‘I can’t say I ever imagined myself running a business where I would lock people in a room for 60 minutes!’
Operation Deadlock and Operation Odyssey sound like plots that belong in a blockbuster movie, but it just so happens they are missions ready and waiting in Edinburgh’s Old Town. They belong to Can You Escape?, a small escape game on Holyrood Road that will see you locked in a room for 60 minutes with only clues and riddles to help you find your way out. I caught up with the duo behind this award-winning attraction to find out how they went from university grads to owning one of the coolest businesses in the city.
Names: Lauren and Alastair (aka Agent One and Agent Thistle)
Studied: Geography, University of Edinburgh (Lauren); and Management and Strategy, Aston University (Alastair).
Occupations: Co-Founder/Marketing Manager (Lauren), and Director/Co-Founder (Alastair)
Can You Escape? is a very cool concept! Is this something you ever imagined yourself doing? If not, what did you think you might be doing instead?
Alastair: I’ve always wanted to run a business and always used to be the ideas man, I’ve come up with a whole range of business ideas in the last few years – some good, some not so good!
When I found out about escape games I thought it was a great opportunity to bring the concept to Edinburgh, which at the time didn’t have anything like it. However, I can’t say I ever imagined myself running a business where I would lock people in a room for 60 minutes!
When did you first have the idea, and how long was it before it all became real?
Alastair: I first had the idea early in 2014, my dad sent me a clip about escape games taking off in Budapest and I thought it would be a great activity to have in Edinburgh. In April, I headed down to London to try out ClueQuest; an escape game down there that was getting booked up months in advance. We loved the experience and on the train on the way back up started planning Operation Bald Eagle which ended up being our first escape game.
Starting your own business can be pretty daunting, did you ever feel out of your comfort zone? Who or what helped you along the way?
Alastair: It’s definitely been quite a daunting experience, my degree prepared me for some things but actually in reality it’s a lot harder! We had a lot of help to start with from Business Gateway who helped with our funding and also helped with some initial advice. There is also a lot of advice on the internet and we’ve managed to find lots of platforms and software that have helped to make our job easier, for example When I Work (a staff scheduling platform), Trello and Slack. We joined the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce which has useful networking and training events, we’re also in the process of getting a business mentor which I think will be really helpful for us as a business.
Lauren has been really helpful too, when one of us panics about something we’re able to calm the other person down, help them out and get the job done! We tend to stress about different things, so it works well!
Our staff have also been key, we’re really flexible with working hours and try to create a fun working environment and in return they know that things might be slightly more chaotic (and last minute) than if they were working for a well established business!
What’s it really like ‘being boss’?
Alastair: It’s a lot of responsibility but it gives me a lot of personal pride. It can be hard to strike the balance between work and home life, being a startup you have to invest quite a lot of time ‘after-hours’ to get things done. However, when I work at the venue and hear customers having a great time, see reviews on TripAdvisor and when we win awards it definitely makes it all worthwhile!
Do you think your specific degree helped you in starting your own business, or was it more the work and life experience you picked up along the way?
Alastair: Yes it helped me understand some of the basic business principles, know a bit about accounting and legal requirements. However, nothing can prepare you for actually opening your own business! We’ve learnt a lot along the way and I think starting a new business is a lot about learning by doing – I’m not sure anything can prepare you for it!
At the beginning one of our mottos was ‘if it can go wrong it will’. We went through a period where things just kept going wrong so we quickly learnt having a Plan B was important! From the internet going down and making the finale of the game unusable to things getting stolen in a burglary – it all seemed to happen at once. However, it’s helped us think about things a lot more and have Plan B in place beforehand – rather than when disaster strikes!
Lauren: A geography degree definitely didn’t help me with Can You Escape! I learnt a lot through a variety of jobs, but it has been mainly through trial and error. I would like to do a qualification in marketing at some point as I do feel it would be helpful and interesting!
The beauty of it being your own business is you get to try what you want: if it works – great! If it doesn’t you learn and move on. I also learnt a lot through looking at what other businesses do and seeing what we could replicate and improve on with a fairly low budget.
Designing the rooms – where do you get your inspiration from?
Alastair: It’s quite a mixture really, I’ve probably turned into a bit of a puzzle obsessed person. In everyday life I sometimes see things and think about ways I could it into a puzzle, sometimes they work – sometimes they don’t!
Our team are also great at coming up with new ideas, we use Trello to store all of our ideas so when we come to designing a game we can draw on a range of inspiration and ideas and see what can be incorporated into that theme. People draw inspiration from different things including TV shows, books, board games, apps etc – for example, one of our puzzles in Operation Deadlock was drawn from the game ‘Guess Who’. Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that can be the best!
You’ve already won some very cool awards! How can someone running their own business get this kind of exposure?
Lauren: I keep an eye out for different awards and then apply for them or encourage our customers to vote for us depending on the format. The first award we won was Scotland’s Best Family Day Out, it wasn’t something we were expecting to win as we originally went for Best Newcomer. Winning the award helped us to market ourselves to a new audience that we hadn’t really focused on before and it’s been great at helping us adapt and create ways to make our games more suitable for younger audiences. It’s now one of our key audiences, so not only did we increase our exposure it helped us to focus on a new target market.
We generally find out awards through mailing lists and Twitter, we are strategic in which one’s we enter, for example if there are a few that need customer votes we don’t want to bombard customers with requests, so we choose which one we feel we’re most likely to win or will get the most exposure from. My advice, even if you think you’re unlikely to win still enter – when we entered Scotland’s Best Family Out we were up against really well established national businesses, we couldn’t have been more shocked to win – you never know!
Finally, have either of you actually been locked in somewhere?
Lauren: No, but as a child either me or my sister allegedly locked my grandad in the toilet but neither of us remember! He was stuck in their a while, apparently we weren’t very popular!
Alastair: No, but ironically I have locked myself out of Can You Escape. I left the building without my key but I had a team turning up in ten minutes and no spare keys, so I smashed the window in the door to let myself in. You can imagine the laughs from the glass repair service when he turned up to fix the window (and from my colleagues and friends!).
How quickly do you think you could escape the room? Book your mission now!