This Army Vet Couldn't 'Escape' His Entrepreneurial Passion

For Robert Nelson, it's all about team building while having fun.

This article is a republished version of an original article created and published by Entrepreneur in November 2022.

Robert Nelson, his wife Andrea, his son John, and his father Thomas
From right to left: Robert Nelson, his wife Andrea, his son John, and
his father Thomas. Image Credit: The Escape Adventures

The entrepreneurial journey can sometimes take you places you never imagined you'd be. Take Robert Nelson for instance. He spent most of his career in the U.S. military where he learned skills like adaptability and team building, and about the value of taking initiative to get things done. When he retired from the Army after two decades of service, Nelson was looking for a new venture where he could use those skills. As it turns out, he found the perfect opportunity while locked in a room.

His son John, an escape room enthusiast, brought Nelson to a few of the attractions, which offer people the chance to work on their own problem-solving skills by completing puzzles to break out of a locked room within a certain amount of time. Escape rooms are immensely popular around the U.S., but Nelson thought the ones he visited were missing something.

Having grown up on a Navajo reservation, Nelson says storytelling is in his blood. He's also passionate about gaming. While he enjoyed the game aspect of escape rooms, he felt the themes and stories could be more cohesive and the activities could be oriented toward real team building.

After some research, planning, and fundraising, Nelson launched The Escape Adventures in Chester, Va., in July 2021, designing puzzles that tell unique stories and push groups — from friends to families to co-workers — to work together. He and John run the business along with Nelson's wife, Andrea, and his father, Thomas.

A new twist that keeps people coming back.

Escape Adventures specializes in chapter-based games, meaning when players complete a time challenge, they learn about the soon-to-be released next chapter in the story. It's an innovative strategy that keeps clients engaged and coming back.

That's not the only improvement Nelson made. Calling on his military experience, Nelson decided to shift the goal from "morale building" to "team building" by observing groups as they move through the room, taking notes on how they communicate and interact, and sitting down with them afterward to walk them through it all, enriching their relationships. The Escape Adventures is a perfect destination for workplace off-sites as a result.

Charting his path for the future.

In addition to the value Escape Adventures brings to the escape-room genre, Nelson's customers have remained loyal in part because of the flexible payment options. Nelson began accepting payments via Venmo early in the business, recognizing its ease of use and its popularity among younger customers. The relationship is paying off. Nelson was one of several recent recipients of a $10,000 small business grant from Venmo. On a mission to support emerging entrepreneurs, Venmo is providing 20 Venmo business profile users with grants to help their businesses "build a more equitable and inclusive global economy."

Nelson plans to put his grant money to work by increasing his social media presence and creating a new "steampunk-themed room" that features a real-life vehicle ride.

"I'm really, really happy to be partnered with Venmo in our adventures," the veteran says. Along with the grant, he was given access to pro bono technical expertise, mentorship, and other resources, not to mention prominent promotion from Venmo and parent company PayPal.

For other entrepreneurs who are trying to make their unique ideas work, Nelson says: "A lot of times we get trapped in analysis paralysis, looking at this and trying to do this math problem and that math problem and figure out, 'What if this goes wrong and how can I account for this before it ever happens?' You could do that until you're blue in the face and there's still going to be something that comes up that you didn't anticipate — and you're not going to learn that until you're actually doing it."

Nelson says he spent time researching escape rooms and building a business plan before launching Escape Adventures, but still runs into problems he never expected. He's embraced his "just do it" mentality and tapped into the adaptability and self-starting the military taught him and has seen success because of it.

"My vision for what Escape Adventures is and can be is why my official title is Chief Visionary Officer," Nelson says, "but vision is nothing without action." He notes that every member of the team brings a special skillset that helps put action into motion. Nelson hopes to have the newest puzzle room launched this fall and, with help from the Venmo grant, the sky is the limit after that.

Click here to learn more about how Venmo can help you find customers and provide you with tools to help your business needs to succeed.

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