You can’t really “escape the room” when you don’t leave your house. The developments of the past few months left companies whose businesses depend on teams using their wits to solve puzzles together scrambling, so Seattle-based Puzzle Break made a hard pivot into the digital realm.
Nate Martin, the founder and CEO, describes how his company adapted to the shift to remote work in the Q&A below.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Nate Martin, the founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first US-based escape room company. Puzzle Break is a leader in developing escape rooms for corporate team building. I oversee all aspects of the company from game development recruiting to new business. As the company has rapidly grown, I’m working to bring on more senior talent to continue leading Puzzle Break through this new remote work chapter.
How have you conducted business in the past?
In the past, Puzzle Break focused completely on our physical escape rooms and didn’t have online offerings. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle, and when our physical locations were open, we had more than 25 experiences in New York and Massachusetts, and dozens of Puzzle Break experiences were operated on more than half of the Royal Caribbean cruise line fleet. We also operated a portable business that brought the team-building escape room experience to large corporate events and offsites.
What immediate effects did stay-at-home orders have on your business?
When the stay-at-home orders hit in March, we were forced to close all of our locations with no sense of when we would be able to reopen. We had to furlough most of our staff and our multi-million-dollar business went to $0 in one day.
In order to save the business, in the span of just a few weeks we designed and developed a virtual escape experience based off one of our most popular games, The Grimm Escape. The response was immediate and massive; we were clearly meeting a need for remote team building in a time when a lot of companies were adapting to a new virtual workforce and the game took off from there. Since then we’ve developed new escape experiences for remote teams, with companies from Microsoft to Deloitte using our games for team building, employee engagement, and professional development.
What changes did you make to adapt to our current situation?
We brought our entire escape room experience online, something I’d never seriously considered doing before. As far as game design, our physical games lent themselves well to an online environment so the game creation was fairly straightforward. After launching the first virtual escape experience, we developed a new game from scratch that was made explicitly for a virtual audience that allowed us to create a lot more immersive and dynamic elements. Many more are in active development.
From a staffing perspective, as the first game grew in popularity, we were able to bring all of our staff back and train them on how to run a virtual escape experience. Being able to now work with companies around the globe gave us the ability to reach a much broader audience and interact with more people. Going remote has allowed us to hire more staff, reach a much broader audience, lean in to professional development, and have more people play together simultaneously.
How do the virtual escape rooms work?
All participants join a video conference remotely with no special hardware or software requirements. Our expert staff give an introduction outlining the story, rules, and strategy. Everyone is organized into individual teams of players. Each team encounters a wide variety of digital clues, puzzles, and challenges that they must work together to solve before time runs out. Moderators curate each team’s adventure throughout and provide a full debrief to all participants who are reunited to discuss their experience and learnings. The end-to-end experience is approximately 90 minutes.
What were the challenges in implementing changes to your business?
Staffing up has been our biggest challenge to date, which is a good problem to have. After seeing the demand for our virtual escape experiences, we were able to bring back all of our furloughed employees and are working to hire even more staff to lead the virtual escape experiences. At this point, we can’t hire fast enough. We have companies from all over looking to schedule games for their teams and we’ve needed to hire at an aggressive pace to keep up with demand.
What have been the results?
The results have been unprecedented. We’ve led thousands of groups with more than 20,000 players, including teams from Microsoft, Starbucks, and Deloitte. We’ve had our top two revenue days in the history of the seven years as a company and are growing at a rocket-ship pace.
What have you learned through adapting to a remote environment?
We’ve learned that while a lot of companies had the tools and technology to make remote work a success, they were left scrambling when it came to building culture and community among a virtual workforce. With people experiencing Zoom fatigue and having their work lives bleed into their personal lives, Zoom happy hours just weren’t cutting it.
There was a hole in the market for remote team building that fostered collaboration, communication, and development while also just being fun. We’ve found that people “escape” our rooms with strengthened relationships, a sense of accomplishment, and a memorable, adrenaline-pumping experience, all packed into an efficient hour.
What advice do you have for others who are trying to figure out this new way or working?
As a team building expert this should come as no surprise, but my biggest piece of advice is to check in with your employees and make sure to have designated time for team building and catching up. Make sure employees know you are investing in them. It’s easy when working remotely to focus solely on the work. Especially now, it’s important to keep up morale, build culture, and create an environment where people are connected and excited to show up to work every day.