator, remember that this is a critical step, and you have to complete it before you can do anything else.
Legal Business Entity Setup
Before you can operate as a business, you will probably have to form a business entity for legal purposes (you will definitely have to do this in the United States; other countries’ laws may vary).
In the United States, you’ll have the options of operating as a sole proprietor, a partnership, an LLC, a corporation, an S corporation, or a cooperative. Each of these business types comes with different legal and tax requirements, as well as differing liability. It’s best to schedule some time with an attorney and an accountant for a chat about which type will suit you best.
In addition to your business status, in the U.S., you’ll also investigate and comply with zoning ordinances, ADA and OSHA requirements, liability waiver requisites, parking space obligations, fire codes, and more. If you hire employees, you’ll be subject to additional legal stipulations.
You’ll establish procedures for liability-imbued situations, such as those in which customers are injured – either in one of your rooms or by slipping on a patch of ice in your parking lot – employees are injured, cars in your parking lot are broken into or damaged by other drivers, and more.
If the thought of investigating and jumping through all of these hoops gives you an anxiety stomach ache, you might want to consider increasing the line item in your budget for legal counsel. Or work with a partner who enjoys these types of activities.
Accountant / Bookkeeper
As the accountant/bookkeeper, you will create a startup budget and a financial plan for your business. As with your business plan, your budget will require some research.
As you get your plans underway, you will keep careful track of all your expenditures, for both budgetary and tax reasons.
You’ll probably research, select, set up, and use an accounting program or app that helps you invoice vendors, track your financial transactions, cut checks, and other bookkeeping duties. You’ll become an expert in such subjects as sales taxes, credit-card processing fees, credits, debits, and depreciation. Accounting software has come a long way since the old-school days of MYOB. There are some super easy-to-use options out there today, such as XERO.
You'll need an accountant
If you’re able to build the cost of a professional bookkeeper into your budget, you may be able to delegate many of these duties to someone else, particularly once you start making money. But be prepared to manage at least some of these activities yourself while you’re getting started.
Negotiator / Hand Shaker
Are you good with people?
This isn’t the customer interaction part. We’ll get to that.
This is the part where you make phone calls and meet with people in order to get things done. It might be government officials or landlords or contractors or loan officers.
In this role, among other things, you’ll convince someone – a loan officer, an investor, your parents – that your business is going to make money. You’ll make arrangements to take possession of funds and pay back funds.
You’ll seek out the perfect location for your business and negotiate lease terms with the landlord.
If you’re not building your room(s) yourself, you’ll interview and get bids from contractors and work with them to ensure the construction process goes smoothly. In the United States, contractors generally submit plans for approval, acquire building permits, and schedule inspections on your behalf.
If you are building your room(s) yourself, you’ll handle the plan approval, building permits, and inspections yourself.
Many of these activities can only be done during business hours, so if you have a day job, be prepared to take a few afternoons off or try to get work done during your lunch break.
Contractor / Handyman / Facilities Manager
Even if you hire a contractor to build your lobby, rooms, and other public areas, you’ll still need to maintain your facility once the contractors have finished and moved on.
As a word of caution, maintaining a public facility is not as easy as it sounds.
Just having people in your building will cause wear. And unlike your home, where you can ignore minor scuffs, loose handles, and chipped paint until you’re in the mood to deal with them, in a public facility you have to keep things looking and working like new.
Then add to that the fact that you are running an entertainment venue that invites customers to physically handle the furnishings, props, and decor.
Escape game startups need repairs from day 1.
No matter how many instructions you give them and warnings you post, escape room patrons break things. Sometimes it’s accidental. Sometimes they’re overly enthusiastic about finding clues in places you never would have imagined anyone would look for a clue.
Be prepared to do maintenance and repairs daily.
Employer / Manager / Supervisor
Unless you plan to run the entire business yourself or with a partner, you’ll also take on the role of human resources manager. So, first up, add “payroll” to your accounting and bookkeeping duties.
Under this umbrella, you will advertise open positions, review applications, interview candidates, and hire employees. In the United States, hiring employees comes with legal paperwork, tax withholding, workers’ comp insurance, and other government mandates.
Once you’ve hired your employees, you will train them, schedule them, supervise them, discipline them, and evaluate their performance. You will cover for them when they can’t find a ride, call in sick, or simply fail to show up. You may occasionally have to fire them (really!).
Some people love the human resources aspects of their entrepreneurial duties. Others consider this to be one of the most difficult parts of running a business. You may not know which camp you belong in until you try it.
As the chief marketing officer of your business, you’ll be responsible for making sure customers keep coming through the doors. You’ll be in charge of ensuring that you book a certain number of rooms or slots per day in order to meet your revenue projections and keep your doors open.
You’ll get to use your creativity in this role. There are countless ways to advertise your business – some are easier than others.
You’ll use your social media knowledge to develop a following on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. You’ll devise promotional events. You’ll reach out to local media outlets and be interviewed by journalists. If this kind of stuff gets you excited, check out the big list of possible escape game marketing ideas over at NowEscape.
You’ll promote your business passionately and tirelessly . . . because if you don’t, you risk losing everything you’ve worked so hard for.
Unless your escape game is in a location with a lot of foot traffic, you’re going to need a website to alert the public to your existence and draw potential customers in.
Your website can also serve as a booking portal, taking the hassle of manual bookings out of your hands. Integrating your site with free software like this one will save you tons of time on the phone and allow people to book games even when you’re closed.
While this may sound scary, it’s actually one of the easier tasks you’ll encounter.
Today, there are simple options, like Wix, Squarespace, and WordPress, that allow you to build a website without any HTML experience. You can also generally find a budget-friendly web developer online who can build and maintain your site for you, if you prefer not to do it yourself.
Customer Service Representative
If you’ve never worked in customer service before, you might want to give it a try – maybe part-time for a few months – before you start a customer-service business.
That’s not to say that customer service can’t be rewarding. But it is hard. It requires a ton of patience. And if you’ve never done it before, you might not know what you’re getting yourself into.
The fact is, there is no way to make all the people happy all the time.
When customers are happy, customer service seems like the best job ever. It’s invigorating to provide a service that delights people. It feels incredible to get a great review and know you’ve made someone’s day.
On the other hand, you can have the most creative, challenging escape room in town and the best service anyone could possibly deliver, and someone eventually will find something to complain about.
If you’re the kind of person who takes criticism personally, you do not want to go into a service business. Eventually someone is going to complain about something or leave a negative review, and you cannot let it ruin your day.
You also can’t respond defensively. Businesses operate with a policy of “The customer is always right” because without customers, they’d have no business. But the customer is not always right. And taking that deep breath and backing down when every part of your ego wants to do the opposite is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do as a business owner.
Is Running An Escape Room Business Right For You?
Still On Board? Excellent! A Few Final Words, Then:
Running An Escape Room Business Is Not A 9 To 5 Job
As exciting as it sounds to be your own boss and captain of your own ship, working for yourself also means you’re 100 percent responsible for your business’s success or failure.
You lose the luxuries of eight-hour days and not taking your work home with you. You will live and breathe your business. You’ll work more than 40 hours a week. A lot more.
Also, keep in mind that escape rooms aren’t business-hours businesses. They’re open on evenings, weekends, and holidays. Obviously you control the hours you’re open, but you also have to be open when people want to play.
If You’re In It For The Money, You’re Doing It Wrong
Sure, escape rooms are a rapidly growing industry right now. A lot of entrepreneurs are making great money running escape rooms right now, and you probably will, too! But don’t assume you can just open a room and the money will roll in without any further effort.
If you’re going to put in the kind of time and effort required to start your own business, you better love what you’re doing. All of it. From the paperwork to the compliance to the facilities upkeep to tracking down a plumber at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, so you can have working toilets on one of your busiest days of the year.
You Will Have Setbacks
No matter how well you research your market and how good your business plan is, there are many elements that are simply out of your control. Things can and will go wrong.
That doesn’t mean you can’t overcome these hurdles and become successful. But you need to know it’s a possibility and be prepared to roll with it.
Believe In Your Vision
People will tell you the market is already saturated, that escape rooms are a fad that’s going to run its course, that going into business is too hard and too expensive.
Do you have what it takes to prove them wrong?
Are You Ready To Start An Escape Room Business?
Opening any business is risky. And it’s definitely a lot of work.
If you realized, while reading this, that a lot of the work you’ll have to do doesn’t appeal to you, maybe your path lies in a different direction. Which is perfectly okay! And it’s much better to realize it now than after you’ve invested a lot of money and time.