In this episode of the Wise Decision Maker Show, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky speaks to Nate Martin, CEO at Puzzle Break, about the future of work.
Nate Martin is a frequent lecturer on the topics of escape rooms, team building, the future of work, interactive entertainment, design, gamification, and entrepreneurship. His interviews have appeared in the New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, Forbes, MarketWatch, and countless other outlets. He is a Business Journal 40-Under-40 honoree. He was profiled by MSNBC’s Your Business where he was first dubbed the “Founding Father of Escape Rooms.” A graduate of the DigiPen Institute of Technology and former professional poker player, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts prior to Puzzle Break.
Video: “Interview with Nate Martin, CEO at Puzzle Break”
Podcast: “Interview with Nate Martin, CEO at Puzzle Break”
Links Mentioned in Videocast and Podcast
- You can learn more about Puzzle Break at www.puzzlebreak.us
- The book Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage is available here.
- You are welcome to register for the free Wise Decision Maker Course
Gleb Tsipursky 0:01
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Wise Decision Maker Show, where we help you make the wisest and most profitable decisions. And today, we’ll be talking with Nate Martin, the CEO of Puzzle Break, about how they make good decisions on remote work and hybrid work during the pandemic, as well as how they support others in their pursuit of team building in the hybrid remote context. So let’s start with your company. What did you learn, Nate, from the transition during the pandemic, to hybrid work, remote work? What was the most important thing that you learned during this time?
Nate Martin 0:41
That is a very big question. Right off the bat, we learned a lot of lessons, both for ourselves and for the people that we serve. Maybe the biggest, single takeaway that we eventually got, and it took a minute, is that remote work just works in a way that I don’t think anyone really expected, we all suspected. But what we found, both for us at puzzle break, and for all of the folks that we help, remote work is working for a lot of people, not everyone everywhere, but a lot more than we thought it was.
Gleb Tsipursky 1:18
Excellent. Tell me a little bit more about how you got to the point of helping others with team building remote work, and generally how you built puzzle breaks? What’s your story? What’s your journey?
Nate Martin 1:29
So as you say, I’m the founder and co-founder and CEO of puzzle break, which is actually the first American Escape Room Company. And for those of you who do not know, increasingly most people know but escape rooms, you are usually in an enclosed space with your team. And you have to work together to find clues, solve puzzles, overcome an objective using your brains and teamwork. To escape the rubble. We brought that to America in 2013. And almost immediately, we saw a great deal of unexpected traction. for team building and b2b audiences, we, you know, made it something fun. And we, I come from video games that come from software like this would be a fun thing to do with your friends, but is a really, really powerful team building tool to kind of force people to work as a team on something fun. And it’s balanced in a number different ways. So then we develop more kind of b2b content, more team building stuff, we develop portable team building solutions, we’d go to meetings and off sites and all this, then the pandemic happens. Yeah, and that hit us and everyone on our field, both escape rooms and in person team building, devastating hard as you might imagine. But because we design experiences kind of is our business, we very quickly made a pivot to virtual. And so we rolled out, you know, the global lockdowns really started to happen in March of 2020. And April, just one month later, we rolled out our first virtual team building experience for remote audiences. At that time in lockdown, and we still do this great delta this day, using the general principles that we had found, kind of delivering this within person kind of puzzle challenge, escape room experiences. It was a huge hit, everyone in the world needed it. And here we are today. And it’s been a wild ride. Excellent.
Gleb Tsipursky 3:37
So tell me, if I was inside your remote experience? What would it look like?
Nate Martin 3:44
Ah, well, there’s a ton of different stories and shapes and sizes. But at its core, whether you’re in a room that has, you know, a ton of hidden electronics that feels like a Victorian Manor or a futuristic office or everything in the middle, the core general principle is that you don’t know what you have to do. You have to figure out what you need to figure out and you can’t do it by yourself. And so there’s like patterns that you need to find in the form of whatever appropriate clues. And when I say solve puzzles, I don’t mean doing an analog Jigsaw on the corner. It can range from, you know, something very, very small all the way to everyone needing to touch these glyphs on the wall at the same time, and this grand reveal happens. But for everything that we do offline and online, they are engineered in a way to kind of trick people into team building. We’ll have a great time.
Gleb Tsipursky 4:48
How would it work remotely? Give me some examples of specific puzzles that people would solve in remote settings that would be fun and that were fun and are fun and engaging for remote teams.
Nate Martin 5:00
So this was you asked, like, what was your biggest lesson for remote work. And this was maybe kind of in second place, was it a little bit of nuanced design principles. So we have been doing what we’re talking about for a decade, and we’re very good at it. We can, I can design for you an in person, kind of escape room style team building experience, trivially. When it came time to try something virtual, we kind of assumed that we would be very good at it right off the bat. And it turns out that there’s actually a lot of things that don’t quite translate. And then there’s a lot of things that the design space is actually a lot more open in other areas in a virtual environment. So I’ll add that virtual team building is not monolithic. There’s a lot of different ways to do what I’m about to describe. But for us personally, because we’d like it to be as accessible as possible. You might have one of our experiences take place in a museum. And so you have different rooms in the museum. And there’s actually different clues to various puzzles in different rooms. So you might be in this wing of the museum. And you have to look under this artifact, which has half of a clue. Meanwhile, I’m in this other room, and I have to look at the ceiling. And then there’s, we have to talk about what we found and what it looks like. And we cannot look at them at the same time. So we have to talk it out. Largely web based, we’re working on some more nuance there. But that’s at its core, the exact same thing, not only that, we were doing kind of for in person team building in, you know, back to 2013. But really, what kind of team building workshops have been in one form or another going back to, you know, the 50s and 60s When we were first starting to crack this nut.
Gleb Tsipursky 6:44
And so, so you’re talking about the museum as a specific example. So people would be in different wings of the museum, and they would visually see different things in the museum. And then they would have to, they would need to talk to each other. That’s kind of one example. Right? And how did people experience it so you launched it in April? What was the first thing you did? And what did you learn over time that you need to do differently?
Nate Martin 7:11
Well, it’s a very good question. There’s an element of you, we were talking about it already kind of open communication. Now I’ll add that not every team building exercise needs to have this exact flavor of, of, kind of communication to there’s a lot of different ways to do this. But what we found in our initial design, the very first one that we did, the very first version of the very first one we did we fix this rapidly, we would encounter groups of silent, people, hunched over their desks writing, and just then going in this museum example, this was not the exact game we were doing, they would write down what they saw in museum rule number one, and then why like without saying anything out loud, and then they would go into Museum, the other museum room and write it down and kind of quietly solve it. So it’s six people working on a fun game independently of one another, which defeats the whole purpose. And so there were a lot of restrictions that we had to impose, which naturally exist in a physical space that people can defeat if they are in a virtual space. So we had to really build some serious barriers to force people to collaborate.
Gleb Tsipursky 8:30
Like that. So you have to actually get people to collaborate. Because one of the things that I see when I do team building exercises is that there’s this awkwardness, I think there’s more awkwardness in the remote space. And there is an in person space in person, people can read each other’s body language, they can engage with each other, it feels more connected. So when we look at why people are more connected in personal spaces, we are wired to be tribal. And that’s our evolutionary psychology background.
Unknown Speaker 9:01
This applies, frankly, even if we know each other like we’re best friends, and we’re doing this and we just want to beat the clock, it’d be very easy to just be quiet and not engage with each other, let alone if it’s a group of five people on five different teams, and we’ve never been introduced until the beginning of this game. Yeah, it’s a very natural thing to try and avoid.
Gleb Tsipursky 9:20
Yeah, because it feels harder online in a way that it wouldn’t in person. We’re wired to engage with each other in person in a way that we’re not online. So you have to overcome more of an initial initiation barrier, to get people engaged with each other to see the value of them engaging with each other.
Nate Martin 9:39
And to deliver rewards. This is something that I know, because we’re at its core, we’re a game we’re gamified experience. We can interject little endorphin hits whatever teamwork is experienced or delivered in ways that are super duper fun.
Gleb Tsipursky 9:53
Okay, tell me a little bit more about that.
Nate Martin 9:55
It’s not super complicated. Just you know, the ding of a noise if you have to Like there’s either a physical crate and a room or a digital door, you have to open. Whenever you open it, you just add a little fanfare, little do lay a little like we did it since confetti on the screen, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. But whenever you see that, and like you and I, we made that happen, it feels really good. And we want to do it again.
Gleb Tsipursky 10:19
Excellent. So what has been the consequence for people participating in the virtual puzzle room experience?
Nate Martin 10:27
Well, it’s a lot of different things, I would say, to kind of a little bit of history, at the beginning of, I should say, middle of 2020, into the end of 2020. The global workforce, and I’m painting with a very broad brush, this is not everyone, of course, but we were just trying to get our legs underneath us, it was a scary time, where we just don’t know what’s going on. We’re disconnected not just from our coworkers, but from the world. So it’s such a like at the beginning, when we’re delivering these, these virtual team building experiences. We were so excited about, like, Oh, we got these measurable, quantifiable analytics and performance development and stuff and nobody cared what they just wanted. I just need to keep my team together. I want to make sure that everyone’s saying and having a nice time, and they feel invested in them. Then over time through today, and continuing, like we’re not meaningfully and most of the world any kind of serious lockdown situation, we just have employers that are increasingly going remote for a myriad of reasons. And we have teams that are, you know, some hybrid some or even mostly in person, and we you know, we do virtual for in person teams that are just an easy thing to do at your desk. And then we get a little bit more of like the measurable quantifiable stuff. And we approach this in a couple of different ways. We don’t have anything super duper peer reviewed, that, you know, rises to the level of I’m gonna, you know, swear to this in front of a bunch of professors. But you know, we do things like we do a pregame discussion about anticipated performance. And we see things like getting to your actual question. People have very unexpected outcomes. A lot of the time we have people routinely that think that they’re going to be great as a team and as individuals, and they’re not. And then we have folks that have no confidence in themselves and their teams, and they really feel bad at the beginning experience, and they absolutely kill it. And we focus on why their expectations were not met. But I’d say one of the biggest takeaways that we see is how folks really don’t know how they’re going to do.
Gleb Tsipursky 12:48
Interesting. Okay, and what kind of predictors Have you figured out for why teams will work? Well work out? Well versus not?
Nate Martin 12:57
This is a great question. And I would say honestly, I touched on this a moment ago, confidence or overconfidence is a big killer. This is like, this is true of life, if you just go and think like I’m going to be great at this thing. And then you hit the first wall. We typically in those situations, you know, no matter who you are, no matter what your background is, if you hit a wall with a lot of overconfidence, it’s a lot harder to kind of take a step back and struggle, people without a lot of confidence. That, you know, not they don’t have high expectations of their performance, but then come with the kind of ability to kind of step back and keep calm and analyze why anything isn’t going particularly well and how we have to overcome it. By people with that attitude. They’ll over perform every time a gross generalization. Let me get in front of this before I get flamed online. Some of the people that struggle with kind of our type of experience the most, which is to say, the team challenge that puts people in an unfamiliar setting with challenges that they may have to figure out. Our doctors and lawyers, doctors and lawyers are used to being often not all doctors, not all lawyers, of course, you have the you know, the top dog in the room, you have more educated surgeons famously or just you know, like, I’m not going to need a bunch of help. i There’s nothing I don’t know. And if there’s something I don’t know, I’m gonna be able to figure it out. And often the top lawyers in the world and the top doctors in the world don’t often work collaboratively in teams. So when they hit a wall and something they’re unfamiliar with and have to rely on others to kind of help them dig out of the hole, they are often not super equipped to deal with that. And it’s very funny to watch, you know, very senior doctors, very senior lawyers with their very junior level interns or whoever just drag them across the finish line. Like don’t worry, Mr. CEO, I got this buckle up, and then the interns got them to victory.
Gleb Tsipursky 14:57
That’s excellent. I really like that. Yeah. And that’s something really important for people to learn. Right. That’s a good lesson about humility.
Nate Martin 15:04
Yeah. And it doesn’t feel good at the moment, I will add. I wonder what we do if we like to deliver a lot of fun but to be really efficient. Sometimes it has to be a little bit unfun. Yeah,
Gleb Tsipursky 15:15
I wonder about other aspects, I’m thinking about the work of James or wiki on wisdom of the crowds. And I’m talking about peer reviewed research. So that shows that people in teams that are diverse thinkers, so different, so having different types of mentalities and different skills, tend to overall in decision making at least outperform teams that have similar skills and similar mentalities and similar frameworks. Now, teams with similar skills and qualities and frameworks tend to make quicker decisions, but the decisions are quite a bit worse, and diverse people tend to make slower decisions, but the decisions tend to be better. And I’m curious if you’ve noticed that or if that’s not something you’ve noticed.
Nate Martin 15:55
So I will say absolutely, but we are kind of cheating. And the reason is, we design all of our content, it’s very surgically crafted, for this exact reason, I need folks of different experience levels and walks of life to really all get something from the experience. And so all of our content, even within one experience is pretty varied, you’re not going to have like, oh, this game is for math lovers, or this game is for language, puzzle lovers, we have a variety of content. If for no other reason, then frankly, you know, ultimately, we are a for profit business. And I want people to have a good time. But as a direct side effect of that I’m cooking up a lot of different content. And there’s when you have everyone is very uniform, they all have the same educational background, they all have the same role, they all have the same kind of thinking style, they are absolutely going to do super well on that one or two pieces of content that is exactly tailored to them to your point, they’ll make the decision very quickly. But indeed, when they hit everything else, they will get beaten 10 times out of 10 by the diverse thinkers. The exception here is, I guess, when I say that when people are self aware, we do see a lot of, you know, I just got done throwing a fair amount of shade at senior doctors and senior lawyers. There are many, many people who are super senior in their field who recognize their own weakness. And so even if it is a little bit they they’re not the most diverse group, if they recognize that they’re the most not the most diverse group, and really go out of their way to listen to the folks in the group that don’t look or think like them, they’re going to, in our general experience, do just as well as a superberry team, as long as they have that awareness.
Gleb Tsipursky 17:34
That awareness, it’s pretty difficult to get,
Nate Martin 17:37
you’re not wrong. As far as like, I don’t know if we would exist or be successful if everyone was good at that naturally, for sure.
Gleb Tsipursky 17:44
And that’s something that you helped folks develop. Now, when people come to your game, your puzzles a second time around. So if I assume you have many repeat customers, when they come a second time around, how’s their experience different in this virtual example. So let’s focus on the virtual.
Nate Martin 18:02
And that’s fair. And I’ll say it’s actually fairly consistent, both virtual and portable, hybrid, everything that we do, there are shades of similarities in the second time they come. In many ways what escape room is, and the type of challenges that we present people is a bit of a learned skill. There’s not a ton of people who were born absolute masters of the types of challenges that I like to throw at my my players, it is very much Oh, I kind of see what they’re doing here. I’m going to kind of flex this muscle, maybe, you know, people who are really into puzzles generally. And oddly enough musicians. I don’t this is a little bit studied why musicians are so good at puzzles and vice versa. I don’t know if you know, the people that win the World Crossword Puzzle Tournament, every year, everyone in the world comes together and it does cross. I think over half of those people are musicians, it’s very uncanny how just that type of brain anyway, other than, you know, musicians and people that do puzzles for a living, the second experience is off second and beyond. Because we often do repeat repeat customers, it’s really, really exciting because they have the right kind of confidence. And they have the right kind of experience to really tackle the challenges as hard and as fast as they wanted to that first time. Now, we go out of our way to make sure that struggling through that first time is a wonderful experience. But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. We have our experiences tuned, fairly difficulty because we want to make sure that everyone gets a full like nice robust experience. And so to compensate, you know, teams who are maybe not so experienced or third or first time and they haven’t learned these lessons. Were our screens are mostly curated by our staff that are trained to kind of just that curate the experience and make sure that everyone is engaged and everyone’s by in their conquering. They’re approaching these challenges in the right way. So the second time, the third time, the fourth time, our staff are decreasingly involved. As folks just kind of know how to operate as a team, they sort of know what to look for, they know how to think. And we know exactly what you want to see. Because then they’re working in teams outside of the game, conquering actual factual, real life challenges in a way that, you know, they won’t always have my staff holding their hand.
Gleb Tsipursky 20:27
That makes sense. Good. Now, I want to jump to your own team. And I’m curious to what extent you use the puzzles or the early versions of the puzzle, you test them out within your team when you want to mold, is that something that’s happened?
Nate Martin 20:41
It is yes, but not as much as frankly, we should, this is one of you know. I wouldn’t call it the biggest area of opportunity for myself as a leader is our experiences, you can really only do them once. That’s why we’ll keep cranking them out. So we have a huge portfolio of these things. And a huge percentage of my staff are the folks that are curating these and running these games. And when they are hired, they need to be played immediately, so that they are trained to be able to run them. So there’s not a ton of meaningful ways that we can have our own teams use our own content, because they are the ones running the content. That said , any number of my direct competitors are folks that do similar things. And, frankly, just, this is not unique to us. Of course, the past two, two and a half years have been just every day just figuring out a new approach to a new challenge that life has thrown at us. So to answer your question, we don’t do this as much as we should. I, you know, we need to walk the walk better than we historically have. It’s just particularly hard, because so many of our staff are the ones that run the games, and we can easily play our own stuff.
Gleb Tsipursky 21:59
I imagine you have some competitors, I mean, something that you can probably easily do is an exchange.
Nate Martin 22:04
We know the fortunate from a business perspective and unfortunate for what we’re talking about here. So many of the folks in our space, as it were, are Maluma more tuned to just fun. And games like this are just a fun thing to do. Like a nice morale event on Friday afternoons, we really lean into professional development and team building. We have half day workshops, where it’s just super fun games. And so there exist, of course, solutions that also do professional development and like really build the team stuff. But Dare I say none of those folks are half as fun as we are. And part of the virtues of like why we’re able to make content as good as we are. As I mentioned, I come from a games and tech background, I was at Microsoft for the first half of my career. And while I was there, and we would go from one horrible team building activity to the next horrible team building activity, I was the person on the team that made everyone miserable, I had no buy-in to any of these things. And so it’s really, really challenging for me to like, really find a ton of value, both as an individual participant and as a leader of employees in team building activities that I don’t want to be there. So that’s a big part of it. And it makes it a little bit challenging. That said, we can do better, we can always do better for sure.
Gleb Tsipursky 23:34
Okay, so let’s look to spend a little bit more on your own team. So you said you found out that remote works on the remote works for your customers. Now, what does it mean to have remote work for you for your team?
Nate Martin 23:45
So our business is weirder than most. And so we have if we have in person, tradition, traditional insofar as we basically invented them over here, escape rooms in our Seattle headquarters, and the folks that, you know, greet people at the door and get people to lobby , there’s no doing that remotely. So we have that line of businesses mostly in person. And same thing for our winner. We do portable team building and we go to corporate events. You know, we’re physically sending people there. But when folks are not actually writing experiences for guests, so I’m talking about all my designers or all my operations, folks, when they’re not actually actively running stuff. It’s just this, it’s just before over video chat. I was a huge remote fan before the pandemic happened. Then the pandemic happened and when we were forced to do it, it was a very seamless thing for the most part, certainly for our virtual staff. We’d like to, as I say, we’re a Washington state business. A lot of our employees are from Washington state. We like to keep it local, but we have lots of staff that I’ve never seen in person and they’ve worked for us for years. His work on the other side of the country, and it works out well. And part of why I’m super Super comfortable with that. It’s not just the nature of the work. But if you are imagining you’re maybe familiar, there’s a professor at Harvard Business School. His name is Raj Choudry. Do you know? So for the listeners who do not know, this is just my absolute favorite thing, because I ‘d like to be data driven whenever humanly possible. He did remote work, I think he called it work from anywhere. And this is back in 2012, he began to study. So it’s very much recent enough to be relevant to the modern workplace. But you know, at this point, the epidemic is eight years away. And he did a great big Prolog study with the US Patent Office where they do measurable, quantifiable work. And I’ll skip to the end, he found that broadly, working remotely increased your productivity by close to 5%. And I saw that I thought I knew it, of course, of course. And so you know, whenever we kind of had to go remote as we’re building the team, kind of having a great big office with going back to the old ways, never crossed my mind what’s
Gleb Tsipursky 26:05
great, and what kind of team building exercises that you do internally for your own team, when you went to remote so you’re not working on your own? You’re not doing puzzles. But what kind of team building do you do to help me?
Nate Martin 26:15
No, I really, I guess games for me it’s games, it’s just games just because I’m there’s a there’s terms for this in every industry, whenever you’re whether you’re making widgets that somebody’s going to use in the kitchen for team building that somebody’s going to make for anybody that you have to design for kind of the least accessible, most difficult kind of person. And I’m that person. And so whenever it comes to team building, the thing I will do. What is worse than no team building at all is bad or unfun team building. So anything that’s games, I love Escape Rooms in person, as I say most of us are Washington based, and we’re no longer in lockdown. So something that we’re very interested in getting going more of is just doing in person escape rooms with the team, there is no better team building in the world. Obviously, I am super biased. But it’s just a super duper fun thing that tricks us as employees just as getting dogs in the medicine, getting God’s their medicine inside of some delicious cheese. I love getting team building wrapped up in some awesome fun activity that at the end, you had a great time and just you wake up and you happen to have some amazing team bowling. So Escape Rooms are a big part of that other game as well. You know, things like laser tag, they’re super duper fun how there’s not a I don’t think that there’s a rash chart or a report somewhere that analyzes the team building efficacy of laser tag. But when it’s fun, it’s legitimately fun, and people want to be there. That’s the best team building for me and for us.
Gleb Tsipursky 27:52
Excellent. Is there anything else about team building that I haven’t asked you that you would like to share about that?
Nate Martin 27:58
I mean, we danced around this and I just kind of hit this at home. Generally speaking, something fun is better than something unfun that is sciency. So there’s any number of team building out there that’s like, you know, we got this system and with this color is your personality, and we get together and we do this activity that is deeply fun. Or we have an activity that is, you know, there’s forget the science, forget the deliverables, forget the whatever, but you’re going to work together as a team to conquer some objective, either mentally or physically or whatever. That’s what I generally like. And anecdotally, at least, that’s what works the best for everyone that we meet.
Gleb Tsipursky 28:44
Excellent. And can you let folks know where they can go to learn more about puzzle breaks?
Nate Martin 28:49
Of course, our website is puzzle break.us. And are all of our services there ranging from our in person Escape Rooms in Seattle, for friends or coworkers in our portable team building that we take to places we didn’t get too much into hybrid, but we also have, you know, the hybrid team building will come to your event and do you know some people there some people work remotely all the way through virtual team building in our suite of games and workshops that are laughter things, all of that puzzle break.us and we hope you guys reach out.
Gleb Tsipursky 29:20
Excellent. Thank you very much, Nate. And thank you very much to our viewers and listeners for checking out the wise decision maker show. Yeah, thanks for hanging out with us today. Yeah, and please make sure to leave a review wherever you check us out on Apple, iTunes, and Amazon, YouTube, subscribe, and make sure that you’re listening to the show, as I hope to see you on the next episode of the wise decision maker show. In the meantime, the wisest and most profitable decisions to my friends
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Originally Published at Disaster Avoidance Experts on October 25, 2022.