The Measure of Success

By Thomas Dunagan

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Success, more now than ever I ponder that word. What does it mean to be successful? According to the Webster dictionary, success is a favorable or desired outcome. On June 15th we officially hit five years being open to the public. I remember reading a random stat that may or may not have merit that 20% of small businesses close within their first year of business and 45% close within their first five years. Having that in my head I always thought that making it five years was a successful milestone.

               If anyone knows me, they know that I struggle with feeling accomplished or content in my work. I think about the film Whiplash and the line JK Simmons character says, “There are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘good job’”. The idea behind this is to always strive for better and never settle. While this philosophy is quite the double-edged sword it beckons a question; When have your accomplishments measured up to your idea of success?

               Before I started this business, I never saw myself as a future business owner. Then again, I think we all can safely say none of us have 20/20 vision as we look at where our future will take us. As so many know I don’t consider myself a savvy businessman or even half-witted one. I’ve tried to maintain two main philosophies of thought. The first was to always put our guests’ experience first above all else.  The second was to ensure that I loved doing what I do here and for guests to not only see that reflected in me but also through any staff they encounter.

               I’ve come to the harsh reality that most small businesses do not operate this way from my perspective and understanding. I’m fully aware that no business can operate or survive without one specific tool: money. I get it, it’s what everyone in the world seems to always be consumed by. For myself, it’s never been the driving factor when I started doing this and it hasn’t been the driving factor five years later. If it was, I would have sold or closed and went back to working somewhere else and make money again.

           I would be willing to bet if any other business savvy individual looked at our books, they would say we are failing. Maybe they would be right. However, five years in so far, we are still standing. Despite the ups and downs with staffing, a pandemic, lack of funds, and sometimes a lack of drive, we are still standing. I can’t credit that to my marketing team since I don’t have one. I can’t credit it to my brilliant craftmanship because let’s be honest it’s not exactly the work of Michaelangelo. I also can’t really credit my constant fortitude to push through because there are way too many days I want to give up. I only have our guests to thank for their continued support. As I write this on June 8, I literally had a group that played us two years ago stop by to finally play our third adventure. The same day I had guests stop by just to see if we had anything new to offer as they were looking forward to what was next. This is what keeps me going.

We started out and still are a word-of-mouth business. Part of me wishes that were different and maybe one day that could change but for now it’s what we are. That is where things come full circle for me. Having to realize what “we” are. I use the word “we” often as if there is a plethora of individuals pulling all the strings behind the curtain. I have a few students that work with me to help maintain operations but like all students they come and go to make other careers and life-changing decisions. Some stay for short stints while others longer. The struggle for me is feeling alone in the endeavor as I don’t have a business partner or an investor or anything of that nature. I think I tend to say “we” instead of “I” because it sounds selfish when referring to my business. I’ve had help here and there along the way, but the weight of the business fully sits on my shoulders alone.

Five years later and here’s what feels like the two biggest failures. I currently only have three escape adventures to offer. In my mind I would have easily had all games built and opened by the five-year mark in my facility. I have no marketing manager, general manager, or any sort of full-time employee. Now this is partly by choice and partly due to financial restraints. It took me quite some time to overcome the realization that every business trends differently. Seeing the successes of peers in my industry often leads me to feeling even more like a failure. I had to step back a get some perspective. Those same people have succeeded because they are different. They are in different locations, financials, partnerships, and honestly sometimes knowledge. I must remember that I can’t compare my successes or failures to them. My mountains to climb are not the same as theirs and that’s totally acceptable.

What does all that lead me to hitting the 5-year milestone? At the very least I’m going to finish this leg of the race. It might be a sluggish crossing of the finish line but whether I’m limping across or kicking and screaming I will get through this part. I hope I can manage to get the 4th room open this year. That will be a momentous success on a personal level. Hopefully those loyal fans will come back as they have patiently waited to get lost at The Lost Room again.