Turning a hobby into a business isn’t so unusual, but you could say that John Barkley—with a nudge from his adult daughter—took that idea to its extreme when he launched Key to Escape, a live, interactive game center in Nashua.
Every neighborhood of any size probably had a John Barkley type—the one who filled his yard with spookiness for Halloween or engulfed his family home in Christmas lights every season.
John’s thing was haunted houses. Big ones. Complicated ones. Ones that took John six to seven weeks to build, and took over the family garage at Halloween. His haunted houses ultimately resulted in his shed, the attic, and a basement filled with scary stuff in the off season. First, it was just a labor of love for his kids, but his creations drew in hundreds of visitors. Then, when his youngest child was off to college, he just stopped creating the haunted houses.
Until, that is, his middle daughter had her own brilliant idea: Lara re-lit a fire under him in November 2015 after she had visited an “escape room” in Charleston, South Carolina. John explains, “She called me on her way home and simply said, ‘Dad, this has got to be your next business.’”
Having not even heard of an escape room up to that time, John first had to try out a few on his own. “I started to see what I could and would do differently.” Ideas about how to “build a haunted house that you did not have to tear down in 3 weeks” started sprouting.
Escape rooms offer timed, themed adventures where players use items hidden around the room to solve riddles, piece together puzzles, and work in teams to find the means of escape. They pay admission for the 60- to 90-minute adventure, which is also guided by a Game Master who, in the case of Key to Escape, is often John’s daughter.
“I’m just loving being my own boss and building a business with my daughter,” John said. “It’s just awesome.”
Lara, in fact, at age 28 gave up her job managing a piercing studio to join her father in the escape room enterprise. John, was working in Nashua and not looking for a major change. “I had been in a couple of startup businesses before, but never started my own,” he explains.
So, three months after that phone call from Lara, John began taking business courses on website building and social media and, ultimately, piecing together a business plan.
He connected with NH SBDC business advisor Julie Glosner in April 2016, and, he explains, she has been an invaluable resource ever since. Julie pointed John to specific online courses that would help him understand various business models. “Then Julie and I worked together on what my model would be,” John said. “It was very useful, very helpful. We focused on what I would need to appeal to different types of customers.”
Julie helped John outline everything he would have to do to launch an escape room business, he said. They talked about marketing, finding a lawyer he could trust, setting up an LLC, and finding appropriate insurance for the business.
“She just kept me on track,” John said. We would meet monthly and we’d decide what we had to do, and sometimes she’d give me a list of people and resources to contact.”
The trickiest part was finding the location for his escape room. Julie had pointed him to a lawyer, who led John to the proper real estate person. “When we went out to look for something appropriate, turns out nobody really had a classification for an escape room,” John explained. “We had to go in front of Nashua’s zoning board, and the lawyer helped with that.”
It took two months to go through all the legal hoops, he explains, but in the end he found a reasonably priced space to lease, with a good landlord, and he soon passed all the inspections.
The timing was right, the market was right, the location was right. John’s very first room opened at the end of August 2016, with just his daughter and him working on it. The second room opened in October of that year, and by March he needed to hire his first part-time employee. A year and a half later, he employs a total of six people, and they now operate what are four distinct escape rooms: The Incident, The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Sunken Submarine Tour, and The House in the Woods, all of which were designed from scratch.
Among Julie’s first tasks with John was trying to help him determine what the market was for his vision. Since it is a relatively new concept, there wasn’t much data on which to build. “Turns out,” John says, “the market is everybody! Well, anyone that has expendable income that they might spend on bowling, the movies, or going out to dinner, for example.”
Word-of-mouth really works well for the business, John said. Since nearly the beginning, 90 percent of his business has been new people that have never done an escape room before, most people booking themselves online. And, there are now “Escape Room Enthusiast” groups that travel around the country just finding different ones to try, he said.
“Google maps has been our friend,” he says. “Facebook has been our friend.”
Corporate gatherings, team trainings, and bachelorette parties have all happened in the short tenure of Key to Escape.
The hardest part when deciding to launch, John admits, was just getting through all the unknowns. “It was completely out of my comfort zone. I discovered, however, that if you’re upfront and tell the town clerk, or whoever, that you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, they’re going to be very helpful.”
John’s was the third escape room business to open in New Hampshire; now there are 14 or 15 around the state. Entirely self-funded, John says he just completed his taxes for 2017 and the business still operates at a loss, as they continue to invest in new themed rooms, technology and people. “It’s not costing me anything; it’s sustaining itself and it’s going to be profitable,” he says. He attributes the addition of the fourth room for moving Key to Escape towards the profitable zone, and he’s begun discussing with Julie the ins-and-outs of buying versus leasing, or of moving to larger space.
“Julie just popped in a few weeks ago,” John said. “She suggested an accountant to help with the lease/rent/buy questions, which I appreciate. When I started this business, I didn’t have the financial background for it. Julie not only helped me make a plan, but she has forced me to be accountable.
“I want to make money, but it’s just as important for me to have fun, to enjoy what I’m doing, and to make that experience fun for everyone who comes in the door,” he said. “It’s important for me to have people like it and want to come back.”