Is it possible to build to over seven figures in the first year AND continue growing? How do you determine when the time is “right” to launch your business? Rachel Shiffrin, the Founder of Escapely.com, answers these questions and many more in the Harvest Growth Podcast. Escapely.com is a virtual escape room ideal for group bonding of any size — from friends who live all over the country, to your remote co-workers.
In today’s show, we speak with Rachel and how she started a business that grew to SEVEN figures in the first year. She shares how she got there and her strategies to keep that momentum going as she takes her business into hyper-growth. If you feel stuck in your business and it’s plateauing, then you’ll want to listen to this 20-minute interview packed with helpful advice.
In today’s episode of the Harvest Growth Podcast, we’ll cover:
How to build to over seven figures in the first year
The power of grit and creativity to sold problems when creating a new business
Ways to overcome the inherent hardship that comes with the early days of a business launch
How outbound marketing can help your business in the early stages of your company
And so much more!
You can listen to the full interview on your desktop or wherever you choose to listen to your podcasts.
Or, watch the full video interview!
Go to Escapely.com for more information on how to set up a virtual escape room for a group of any size! To get a discount, mention Harvest Growth Podcast when you call (702)747-3009. Follow them on social media for more information on their upcoming Kickstarter campaign for their B2C launch!
Do you have a brand that you’d like to launch or grow? Do you want help from a partner that has successfully launched hundreds of brands that now total over $2 billion in revenues? Visit HarvestGrowth.com to set up a free consultation.
Prefer reading instead of listening? Read the full transcript here!
Interviewer: In today's show, I speak with the founder of a business that grew to over seven figures in her first year in business. She shares how she got there and her strategies to keep that momentum going as she takes her business into hyper-growth. If you feel stuck in your business or feel like it's plateauing, then you'll really want to listen to the next 20 minutes of this interview that it's packed with advice.
Welcome to another episode of the Harvest Growth Podcast. Focus on helping consumer product companies, inventors, and entrepreneurs harvest the growth potential of their product businesses and service businesses. Today, we're speaking with Rachel Shiffrin, the founder of escapely.com. The spelling is in the show notes, but it's escapely.com. Now she's done an amazing job, very recently of building her business to over seven figures in less than a year. She's going to share part of that story of what's helped her to be successful, that you can apply to your business as well and we're going to dive a little bit deeper into what the company does? How she came up with the idea? A lot of standard questions that I think you're really going to like how she answers, and you'll learn a lot from this interview. Rachel, welcome to the show.
Shiffrin: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
Interviewer: I'd love to explain to our audience. You have what you call a virtual escape room business. Before we dive deep on what that is, I'm sure there are some people in the audience that have never been to an escape room. We've probably all heard about them, but can you describe maybe what is a traditional escape room? Then we'll jump in and explain how your business is different.
Shiffrin: Yes, of course. First of all, if you have not done an escape room, you should run, not walk to the nearest escape room immediately and do one. They are the most fun thing you could do as an activity. Here's how it works. It can be a small room or a series of rooms that you get locked inside. Sounds a little scary, but it's not. Inside are a whole bunch of puzzles and challenges that you have to solve with your team in order to get out.
If you don't complete the challenge, you still get out, they come and open the door themselves, but the goal is that you solve one puzzle, which might give you a key to another lock that then inside of that lock is another puzzle. Solve that one. Now you find a puzzle on the wall in the next room, solve that one, and you keep going until the you bust out. It's really fun. I've done them by myself when I can't get people to go with me. When the pandemic unfortunately hit, I realized, "Hey, I think I can build something in a virtual environment that people can still enjoy this."
Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about how it works virtually? How is yours different than that traditional approach?
Shiffrin: Sure. There are a couple ways it can work virtually. One is and I think kudos to all escape room owners on earth, who when the pandemic hit, all of a sudden couldn't run, had no customers coming to their rooms. What they did is basically put a grow pro on someone's head and started running the exact same game virtually, which is incredible. I played many of them during the pandemic.
I built ours from a virtual perspective to begin with. Ours were built solely for the virtual space. We don't have a physical room and they're made to played over video conference. It's not a computer game. The participants aren't in there clicking around by themselves. It's really collaborative. They're talking to each other. They're looking at what they see on the screen to solve puzzles and whatever they see, they have to work together to crack just like in a real escape room. At the end they burst out.
The game is played in a series of phases. Each phase, you see different puzzles and you have to solve them to move on. In our games, we have a moderator with every single team. Everybody has a host guiding them through and giving them hints, so everyone escapes.
That's my favorite part, because look, it's just no fun to be timed out in an escape room. It's happened to everyone who's at never played one, no one gets through all of them. I've been timed out. It's the worst feeling in the world. In our games, I wanted to make sure that everyone makes it to the end and we just have our hosts and our moderators who are incredible and really friendly and fun. They just help everyone get through. They give as much help as is needed.
Interviewer: I've been really excited for this interview because I love the concept. I think, especially in today's world. Today, your business is more focused on business to business and you're expanding into the business to consumer space. We can probe that a little bit further in a few minutes, but on the business to business side where you're starting your business at least. What I love about this is so many companies have moved to hybrid or virtual. We're based in just south of Denver, Colorado. Most of my employees are here and they work hybrid. I've got one that lives out of state and we bring her back quarterly to have these team-building activities. That's great.
What a great way to do that virtually where it's really build up that comradery, that team building, whether you're all in the same city or not, but you know, oftentimes we're at least not in the same room anymore or not often as we once were. If you go to the website again, escapely.com, for those that are listening or watching, you'll see there's an quite an impressive list of companies that are users or clients of Escapely.
I'd love to hear from you, Rachel, what are the types of groups that really can benefit, and how do they benefit from using this?
Shiffrin: Yes. First of all, I still fan girl all over our clients. Sometimes when we get bookings, I can't believe, "Oh My Gosh, we're doing something for them." That's never going to get old, but we are a good fit for honestly, a lot of different types of groups. One of the things I was really surprised by when I first launched is I thought that it would be mostly COVID remote groups, which of course it was a lot of that.
What we also found is that we were getting bookings from companies that are all over the world and they were so excited that now finally, there's this team building activity that they can participate in and virtual team building didn't really exist before the pandemic. We've started working for a lot of all these remote companies or all companies that host conferences that are all over the world that have never been able to do an activity. It's actually been really exciting to see that we're actually bringing together people that have always been remote.
Interviewer: That's great. If we could jump into a little bit about your plans on the business to consumer realm. Now that you've "mastered" the B2B side, or certainly have had a lot of success your first year or so already. What are your plans now to really expand beyond that where you see success already into the consumer space?
Shiffrin: Sure. I don't know that I'd say that we've mastered it. We're working on it always, but the business to consumer side, it's a really fun product that I'm-- this is actually a product I was working on before COVID. When COVID hit, I immediately pivoted into this virtual game that we're running now, which has been incredible. Now that we're starting to think about consumer products, this is, here's what it is.
You have a box that has inside a whole bunch of puzzles, but it's not a play from home box. There's for people that aren't into escape rooms, there's a whole genre of play from home escape games. They're incredible. I've played them all. I'm a huge fan, I'm a customer, but ours is meant to be played out on the town. It's a way to tour a city.
Let's say you're doing the Las Vegas box, which I-- My company's based in Las Vegas. That's where I live. We have a box, for example, that's a tour of downtown Las Vegas, and it's a way to see some off the beaten path sites and do it as a game. You open the box, solve a puzzle, and that tells you where to go. You go to your first stop on your journey. That might be a little spot with some places that you can walk around and get some bites to eat.
While you're there, you're solving puzzles that interact with what you feed that might take you to a mural. That mural then is a puzzle, and you have to solve that in order to go somewhere else. The whole experience is a couple of hours, and it's a way to do an escape room that also takes you to see some things. We are thinking that it's going to be a great fit for tourists and locals.
Interviewer: I love that idea. It's a great chance. Escape rooms can be very fun of course, in their own enclosed environment, but what a way to expand that and tour whether it's your own city or when you're visiting as well, and really get to expand that experience. I think the timing is great. Obviously, you started this virtual business, when the world went virtual, where we couldn't see each other for a certain period of time. Now as we're expanding our abilities to travel, to get outside, et cetera, what a way to do it and really explore cities in a way we haven't done it before. I love the concept. How far out is the expectation that that will be launched?
Shiffrin: We are launching a Kickstarter in March and we are planning to go live on our eCommerce site in Q2. It's coming up, the game is built. It's just a matter of now marketing and launching it. I'm our target consumer. I basically built my best product for myself and it's going to be really great. I'm really excited about it.
Interviewer: Most of our listeners, as you know, are business owners or at least work in a business, they're looking for business ideas, et cetera, but we're all consumers at the same time too. I can only imagine that others are as excited as I am to know more about when you launch this consumer version on Kickstarter, what's the best way for them to get in touch now so they are aware when you launch it whether it's following you on your social media. What's the best way to know when that launch is coming?
Shiffrin: Yes. Our website will be, we'll have all of the information. There's also on our website, you can sign up for the newsletter where we'll announce all of our Kickstarter launch and of course we'll be announcing it on social as well.
Interviewer: Perfect, great. I encourage everyone to check them out, their website, find them on social media as well, to learn more about that. Let's jump back into your current business. Your business to business, it's done so well. We talked briefly about this before our interview started about the need for venture capital funding. I know I have a lot of listeners that either can't get it, don't know how to do it or like you and me decided not to. I think there's a lot of reasons to not get funding.
What are some of your reasons? You've got a business that's virtual, not necessarily software development, but so far at least your current one. What led your decision to not bring in outside funders?
Shiffrin: A couple of things. One reason is that, I didn't necessarily know where this was going when I launched the company. I'm not a serial entrepreneur who was looking for my business idea until finally one hit. I'm a person with an escape game addiction, it's a true problem, who wanted to build some that I thought was the world should have essentially.
I launched it really myself, in the beginning I wore literally every hat. I was doing all of our demos with clients and then when they came to the games. "Hi, I'm your game master." Then when they had to follow up about a bill. "Hi, I'm also from billing and support," and just literally everything answered the phone. "Oh, it's you I spoke to you on your demo? I'm answering phones today." Really, it was just me. I just truly did everything myself.
Also puzzle design is the thing that drove me to start the business. It wasn't something where I said, "I have this great idea to do virtual escape rooms, now let me have somebody come in and build it." That was really my passion. I built the puzzles and I designed the games and that's really where it came from and then I had to learn marketing on the go.
I had no background in marketing and I just am flexible and creative I guess and tried a million different things until something took off. In fact, when I launched the company, I actually thought I'd be more of a consumer brand. I thought that I was building this for groups of friends to come and play. I quickly found that, that was not getting traction and pivoted and pivoted until I landed in this team building space, which turns out to be the perfect fit for our games.
Interviewer: Love it. I love that story and it's a fairly common one, surprisingly. When I started doing this podcast and we've done dozens and dozens now of these episodes. I'm constantly surprised by how many really successful businesses and in your case quickly successful. Every day I'm sure it doesn't feel like that, but to hit a million dollar or seven figures over that benchmark it's a goal for a lot of businesses.
It sometimes take 10, 20 years to get there. The people that find success, it's not necessarily based on education or previous experience, et cetera. I've got my opinions of why you would be successful. In your words, why do you think you were able to, despite the lack of experience of doing this before, running a business, et cetera or education in the same background. Why do you think you're successful so quickly?
Shiffrin: I think it's grit and creativity. When I say creativity, I'm not talking about the games or my business happens to be creative because I design puzzles, but I mean creativity in running a business. Every single day is a challenge that you just have to be a creative problem solver and come up with an idea. I've encountered an uncountable number of roadblocks and it's just all about trying to figure out a way around them. That creativity is what gets you to gradually growing and building the business.
Of course, I'm not going to lie, I had a little bit of luck behind me and that there were a lot of people out there looking for virtual events. There's some timing and luck involved too. Then the other piece is just grit. Anybody that tells you there's this idea amongst people that have never started a business that it's this way to get your life back and be in charge of your life and have all this free time. It's exactly the opposite, throw that idea out the window.
You really have to be willing to give up absolutely everything. There's never a moment that you're not working. If you're building a business that's going to scale to the this, at least in the beginning I hope it's not always like this, but you're spending every second on it and you just have to have that grit and determination to just never give up.
Interviewer: I love that combination and I think it's always a similar way of describing it, but I really like the way you've said that. It's creativity because every business is going to have problems. It doesn't matter how much experience you have or don't have or knowledge you have or don't have, you're going to have problems and you can't predict them. They just come up and they're different for every business. Being able to creatively solve those problems, it's a great way of saying that and then the grit to actually go through with it.
It does take hard work. Problem solving is not easy. It's easy to do fun things, it's hard to solve problems. It takes that grit and determining to get through that. Great way I think of describing that process couldn't have said it better for sure. Is there one thing you wish you would've known before you started your business that you think would've helped you to do even better?
Shiffrin: It's impossible for me to choose one thing because there are probably hundreds of things that I look back in retrospect and say, "Oh God, I wish I knew this back then." I truly came into this blind and just figured it out. Probably a couple things is, one of the things is don't be afraid of marketing because I was so focused on this idea of not spending money until I made money, that I didn't advertise.
It's funny now, I didn't advertise in the beginning. All of my clients came through, I cold called, cold emailed, I just targeted people and it was all outbound. I was just afraid to spend money on ads because I thought it was all going to be a waste. My first when I did start running ads, my budget was $500 a month and I thought at the time it was all the money in the world, I was so nervous about it. Now we spend much more than that a day.
I would say you have to spend money to make money and not being afraid to advertise your product. Once you've figured out that it's a good product, of course, you still have to get the market validation and once you already know that you have some customers. That's one that I wish that I had started sooner because once I did start advertising, that's when things really took off. There's only so far you can go without bound marketing.
Then I think the second thing, big lesson I wish I could go back and teach myself is, I feel like I was always waiting for our company to "get big enough" to do certain things. I always felt like we were too small and we're not ready for that step and we have to grow there. Now looking back in retrospect, we'd be so much further along right now if I'd have started some of these things sooner.
For example, working on SEO on our web website and building out the website so that we can show up in search engines, I felt for a long time that, we're the small company, we're still growing, that's not where we should be putting our resources and now if we'd have started a year ago we'd already be getting organic traffic. There are just so many things that I think I waited on for too long thinking.
I definitely had imposter syndrome when I first launched. I thought, "Oh My Gosh, people are going to feel they're going to want refunds, they're going to think we're taking their money." I was so nervous that I wasn't providing a good product and then as we started getting our client feedback which is that they love our product, I gradually got more and more confident, but it took me me a long time to feel like I wasn't doing something unfair to our clients.
Interviewer: That's great advice. I think again, great summary of some of the worries a lot of people have. It's common to sit and wait until the right time, but there's never a right time to launch a business to spend on marketing. Obviously, we can't do everything on day one, we've got to focus and learn that and some of that might come through mentors or friends or purely experience, but making sure we're not on our heels too much and not waiting for the opportunity to arise, we've got to create those opportunities. I like how you said that.
What marketing channels or strategies have been most effective for you?
Shiffrin: In the beginning like I said, outbound cold email, cold calling actually was quite effective and that was because we were in the middle of a pandemic. This is where some of the creativity comes in where I say that, I really thought through who is going to need this product? I landed on interns and companies that had, they're used to lining and dining their interns all summer long. They're used to taking them to ball games and these huge fancy activities. Now all of a sudden everyone's remote and they don't have anything to do with them. They would love to play our game.
I started targeting and calling and emailing every company that had interns, which is everyone, law firms and financial institutions. Really found a group there that early on, you're only going to get so far until you get some social proof. In fact, it's incredible once we started putting our clients on our website, we found it made a huge difference for us in our conversion rates, which was something I learned along the way. I didn't realize what a difference that would make.
Now pretty much most of our clients come in through paid search, which it's high intent. People are looking for our games and that's where most of our clients start. I believe in perfect customer service. I want the client experience to be impeccable from A to Z and that we've really found pays off in referrals and repeat business. We do have a very high rate of people who come back, it's obviously not the type of product you're going to do every month.
Companies, aren't going to do an escape room every month. We do have a lot of companies that come back later in the year or the next year and they want to use us and that's actually what led us to build other products. I started with the Escape Room, that's always going to be our flagship product, but we now have a Murder Mystery and we have a trivia event and we have other virtual events. We created those because we had clients coming back and saying, "We really loved working with your team, what else can you bring us?" We said, "Oh, here's what we can do."
Interviewer: It's a good way to put it, it's a different, that answer can really be, or that question I think can be answered in so many different ways and every company is different. As you said, you've got to find, okay, first of all, who's your target, right? Who you're talking to? Who's your customer and how do they need to be contacted?
That outbound in the beginning is not always the case. It depends on what you're selling a service product, a lot of different factors, but it can be extremely valuable. I've found as well because you start to get some learnings very quickly on what that sales approach should be. You send out a Facebook ad or an email or whatever. You don't get any direct response. You pick up the phone or send a direct email to somebody and you hear real concerns, real questions, that helps you to fine tune your message that now can grow into something that's more consistent, a paid approach that can go selling one to many at the same time, like a big Facebook ad or a mass email campaign, et cetera.
That can be so valuable in the beginning to get that one-on-one contact for sure.
Do you have any resources that you've found to be helpful as you've built this business? You talked about how you didn't have as much experiences as at least you've wanted to, although you clearly have learned an amazing amount over the last couple of years and and have a lot to share with us and teach us as an audience as well. Was there a resource that you found helpful?
Shiffrin: The best resource I could recommend is a book that I'm actually working through right now, it's called Traction. It's an implementation system for entrepreneurs that are building out their business. It's all about systems and how to think about employee reviews and how to think about who to hire. It has helped me immensely already because I found out that I wasn't necessarily approaching hiring in the right way.
Which it, by the way, spoiler alert should be all about values and so once you build out your company values and what they are, every decision should apparently according to Traction, be made with that in mind. It's been quite frankly, life changing for my business and our processes.
Interviewer: Thank you. We talked about this a little bit before our interview and I'm honestly surprised that I haven't heard that mention in previous to interviews because so many businesses I talk with outside of the podcast, other marketing agencies, clients of ours, et cetera, have used that book or that EOS framework that comes outtalk that book to really grow their businesses.
I would definitely second that recommendation and we'll put a link in there so people can find that book that Rachel's referencing as well. Is there anything, Rachel, I didn't ask that you think could be helpful for our audience?
Shiffrin: I think probably the biggest thing is that all entrepreneurs or anyone who has a business idea should know is that it's going to be hard in the beginning. My business did take off really quick by any account, but it didn't right away. There were times when it felt like it was never going to take off. When I first launched, for example, I thought, like I said, that I was launching a consumer product, and I thought that this was going to be a game that everyone would come in and play.
My concept was, "Oh, people will just sign up online and they'll compete against strangers." I ran some Facebook ads and did on social media and got almost no customers. I think maybe three signed up and one of them was actually a competitor scoping me out. I found out about, and in the beginning I had my husband and my playing to pretend like I had other customers. They were in the room when these people that actually had signed up came and it was massively a flop.
I think that ever everyone should know that you're going to try a lot of different things before something sticks and you just have to keep pivoting. Don't be afraid to completely go back to the drawing board and change your angle or change your product until you find what works. If you know it's a good idea and you know it's appealing to you, you're going to find your market. It's just a matter of figuring it out.
Interviewer: Well said and really every business is hard in the beginning and it does get easier. You mentioned how it takes so much of our time in the beginning, I will say that does get better as you build your team and I'm sure you're seeing that already.
Shiffrin: -happy to know that.
Interviewer: After we've been in business now 15 years and I look back and every year gets better, harder in some ways maybe, but your capacity grows, your team grows to deal with those challenges in a different way, so on the personal life it certainly gets better. In the beginning, things are the hard first day, the first month, the first year, things are tough, but with hard things come great rewards. It's stick to it. I think that's good advice for sure.
Well, Rachel, I really appreciate the interview you've done and taking the time to do this interview with our audience or for our audience. Let me mention a couple of things. Rachel's been nice enough to give a discount code or really just mention the harvest growth podcast when you call in and you would get a discount on their services at escapely.com. Again, we'll put the web address in our show notes. If you're driving, can't write this down, go back and reference it later on.
They will give a discount. Just mention the Harvest Growth Podcast when you call in. I really want to, again, thank you for your time. This has been extremely helpful for our audience and hope you have a great year, and please keep us posted on your B2C launch that's coming up and we'd love to have you on the show and that's a big success as well.
Shiffrin: Thank you so much.