Business Columnist Phil Hardwick does some sleuthing around to see what’s made a unique Tupelo company successful in such a short period of time.
A Tupelo company co-founded by two brothers started as an escape room. Then COVID-19 hit. Instead of folding, Shawn and Jason Brannon pivoted and transformed the company into one that now ships its “mysterious” products worldwide.
In this Q&A interview with Jason Brannon, we learn how the Deadbolt Mystery Society, a monthly subscription box service that sends a new case file mystery to members’ doors every month, has grown to unexpected heights.
Your first subscription box was shipped in March 2018, from your kitchen table, the first of about 25 boxes that month. How many boxes are shipped now?
We ship thousands of boxes out each month, both from the subscription side of our business and from our one-time orders. During our time in business, we have shipped to all 50 states and over 40 countries. We have a full-time shipping department that handles all of this for us in-house.
Tell me about your marketing plan. How did you go worldwide in such a short time?
Social media has always been our primary source of marketing. It’s the most cost-effective way to get in front of people nowadays. Everyone has a smartphone, and everyone is always scrolling for something new and interesting.
We were on a steady growth trajectory in 2018 and 2019 with the marketing we had in place, but things skyrocketed when COVID hit. People were stuck indoors and looking for something to do. Our boxes were available at just the right time, and a lot of those who found us then are still with us now.
I see that you’re also the author of several mystery books. What got you interested in mysteries?
I’ve always liked trying to figure things out going back as far as I can remember. As a kid, I used to avidly watch Scooby Doo and read Encyclopedia Brown (although I rarely figured out the answer to any of the mysteries) and eventually graduated to more mature stories like Sherlock Holmes. I remember watching Unsolved Mysteries, being interested in those old Time Life Book commercials about the Egyptian pyramids and the Lost City of Atlantis, and just always seeking out things that were a little bit weird and off the beaten path.
That interest has carried over to this day, and it certainly manifests in the sorts of things I write about.
What type of skills are needed to produce your product? What are your employee job descriptions?
Creating the type of mysteries we write is a skill that is nearly impossible to teach. We currently have a full creative staff of writers and graphic designers. Creating a mystery requires good written communication, the ability to tell a compelling story, the ability to write puzzles in a way that will allow you to gate certain information that we want to keep from players until the appropriate time, and the ability to merge all those skills in a cohesive way that will bring a story to life.
We describe our boxes as what you might get if you took an episode of Criminal Minds and merged that with your favorite escape room. So, creators for us need to be able to successfully create both story and puzzles and put them together in such a way that it is a cohesive product. No small feat.
You started with an Escape Room. Do you still have the Escape Room?
The Deadbolt Mystery Society started as an extension of Deadbolt Escape Rooms. It was meant to be something extra for those enthusiasts who had completed all our escape rooms and still wanted more. We quickly saw that people in other parts of the country enjoyed what we were doing with our mystery boxes. Then, when COVID forced everything to shut down, we decided to focus our efforts strictly on the subscription business.
So, we never reopened Deadbolt Escape Rooms after the shelter-in-place orders were lifted. The timing all seemed right to launch one and close the other.
Are all your employees located in Mississippi, or do you have a lot of remote workers?
All of our workers are located in and around the Tupelo, MS area. Unless weather or sickness forces remote work, all our creation is done on-site and in-house.
How did the pandemic affect your business? What’s been the biggest challenge in your business?
The pandemic affected us in a huge way. When people couldn’t leave their homes and were looking for something to do, many of them found us. Our business skyrocketed at that time.
As a result, the biggest challenge over the last few years is that we haven’t had a normal growth cycle that will allow us to predict and forecast accurately. Sales have been a roller coaster ride.
What was the biggest opportunity that you didn’t expect?
The biggest opportunity that we never expected was getting approached by Amazon Studios to create a box to help promote their show “Tell Me Your Secrets.” We had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and watch the show before its release to help us determine what to create. It was a very positive and gratifying experience that we still look back fondly on.
I understand that Amazon approached you about doing a TV show. Is that going forward?
Amazon approached us about creating a box to promote an existing show, “Tell Me Your Secrets.” However, we’ve often had internal discussions about how our boxes would make for a great television series. So, Amazon, if you’re listening…
What are your plans for the future?
We have a lot of things in the works for the future that will take the existing world of Valley Falls (the town where all our mysteries take place) and expand on them in various media formats. We have already done this to an extent with books that take place in Valley Falls, digital mysteries, and online content via YouTube.
We will be branching out into some additional formats this year that people haven’t seen from us before.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting a new business?
Be prepared to change your plans and turn on a dime. Over the course of the last few years, we’ve made tons of plans that always seem to change because of external influences. You can order supplies on time but be prepared for delays in production. You can ship on time but be prepared for delays with shipping carriers. You can get ahead creatively but be prepared for staffing issues that will cause you to lose the ground you just gained. You can have a great marketing plan and a solid advertising strategy only to see Facebook change its algorithm and interface.
Starting and owning a business will always present challenges. Just when you think you have it all figured out, something will change.