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I bankrupted my multimillion dollar business.

Operating the first escape rooms in North Jersey.

I played my first escape room game in 2015, in Chinatown, NYC. My group and I were locked in a room and given 60 minutes to find clues, solve puzzles, and unlock obstacles to escape. We made it out with minutes to spare.

It was thrilling.

I couldn't stop thinking about this experience for weeks. It was so unique. I played a few more escape rooms (which weren't that great) and I knew I could design a much better escape game. I'm also risk averse, so I asked my brother to partner with me. He liked the profitability, and I liked the creativity. We took a $10k loan from my dad and started our own escape room: Puzzle Out.

We found a location in downtown Hoboken: a historic building that lent itself beautifully to our first game called Codebreakers, which was set during WWI. My brother and I were working full-time, so we spent every night and weekend building out the room out from scratch: constructing props, linking puzzles and tweaking the game flow.

We ran a few test games, fixed errors and then opened the room up to the public. I was a nervous wreck watching our first game play out, hoping our customers would be able to escape in time. They did. And they loved it.

My brother calculated that we'd need 10 bookings per month to break even. We did 30 in our first month. Our bookings kept increasing every month, so we brought in more partners and expanded our game rooms to Jersey City and Newark. Business was good. But that success came at a cost.

I was practically absent from my family for a full year building out the new locations. The breaking point was me taking a call for some logistics during the birth of my third child. I needed to step away.

I started systematizing the games so they could run without me. I also turned my focus towards my design career. My partners also turned their focus away from the escape room to other ventures. And that's when things started to unravel.

There was nobody on-site to obsess over the customer experience or to maintain quality. This was my responsibility. The games started breaking down and our staff was forced to improvise fixes. They did their best. But employees will never care about the business as much as the owner does.

Our ratings on Google and Yelp started to plummet. I took pride in delivering an excellent game experience. So seeing 1-star reviews tore me up inside.

The final blow came when we launched our biggest and newest escape rooms in Newark on March 16, 2020. The day the NJ governor shut down the state due to COVID. Putting people in a confined space to solve puzzles by touching things is probably the worse business you could run during a pandemic. We never recovered financially from this.

We limped along for four years, gradually shuttering our locations. We shut our last location down last month.

Puzzle Out used to be an source of immense pride for me. I brought my vision to life, delighted thousands of people, while also making it profitable. We generated a top line revenue of $2 million. In the end, I broke even or possibly even lost money.

But this wasn't about the money for me. The greatest joy I got from this endeavor was seeing the smiling and excited faces of our players as they broke out of the room in just under 60 minutes. They rejoiced in victory, defeating the room, and defeating the obstacles I had placed in their way. Their victory was my victory.

I used to have the escape room on my LinkedIn experience, but I removed it because I was ashamed of my failure. But not anymore.

I am embracing this failure.

And I am going to keep building experiences that delight people.

I tweaked this on Wed May 22 2024 00:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)