Shared experiences are the heart of Matt and Ryan’s epic adventures
Matt Baysinger and Ryan Henrich met at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park. Both ran track for the Jaguars and both, in Baysinger’s words, “were a couple of real ding-dongs.”
“Our idea of fun was not what the typical high school kid is into,” says Baysinger, now 33 and CEO of Swell Spark, the Kansas City-based company that launched two of the most unique and popular entertainment options to hit Mass Street in years: Breakout Lawrence and Blade & Timber.
“We would do things like get our lawn chairs and go sit in a median and wave at cars,” he recalls. “Like, what?”
Back then Antioch Road was a two-lane that jammed up like the Lincoln Tunnel on weekday mornings as kids jockeyed to make the first bell at 7:30. “If I left my house at 6:55, I’d get to school at 7:00,” Baysinger says. “If I left at 7, I’d get there at 7:30.”
So he and Henrich and a few friends decided that, rather than fight traffic and scarf down their morning meal in the car, they’d arrive early and make breakfast at school.
“I mean, we made breakfast. We would bring our toaster ovens,” Baysinger says. “And we’d eat and say hi to hundreds of people as they came in. We started junior year, and by the time we graduated there were often 100 to 200 people coming to school early.”
They initially came for the same reason—to beat traffic—but then, Baysinger says, “it became, ‘Let’s share a meal. Let’s talk together.’”
Turns out even high school kids, who could be forgiven for not wanting to spend an extra minute in school, especially if it means getting up early, were hungry for something more than Pop Tarts and scrambled eggs.
A decade later, Baysinger, c’09, g’11, and Henrich, ’09, his 33-year-old cofounder and chief operating officer, believe they are feeding a similar craving with the apparently random mix of businesses that operate under the Swell Spark name. Breakout, the company’s first venture, challenges groups of two to eight people to unravel clues and solve a series of puzzles that allow them to “break out” of an escape room. Choir Bar, a once-a-month group singalong and social event, brings together a few hundred strangers for one night to learn a song and share cocktails; the evening ends with a performance in three-part harmony that’s videotaped and made available for participants to post on social media. Blade & Timber is a stunningly simple concept: Players throw axes at targets—like darts, but way more badass.
“A lot of people are like, ‘How can you go from escape rooms—these epic 60-minute adventures—to ax throwing to Choir Bar?’” Baysinger says. “And we’re like, ‘Honestly, it’s the same thing!’”
“It’s all an epic adventure,” Henrich says. “Just in a different way.”
In fact, the unifying thread between these inventive business concepts that at first glance seem to have no connection is, well, the idea of connection itself.
Baysinger was working as a high school guidance counselor and Henrich was a firefighter with a custom design-build operation on the side when they began tossing around business ideas in 2014.
“I call it dad-rigging: If I need to fix my sink, I’m at least handy enough to try. I knew I was not gonna be the guy to build an escape room. But I was like, ‘Dude, I can dream up nerdy puzzles all day. Do you wanna try this together?’”
Baysinger had discovered the concept of escape rooms; he was intrigued but realized his mechanical aptitude wasn’t ideal.
Henrich did. They traveled the country, visiting escape rooms to see how the businesses worked, and they were convinced they could do better than most they saw. They worked 14-hour days—Matt refining the concepts and Ryan building them—to get their first room, Breakout Kansas City, up and running. For customers, even finding the place was a bit of an adventure: The entrance was the back door of an old grocery store in Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood.
“Ryan and I were like, ‘Man, Breakout is a fun activity,’” Baysinger says of the venture’s early days, “but we didn’t put a lot of thought into why. We were just working really long hours and drinking a lot of coffee.”
One day a group of teenage girls came in. They successfully cracked all the clues, screaming and laughing as they broke out before time elapsed. They posed for a triumphant victory photo, then left for coffee—at the same coffee shop Baysinger and Henrich were heading to for their caffeine fix.
“We were behind them for three blocks, and the whole way they were deconstructing what they’d just done,” Baysinger says.
Most amazing: Not once did they check their cellphones.
“We’re behind them in line, and they still haven’t pulled their phones out,” Baysinger recalls, noting that players are asked to stay off their devices during the game. “So at this point they’ve gone an hour-and-a-half without checking their phones, which for teenage kids just doesn’t happen very often.
“Ryan and I had this moment where we were like, ‘This is it. This is something that’s better than.’”
Entertainment these days is often passive. We watch a movie, a play, a ball game. We sit and cheer as others do.Solving puzzles against a ticking clock with a half-dozen friends or family members—or hurling an ax at a plywood target—requires action.
“Whether it’s an escape room, ax throwing or a group singalong, the experience doesn’t move forward without the active participation of the crowd,” Henrich says. “If you went to an escape room and just watched, you’d have a pretty bland experience.”
What connects Swell Spark’s seemingly disparate concepts is the idea that the customer drives the action—and the belief that action distinguishes adventure from mere entertainment.
Consider KU basketball.
“Most people who come to the field house will say it is the best basketball experience in the country,” Baysinger says. That’s largely because the Jayhawks always field a good team, he allows, “but it also has to do with the fact that a lot is asked of you as students and fans during the game.” There is newsprint to shred and toss, airballs to deride, wheat to wave and the chant—always the chant. “It’s an interactive experience, and I think that’s why people love it so much.”
It’s also a communal experience, and what the entrepreneurs realized that day in the coffee shop, as they surreptitiously watched the teenagers enthuse about their great escape, is there must be additional ways to foster that kind of thing.
“Once we realized that, oh my gosh, this is a shared experience that is helping people build relationships with each other, that was the moment. We were like, ‘What else? What else is out there that can do this?’”
—Matt Baysinger and Ryan Henrich
Breakout Kansas City led to Breakout Waikiki, in Honolulu, which grew to five escape games nationwide with more planned (Breakout Lawrence was sold in 2018); Blade & Timber ax-throwing lanes in Lawrence, Kansas City, Leawood, Wichita, Seattle and Honolulu; Epic Aloha, an interactive photo experience, also in Hawaii; Choir Bar Kansas City; and a custom fabrication outfit, Catalyst Build, that designs and constructs the fittings for each escape room at the company’s 32,000-square-foot Kansas City headquarters, called the Sandbox, and ships them out for installation on site.
That extremely hands-on approach allows Swell Spark to maintain a high level of quality control, which Baysinger and Henrich believe is key to staying ahead of the competition in a business where imitation is pretty much baked into the business plan. (They didn’t invent the idea of escape rooms, after all, and the concepts for Blade & Timber and Choir Bar were inspired by similar ventures in England and Australia.) Outpacing their rivals means constantly reaching for bigger and better production values. A new Blade & Timber set to open in Kansas City’s Power and Light District this summer will be a $1 million ax-throwing destination. “It’s going to be over the top,” Henrich says. “The only way to make sure we don’t have a lot of riffraff muddling the perception of quality of our concepts is to spend a lot more money than all the competition.” Their goal is to make their new escape rooms “Disney quality.”
Their approach seems to work. Breakout and Blade & Timber rank No. 1 and No. 2 in Trip Advisor’s Fun & Games category in Kansas City, Lawrence and Leawood, and one or the other holds the top spot in that category in Wichita and activity-rich Honolulu. For any of Swell Spark’s 26 employees at headquarters who might be having a bad day and need a bit of encouragement, the standard recommendation is “go read the reviews.”
“To think that a dad gets to be the hero of his kids that day for taking them to Breakout”—Baysinger, himself a father of three, gets emotional talking about it—“it’s meaningful for us. It’s hard to talk about without seeming overly dramatic, because a lot of people look at business as, ‘Oh they’re in it for the money.’ Without the money we don’t exist; we recognize that. But if you were to talk to all the people who work here, you would see that everyone is here because they recognize the greater implications. Read the reviews and you’ll read, ‘This is the best birthday I’ve ever had; this is the best thing I’ve ever done with my dad.’ There’s not many better ways to make a living than providing that experience for people.”
In March, Baysinger was one of seven speakers featured at a TEDx event at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, “UninhibiTED,” focusing on mavericks and trailblazers with the courage to challenge norms. Near the end of his talk, he told the audience that, when it comes to business, he has “two main and grossly oversimplified goals”: Make it easy for people to hand over their money, and make it easy for people to have fun together.
“I think what we’ve unlocked is this idea that your life is only as good as the experiences that you share with people,” Baysinger says. “If you talk to someone like my 87-year-old grandpa, they tell stories about the things they’ve done. We are made up of the stories we’ve lived. Are people remarkable because they do remarkable things, or by doing remarkable things do you become a remarkable person? I really believe that if you want to tell great stories you have to do great things. People aren’t climbing mountains at our facilities—that’s a whole other level of adventure—but if we can unlock the door and let them realize that by doing cool stuff their life is maybe a little more fulfilling, then mission accomplished.”
The company’s growth strategy focuses on finding even more reasons for people to get together, and giving them more reasons to stay together once they do.
From a corporate team-building program now in development to a plan for adding kitchens to every Blade & Timber so ax flingers can linger over burgers and chicken fingers, Swell Spark is eager to see how many different ways they can answer the question, What else?
“I would argue that probably the three or four things in life that bring people together the most are sports, music, religion and food,” Baysinger says. “We’re not gonna start a new religion, but the other three are absolutely on the table.”
The quality of every shared experience Swell Spark pushes is essentially twofold: One, unless you’re already an Olympic ax-throwing puzzle whiz who absolutely lives for karaoke, you’re probably going to be stepping out of your comfort zone when you step into one of their venues. And two, they’re going to make you feel OK with that.
“We’re tapping into the idea that without a little bit of risk, there’s not often a lot of reward,” says Baysinger, who ran track at KU and recently set a Guinness World Record for the fastest relay marathon. “When you go in to do something brand new that you’ve never done in your life, there’s a vulnerability there. What if I, a 6-3, 200-pound man, can’t throw an ax very well? Oh my gosh that could be embarrassing; that could not be fun. So we are tapping into this idea that in order to have a truly memorable experience you do have to take some risk.”
Thinking your way out of a locked room, for example, comes with the risk of failure and embarrassment.
“We get a lot of people who say, ‘I’m not smart enough to play your escape rooms,’” Henrich says. “But you can’t know that until you play. And we try to emphasize that it’s supposed to be challenging, not impossible—and it’s challenging for everyone, including smart people.”
Which is good to know: A spring break attempt to crack Breakout’s “Civil War” room with my wife and three kids turns out to be an exercise in humility. Captured and imprisoned in an enemy bunker, we try to use tools left behind by a defector to make our escape; a strong start lifts our confidence, but, alas, the timer runs out before we figure out some of the more challenging clues, even after using our full allotment of hints provided by game guides during play. None of that dulls anyone’s enthusiasm for the fun, though, especially after we see that the room rates eight on the 10-point difficulty scale, with only about 26% of teams successfully breaking out.
The doubts about ax throwing are even more deeply rooted, and predictable.
“We are fully aware,” Baysinger says wryly, “that if you were to look at every article that’s been written about ax throwing as we’ve opened in new cities, the top comment on every one is going to be some variation of, ‘Alcohol and axes, what could go wrong?’”
Extensive coaching, a wristband system that tracks alcohol consumption and a stringent safety program are designed to ensure that injury is one thing they are not willing to risk. “From the moment people walk in the door,” Baysinger says, “we have a zero tolerance policy for shenanigans.”
Events such as Throw Like a G.I.R.L. (Go-getter, Innovator, Risk-taker, Leader), which celebrates the Seattle location’s partnership with Girl Scouts of Western Washington; Blades of Glory, a tournament for Kansas City-area first responders that benefits the local Guns ’N Hoses charity motorcycle ride; and an early morning twist on the networking meet-and-greet, coffee and ax throwing, highlight another signature tenet of the Swell Spark approach to fun: the belief that people bond more readily when doing something they’ve never done before.
“This idea of shared experiences, and what that does culturally, what that does for families or businesses, has been huge for us,” Baysinger says. “But also what we love is this idea of new experience. There’s no pressure to be good; the hope is just that you have fun. There’s a vibrancy when you have this shared thing you’re doing, when you’re not going face-to-face every time, but instead you go shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Once upon a time, the most iconic example of that shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie was the bowling league. Back when Baysinger and Henrich were born, in 1986, the archetypal Everyman outing (even Fred and Barney were in a bowling league) was already losing popularity. In his noted 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” social scientist Robert Putnam traced the decline in American civic engagement with attendance drops at social clubs, PTA meetings and bowling leagues. While the number of people who bowled had risen 10 percent since 1980, Putnam observed, those who bowled together in league play decreased by 40 percent.
At Blade & Timber Leawood on a blossom-sotted spring night, league play is back.
Alex Pope, who formed team Sheesh and Slice with his fellow engineer, Regan Wilson, says his introduction to ax throwing came during a work retreat.
“No one in our group had ever tried it before,” Pope says. From interns to C-suite execs, everyone was a novice.
“It evens the playing field,” Wilson adds. “You don’t feel embarrassed if you’re bad.”
“It’s the bowling of 2019, but it’s actually easier than bowling,” Pope says. “I’m much more likely to get a bull’s-eye than a strike.”
Though ax throwing may be a hot trend, it’s not merely for the trendy: The appeal extends beyond 20-something hipsters to grandmas, tweens and teens, bachelorette parties and a sorority that rented the entire Lawrence location for Mom’s Night.
“I never imagined so many women would be coming in the door,” says Clint Metcalf, Leawood Blade & Timber’s league coordinator. “People thought it would be lots of bearded, roughneck guys, like a lot of us who work here,” jokes Metcalf, himself a big, bearded fellow whose imposing stature is moderated by a generous laugh. The self-described “avid outdoorsman raised by avid outdoorsmen” with a quarter century of competitive ax-throwing experience (yep, there’s a pro circuit, the World Axe Throwing League, televised on ESPN) says women not only outnumber men, but also often out-throw them.
“And I can tell you exactly why that is,” Metcalf says. “Gals listen to coaching instructions and follow them better. The fellas get up there and it’s, ‘I’ve been selling photocopiers for 20 years, get out of my way, I know what I’m doing!’”
Metcalf and his fellow coaches tend to see the stretching of comfort zones as a draw, not a hurdle.
“I think it’s great,” he says, “because people like that. That’s why we like scary movies. We like to be a little disrupted in our normal day to day, and something like this has a little element of danger, has the possibility that you may embarrass yourself. Or you may look glooooorious.”
Against a soundtrack of thudding axes and heavy metal music, Sheesh and Slice throwers close out game five of their match against Jam ’n’ Beans, which includes musician Jim Halbasch, a guitar player who savors “the primal feel of sticking it” when a throw goes just right. He and his partner appreciate the together-time and the chance to do something completely different than what they’re used to doing.
On the last throw of each game, players have the option of targeting a blue dot on the outer edge of the target, worth 10 points. In high-level games like the final match of the Leawood league’s winter tournament, where both teams made bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye, the final frame can become a marathon test of wills where players go back and forth, turn after turn, pummeling that blue dot until someone blinks. Leading by four, Pope and Wilson discuss whether he should risk the low-percentage, high-reward shot or play it safe.
“Big players make big plays!” Pope finally says, and goes for blue. He misses, settling for two points. But it turns out to be enough: Sheesh and Slice get their win, and the players all shake hands. “There’s competition, but it’s pretty chill,” Wilson says, “which is perhaps a good thing, since there are axes involved.”
Back when Matt Baysinger was a guidance counselor, one of his jobs was to help students write their college essays. “Often, the first draft was just garbage,” he recalls. “Just terrible. They would try to play it really safe. ‘Well, I don’t know who’s gonna read it, so I need to make sure I say something that everyone will like.’ I was like, that’s not how you tell a great story.”
How you tell a great story, Baysinger would have us believe, is live a little. Risk looking silly. Sing off key. Take the big shot. Have some fun.
The clock is ticking, babies. Axes up.