Toby Farley founded Great Escape of La Crosse so he could “lock people in rooms all day— and put smiles on their faces,” he said. Escape rooms are mental and physical adventure games in which players are immersed in a fictional setting and given a set time to solve puzzles on that room’s theme. Teamwork is the key.
After playing an escape room with his wife while in Milwaukee, Toby researched the niche’s business potential. “I knew the challenges from being at ground level with hundreds of start-up businesses during my career in radio sales,” he said. “I went into this with eyes wide open.”
First steps led to SBDC at UW-La Crosse
Toby started looking for the right location in La Crosse and visited several banks with his new idea, only to be turned down by lenders unfamiliar with the concept. That led him to seek out the Small Business Development Center at UW-La Crosse, where he began working on a business plan with Outreach Specialist Terri Urbanek. “She’s been spectacular!” Toby said. “Two businesses later, she’s my go-to with any new idea.”
Terri coached Toby to calculate his break-even point based on customer count, group size, and bookings per day. Then she pushed him to scale back his initial revenue forecasts, saying, “It’s easier to go to a bank and explain why you’re doing better than expected than the opposite.” Toby did—and is now beating those projections by 300 percent. He received financing through State Bank Financial of La Crosse.
Tough to start, fun to run
Toby found the first months difficult as he juggled the build-out of his escape rooms, plus formulated decisions about business structure, staffing, and software. He quickly learned, “What you don’t know, hire. Businesses fail when they try to do it all themselves.”
A born marketer, Toby combines word-of-mouth and savvy social media to keep his escape rooms booked. Customers include corporate groups and students from the three area universities. “I donate a lot of gift certificates to organizations, which has been an enormous source of new business,” Toby said. When groups finish a game, Toby takes fun pictures to share on his social media platforms—and encourages his guests to do the same. Terri observed, “When he donates those gift certificates, people are excited to get them. That referral piece works very well for him.” Toby also serves on the promotions committee of La Crosse’s Downtown Main Street Program.
Accomplishments with the SBDC at UW-La Crosse:
- Financial forecasts
- Funding procured
- Sounding board
New rooms, new experiences: Driftless Axe
Keeping the game experience fresh is key to repeat business, Toby has found. He started with three escape rooms but quickly added two more. Now, he’s parlaying what he learned into a second business, Driftless Axe. (Like escape rooms, axe-throwing party businesses are spreading.) Toby started with a mobile unit to prove the concept, then opened an indoor location—with full restaurant and bar—near Great Escape and is now looking at a possible expansion. Terri continues to work with him on business planning. “He’s a lot of fun to work with because he challenges you to make sure you understand what he’s planning,” she said.
“One thing I learned from Great Escape,” Toby commented, “is to always be looking for what’s next.” He envisions opening a large-scale outdoor escape facility in a year or two. Toby said, “I try to be part of the community, bringing La Crosse amazing experiences.”