For Josh Kendrick, an empty room is simply a blank canvas upon which he can design, build and assemble something interesting and intriguing that will entertain and educate people.
That’s the basic approach that the Alabama native took when he hatched the idea and drew up the plans for rooms dubbed “The Revolution” and “The Study” at his Exodus Escape Games business launched last September in Main Street Village, 6298 Veterans Parkway, in north Columbus.
An escape room is just that. A group of people come together inside the themed atmosphere to learn about a subject and, in many cases, about themselves and how they can use clues to solve puzzles and outcomes within 60 minutes. There are elements of mystery, intrigue, communication, leadership and team-building to ultimately be successful.
In essence, participants not only escape or leave the room after they are done. They’ve also escaped their individual everyday lives — difficult or not — for just a bit, a process that can culminate with laughter and some sort of celebration.
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For the Samford University graduate, Exodus Escape Games also is about honing his own business and entrepreneur abilities, which is interesting due to the fact that he is a biology major who gave up pre-med in his junior year (his father is a neurosurgeon). The thought of creating something and running a venture successfully appealed more to him.
“It’s been my experience that people don’t typically think of the Southeast as a hub for entrepreneurship, and many people think that they need to be in the right location, like New York or Silicon Valley,” says Kendrick, 23, who chose Columbus for Exodus because of the infrastructure and people already here, but also the potential he sees.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked recently with him about his job, the reason he enjoys it, and what types of people visit Exodus for a mind-stimulating escape. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. How did you decide on an escape room venture?
A. A few of my friends opened one in Birmingham, so I connected with them through that, and it was a ton of fun. I really enjoyed that. I’ve always been into software and I grew up on a farm, so I’ve been building things my entire life. So this seemed like a natural way to kind of marry the two. And, of course, I’ve always been interested in solving puzzles and detective-type stuff, and this is exactly that. So it really just fit perfectly.
Q. What did you do before this?
A. I graduated from college in 2014. I also launched two software companies, and both went pretty well. But that’s totally different from running a brick-and-mortar store, and the interactions you have with your customers is totally different. I like this a lot.
Q. You like the frequent contact with people?
A. For sure. Here people are coming in for entertainment and everyone leaves incredibly happy. So you’re dealing with happy people the entire time.
Q. This is what you want to do for a living?
A. I think for the near future, sure. Escape rooms are growing really fast. I’m not sure of the statistics, but I know hundreds have opened and maybe even more than that. So it’s a good industry to be in right now, and I see a lot of potential for it.
Q. How do you come up with your designs?
A. All of our stuff is original to Exodus. I came up with all of these independently. In fact, I really didn’t visit very many escape rooms so that nothing subconsciously would come into our rooms. You’ll see a lot of things in my rooms that you won’t see anywhere else because of that.
Q. How many rooms do you have?
A. We’ve got two open now and the next two should be done, hopefully, around the end of the summer.
Q. Is that part of the fun is figuring out what to do with another room?
A. Yeah, the designs are definitely a lot of fun. Honestly, watching people go through it and experience it, that’s the best. When people go through the rooms and everything goes right and they solve all the clues and they get out in the last couple of minutes, that’s the best.
Q. What are the themes of your rooms?
A. The two themes are “The Revolution” and “The Study.” You go into George Washington’s tent in 1780 and you’re trying to catch a British spy. And then in The Study you’ve been hired by museum to track down a stolen painting.
Q. Does this mean you like history?
A. I enjoy history, but it’s not my favorite, for sure. Since I got a degree in biology, I’m a science person at heart. When I decided not to go pre-med in my junior year, at that point I kind of took a step back and looked and saw that I spent a lot of my time on business and entrepreneurship, and I was already running a software company at that point. So I knew that was probably a good direction to go in. Between science and business and technology, it all came together here.
Q. Why did you choose Columbus for Exodus Escape Games?
A. I had a friend who was living here and felt this might be a really good city for it. I was talking with him about it and I knew that Columbus, at least from what I could tell, was really invested in entertainment and just kind of growing the city. I could tell there is a decent tech community that is growing as well, younger people who might be interested in some different kinds of entertainment. And from what I can tell, there are people who don’t just want to do the normal stuff you’ve been able to do for the last 50 years. They are looking for something different. So it felt like the right environment.
Q. But this is not necessarily just for tech-savvy or bookish people, correct?
A. Right. We get all types of people. Marketers will ask me who is the key demographic for Exodus and you really can’t narrow it down. We get families from all different backgrounds. We’re getting a lot of military families coming from out of town. We get lot of corporate team-building groups. We get couples on date nights. So really, it is very, very broad. It appeals to a lot of people.
Q. What types of people do you like to see come through here the most?
A. Honestly, I think the most fun is people who come in and they want to communicate about everything. One says, I found this, and somebody else shouts out what they found, and they work together. The more energetic and communicative the groups, the better. That’s always the most fun as a game master is to work with those groups because they’re always receptive to the hints, and when they break out it’s always a celebration.
Q. I’m just thinking, but could this be used during job interviews to test individuals or groups of people on how they focus and problem solve and act under pressure?
A. You definitely find out who people are when they’re under stress. That’s why it’s such a good team-building event and why it’s so popular. You’ve got a deadline, so it kind of mimics the real world that way. You’ve got several challenges to solve that really kind of make you think out of the box. So, honestly, if you were doing interviews it would be interesting to watch because you get to see who’s a good leader, who’s a good communicator. That really comes out when they’re under pressure for 60 minutes.
Q. Can you tell quickly who will do well in one of the rooms? And are there certain traits that help them?
A. I can say within the first five minutes I usually know whether or not that group is going to do well, or I would say, can make it through easily versus having a difficult time making it through ... The first (good trait) is openness to new ideas. We’ll get a group that will come in and one person will be the leader and you can see that very easily. They’re not really receptive to feedback. They’re like, everything comes through me and I tell you what to do.
Then there are people who come up with outside-the-box ideas: Why don’t we try this? In an escape room, everything’s part of the game. There’s not necessarily a reason not to try something unless it’s going to take five or 10 minutes, a large chunk of your time. But often the person who was suggesting the idea in the first place was right and they really need to listen to that. So being open to new ideas is a big one. The second is communicating everything that you see. That’s a big part of it, too.
Q. Will you change your existing themed rooms or add new ones?
A. We’ve actually got some plans to make a second version of The Revolution. Once you play it one time, it’s like you’ve read a book and now you know the end. That said, 99 percent of Columbus still has no idea what escape rooms are. And then in The Study, we just made a change recently because people requested that we make it harder. People wanted a challenge, so we added in several things and made it a little bit more difficult. But I think the next two will kind of satisfy people’s craving for some new stuff.
Q. What types of new rooms will you have?
A. What you see there (on the wall) is a diagram of a bank vault and a heist that’s being planned. It will be a different style of escape room. Traditionally, an escape room would be one room or a series of rooms that you would go in with your team and it would be kind of an internal thing — everyone’s working together to solve puzzles and clues and escape the room. What we’re going to do here is it’s going to be a versus-style room. So one team of eight is a team of thieves trying to rob a bank vault and they’re competing with a SWAT team next door, which is trying to stop them. So you can do a couple of things back and forth by solving certain puzzles and clues to make things happen in one or the other rooms. So that should be interesting and a ton of fun. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on it from people who’ve played our first two rooms and talked through some of the ideas.
Q. When will that one start?
A. I’m shooting for the end of summer. We’re getting in a lot of equipment from an actual bank that closed and we’re taking a lot of their old equipment and putting it into our vault. That way it looks and feels like you’ve actually gone into a bank vault.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job, of doing this?
A. I would say for me the hardest part is designing the rooms and factoring in every different type of person that’s going to play your room. That’s because you’re getting people from all walks of life, every different type of background, and the different ways they think — left brain versus right brain and that sort of thing.
Q. Do you want to make sure things aren’t too tense in these rooms since there will be different types of people that have different mental processes and emotions?
A. I would say when you design a room, you should probably think about it like a DJ. You want to play a mix of fast and slow songs. It’s usually pretty Adrenalin pumping anyway, especially the end. But you want to give people some highs and lows. It needs to be intense, but kind of give them a little break from time to time. That also gives them time to recoup and work together on certain puzzles. So you want a good mix. And then these two rooms specifically are going to be pretty intense, because you’re robbing a bank vault, right? Or you’re trying to stop a team of robbers. So the natural storyline kind of lends itself to that.
Q. That one’s going to be pretty interesting?
A. For sure. I think that one will be fun and unique.
Q. Do you do use test groups with these early on?
A. It comes down to testing, for sure. For this one, we’ll probably do several weeks of testing just to make sure everything’s just right. I learned a lot in developing our first two, so I think that will come into play with our next one … A lot of it in game design just comes down to placement of an object. If we place it in a different way, people will solve it much more easily. We learned that through our previous test groups.
Q. What do you enjoy the most about your job?
A. I would say the most enjoyable part is interacting with the customers. With software you really don’t get that as much. You know people are using (the product) and enjoying it, or at least not complaining about it, but you don’t get to interact with people on a regular basis.
I could probably tie (personal interaction) in with having the flexibility of being able to do what I need to do (as his own boss). There’s a myriad of things to do when you’re working on something like this. You can be designing. You can be doing business management. If you want to do one thing for five minutes and then do something else, you can, and I like that flexibility.
Q. So you feel deep inside that you’re now an entrepreneur?
A. For sure. There’s absolutely no question. I could never go back to working another type of job.
Q. Despite some long hours?
A. I work about 100 hours a week in any given week. I’ve cut back recently, but it depends. I’ll average 80 to 100 hours a week. In the early days it was about 120 hours a week, which was pretty crazy.
Q. That’s an entrepreneur for you?
A. Honestly, when you do something that you really, really enjoy and there’s nothing that you would rather be doing, that’s easy. Because it requires so much work, if you don’t enjoy it, you would burn out or just hate your job.
Hometown: Ramer, Ala., just south of Montgomery
Current residence: Montgomery (commutes daily to Columbus)
Education: 2011 graduate of Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery; earned a bachelor of science degree in biology with a minor in entrepreneurship and general business from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 2014
Previous jobs: Worked on his own software companies
Family: Son of Don and Beth Kendrick, with two younger sisters, Lauren and Ashley
Leisure time: Enjoys playing video games, as well as hunting and fishing (he grew up on 244 acres in the country)