In October 2013, “Escape the Room” founder Victor Blake started a peculiar moonlighting gig: locking people in rooms.
His idea was simple: Start a pop-up game where participants are locked in a room together. In order to beat the game, they must find clues and solve puzzles within a set time frame.
Blake’s set-up was even simpler. One Friday night, Blake left his day job, crammed some supplies from IKEA in the back of a taxi, and constructed his first pop-up game in a rented, 200-square-foot graphic designer’s studio. The result was what Blake calls New York City’s first escape room. At that point, the attraction didn’t even have a website. Customers learned about the pop-up game through word of mouth. Tickets went for $28 a person, which is still the price at all of the New York locations.
“After our very first weekend, I’d sold out,” Blake says. “Sometimes starting organically is the best way.”
After that successful opening, Blake returned to his 9-5 job in quantitative financial modelling on Monday, eager to reopen the game on Friday.
A Fordham University alumnus with degrees in maths and economics, Blake had always been interested in puzzles. After winning a Fulbright Fellowship, he spent time in Kiev, Ukraine, conducting domestic debt research with the National Bank of Ukraine.
He says he’s never believed in a strict career path.
“You can do lots of different things,” Blake says. “People are like, ‘How did you start making puzzles?’ It’s the same skill set as finance. I really like solving problems and I really like puzzles and I really like using those skills. I don’t think it’s that different. Do what you like. I know it sounds cliché as hell, but go for it. Take some risks. They can be controlled risks.”
Blake’s “conservative” risk — juggling his new venture with a career in finance — led to a punishing schedule. Blake and his team ran games on Friday nights and 9 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. His schedule only got crazier when his first child was born in March.
“I’m like 10 years older from those two years,” Blake says. For Blake, the key to avoiding burnout is enjoying what you’re doing.
“Have you ever not wanted to put in an extra hour of reading a really good book?” Blake says. “It’s not always going to be like that. But sometimes you don’t mind putting in a little extra time.”
Still, eventually Blake had to make a decision. He chose to quit his financial job to focus more on “Escape the Room.” At the time, his friends, family, and colleagues though the move was “pretty nutty.”
“In the beginning, everyone thought I was just insane,” Blake says. “They were like, ‘Hold on, let me get this straight. I’m going to pay you to lock me in a room? And you think this is a good idea?’ I think they were ready to check me into a psychiatric hospital.”
Blake says he decided to take the plunge and quit his financial job because he liked seeing peoples’ reactions to the games. “You see people walk out, and they’re percentage points happier about their day, about their life,” he says. “It unlocks something in them.”
He also enjoyed meeting kindred spirits — people who enjoy taking risks and trying new things. “Chances are, if you come, you’d be just the sort of person I’d be friends with,” says Blake. “There’s more to life than eat and drink, drink and eat, and eventually go to brunch. Brunch is not an activity.”
Today, “Escape the Room” has 14 locations, with four additional operations set to open in the near future. Blake says the company employs over 100 people, including production staff, theme park engineers, and local and regional managers. For Blake, it’s been a bit weird transitioning from clue master to boss.
“People had as much fun in my first game as they do now,” Blake says. “The difference is now I can actually be mini-Disney. We get over half a million customers a year. So if the first one was made with some IKEA furniture and a couple locks on stuff, now it’s like, ‘Oh my God, how did you do this?'”
As “Escape the Room” grows, Blake says he’s gotten emails from individuals — often young people — asking him how he started his business. He’s impressed by their genuine curiosity and recommends that young people reach out to well-established individuals in their respective industry, to ask questions and form contacts.
He also has advice for for anyone looking to make a major career change:
“Don’t be an idiot about it. Solicit opinions. Listen. And then decide … ask questions. Be curious. Talk to people.”
When asked about the popularity of his escape rooms, Blake says he’d rather not get overly allegorical, but he sees puzzles as a lot like microcosms of life.
“If you think through a puzzle, for 99% of that puzzle you are struggling the entire way,” Blake says. “If it’s ten hours, then for nine hours and 45 minutes, you’ll struggle. Just for one minute of happiness, that ‘aha’ moment, when you’re like, ‘I did it!’ Think about how many of those minutes you have in your life. And the rest of life is just working those out. You get that one minute of happiness and then you go right back to struggling.”
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