Lessons From Scaling and Exiting an Escape Room Business With Raleigh Williams

Raleigh Williams is a lawyer turned entrepreneur and the CEO of DealMaven, a company that helps entrepreneurs grow and exit their businesses. After leaving the legal profession, Raleigh started Alcatraz Escape Games, an escape room business which he sold in 2020. He now helps other entrepreneurs sell their businesses for life-changing multiples. He also hosts the DealMaven Podcast.

In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran is joined by Raleigh Williams, the CEO of DealMaven, to discuss the ups and downs of building and exiting an escape room business. Raleigh talks about his inspiration to go into entrepreneurship, his growth strategies, and his criteria for acquiring businesses.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • [02:01] What influenced Raleigh Williams’ decision to leave the law profession?
  • [06:07] Raleigh talks about starting an escape room business and the challenges he faced 
  • [12:10] The expansion strategies Raleigh used to grow his company
  • [17:33] The evolution of the escape room industry 
  • [21:02] Raleigh talks about selling his company and how the pandemic impacted business operations 
  • [35:30] Raleigh’s experience and criteria for acquiring businesses
  • [46:31] How Raleigh’s family has influenced his career
  • [50:11] The peers Raleigh acknowledges for their support

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Sponsor: Rise25

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Episode Transcript

John Corcoran 0:00

Today we’re talking about how to sell your business for top dollar. If you have a business and you thought about selling it, we’re going to talk about some of the strategies around how to do that we’re going to hear a story of someone who sold their business for top dollar. My guest today is Raleigh Williams, and I’ll tell you more about him in a second. So stay tuned.

Intro 0:18

Welcome to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where we feature top entrepreneurs, business leaders, and thought leaders and ask them how they built key relationships to get where they are today. Now, let’s get started with the show.

John Corcoran 0:35

Alright, welcome everyone. John Corcoran here, I’m the host of this show. And you know, I love doing this because I get to meet interesting people each week. You know, if you check out the archives, you’ll see I’ve interviewed the co-founders of CEOs of Netflix to Kinkos, YPO, EO, and Activision Blizzard, check out the archives, you can check those out. And I particularly love interviewing guests who fall into the very narrow category that I fall into. And my guest here today falls into, which is lawyer turned entrepreneur, we are a tiny, tiny segment of the market, there’s very few risk-averse lawyers who are able to go out quit their big law job or small law job and dive into the chaos, which is entrepreneurship and actually survive doing it. And he’s got a great story to tell about how that works. We’ll get to him in a second. First, of course, if you are a b2b business, you’re interested in starting a podcast and getting traction ROI from it, go to my website, Rise25.com. And you can learn all about how we can help make sure that you get ROI from your podcast. 

Of course, my guest here today, Raleigh Williams. Now Raleigh, first of all, such a pleasure to have you here today, you now help entrepreneurs on how to sell their business for life-changing multiples, like you have. And you’ve got a podcast, that deal Maven podcast, and you actually were a practicing attorney for a blink of an eye before realizing you didn’t like it. And you started in the escape room business, which I can’t wait to hear the story behind that. And then actually some other spin-off businesses related to it. And we were chatting beforehand about how I love to ask people about how entrepreneurial or non-entrepreneurial they were as a kid, and you were one of those kids that kind of just knew that you were going to become a lawyer. How young were you when you were, you’d figure that one out? 

Raleigh Williams 2:17

I grew up in a family of lawyers, my dad’s a lawyer, I have a bunch of lawyers who are brothers and sisters who are older than me, I actually was positive I was going to play professional football until I stopped growing at 510. I played quarterback so it became difficult and not getting any college offers. And so I kind of grew up and the idea that like, no matter what you want to do be getting a law degree and becoming a lawyer is the best training to do anything that you want. That’s kind of like that was kind of the ethos that I grew up in. And I never thought to question it. I never thought to you know, like, oh, maybe that’s not maybe that’s not right. And so, I grew up good at school, good at sports, and kind of just knew I wanted to be a lawyer until I did it and very quickly realized that I did not want to do it anymore, man.

John Corcoran 3:07

And so growing up in a household with lawyers with your dad practicing law.

John Corcoran 3:14

I guess sunk in is never quite the same thing as actually doing it yourself. Right. You know, I but 

Raleigh Williams 3:18

like yeah, he was he was General Counsel of a public company. He was a litigator. So he was kind of like, he kind of grew up in the time of practicing law, where he could kind of do whatever he wanted. He did a lot of different things. He wasn’t like you would see a normal big law attorney. Now that’s a partner that kind of just like hyper specializes. And so I had seen him, you know, I grew up he was 50 years old. He had been practicing law for 25 years. And so I kind of seen a fully formed lawyer that got to kind of do whatever he wanted, and was like the wisest guy in the room type of thing that everyone wanted.

John Corcoran 3:55

You misery.

Raleigh Williams 3:57

I didn’t see that come up years on what it looked like. And then the bureaucracy that’s associated with working at you know, I was working at some of the biggest law firms in the world at Skadden, Arps and Vinson and Elkins and you know, it just the bureaucracy and and what what they expect of you was very different than what I had expected. Going through law school where you’re, you know, I went to University of Chicago, where it’s like, the world is your oyster, you’re going to be, you know, as soon as you go into the job market, they’re gonna say, tell us what to do. And we’ll do it. And then, you know, the reality of working at a big law firm is you’re the bottom of the totem pole. And they want you know, you’re like a glorified secretary. Yeah,

John Corcoran 4:41

yeah, you’re churning. You’re just filling racking up those hours and it can be, it can be not a lot of fun.

Raleigh Williams 4:48

Yeah, so that was a big that was a big wake up for me and very quickly in the first, you know, six weeks of practicing, I was like, I’ve made a massive mistake. I gotta, I gotta do somethin 5:25

hard reckoning.

Raleigh Williams 5:27

Yeah, and I credit my wife a lot for that. She she knew, you know, I talked to a lot of people that are in jobs that they hate, and they just feel like the economics are keeping them there. And it also kind of like defend familial expectations of, of their spouse, Kid debt situation. And my wife, to her credit, always was like, Hey, if you want to, if you want to throw all of this away, like I’m down, like, we’ll go do something else we can figure it out. And I think had she not been so supportive of that. I don’t know that I would have I don’t know that I would have been able to do it. But it was, yeah, it was a bumpy, bumpy road for a bit.

John Corcoran 6:08

And in your your Twitter thread that you wrote about this, you said you were getting anxiety attacks before work every morning, as you were going into the office, and you start researching different trends. And you kind of stumbled across escape rooms.

Raleigh Williams 6:27

Yeah, I was, I had, I had switched practice group groups a couple of times, which is pretty atypical, like, the firm kind of knew that I was a problem child very quickly, because I just wasn’t happy, like no matter what partner they assigned me to. And, and so I, I got my real estate license, which is pretty atypical for a lawyer after passing the bar exam. And you know, making a couple 100 grand a year to go. Think about being a residential realtor. I started I started studying for consulting interviews to do kind of McKinsey Bain BCG management consulting stuff. So I started taking some interviews doing that. And I ultimately came across this article on MarketWatch, that talked about escape rooms, and how much money they made. And that kind of like, that kind of opened the window for me on the idea of maybe doing an escape room business, which seemed like a very low cost way to get started, that could at least make enough money for me to replace my, my income at my law firm job. And so that was kind of and then as I, as I kind of started talking to the people who ultimately became my partners in the business, we kind of the three of us kind of decided that it could be something that that we could make a run at. And that was kind of like the the impetus for the Exodus, that you

John Corcoran 7:45

mentioned, a low cost, you know, startup costs. I haven’t done an escape room before, but from what I’ve seen, they always seem like they’re very elaborate and everything, how much were you budgeting or planning to have to spend?

Raleigh Williams 7:58

Now they are and that was one of our that was one of the ways that we felt like we could differentiate back in the day, back in 2015 2016, there were people that were doing these escape room businesses for 2530 grand to get started, you know, not not investing a ton. And in the rooms, we had budgeted $200,000 between the three of us and we got a loan for another 50 grand. So we felt like for 250 grand, we could really get it up and going and started. And, and that was that was kind of how we how we began doing it. I only been practicing law for nine months. So I kind of came in as the operator, the guy who’s gonna put in the most sweat equity and be the one there running the store and hiring the people and doing all this stuff. And then another guy was a Goldman guy and a KPMG. Guy, and, and everyone’s kind

John Corcoran 8:49

of got their bonafides got got evangels you know, no strapping people here. 

Raleigh Williams 8:57

It seems like a bunch of a bunch of highly qualified guys doing a dumb a dumb idea.

John Corcoran 9:04

And not only that, okay, so you give your two week notice, by the way, it was they had just announced a raise for all associates and you give your take notice maybe you didn’t mention that one to your wife as you were on the way out the door. And you move in your in laws basement with your wife and your two year old. Yeah, as you’re building out this and your by the way, you didn’t build out a physical location first you did a bus to tell us about that.

Raleigh Williams 9:28

So we actually started investing in the physical location. And we went to try to open and the city came in, they shut us down and they said you need something called a certificate of occupancy which you do not have you have not you have not done any permits, or we didn’t pull any permits to start doing it after at least

John Corcoran 9:47

our after you’d opened like shut you down like couldn’t do business after we

Raleigh Williams 9:51

yeah, we had taken a customer and the city that we were in, they shut us down. They gave us a red tag. They said None None of this stuff is up to code. You haven’t had the file Air Marshal in here to know that this is okay. And, and so because of that, as we started to try to get the permits for it, we realized that like, it was going to take us like two months for us to bring everything up to code. And so we felt like in that two months, we could buy an old school bus and 1984 bluebird bus. We had a welder that was kind of on staff helping us build all these rooms. So we stripped the bus out completely, like we chopped off the back of the bus put prison bars on. And we felt like we wanted to have a location, we wanted to have something that the city couldn’t stop us. Because if it’s a bus, if it’s a vehicle that’s parked outside of a place, it’s not subject to

John Corcoran 10:45

got it. So it wasn’t the same level of regulation. Yeah, okay.