Human interaction is about more than texting and social media posts, said Matt Baysinger, co-founder and CEO of Swell Spark.
“One of the best things in life is sharing a meal together, but sharing a meal together is only as good as the conversation you get to have over that meal,” Baysinger said. “If you haven’t done anything together, that conversation can be a little bit challenging, you know?”
Swell Spark, the parent company of the Breakout KC escape room and Blade & Timber axe throwing concepts, brings innovative experiences to the market in hopes of giving customers something to share — and talk about, co-founder Ryan Henrich said.
“People are looking for hyper-specialized, single, one-off experiences,” he said. “You can see that with places like Chicken and Pickle, where people just play pickle and drink beer and they go crazy for it.”
The idea is for people to face each other instead of their mobile devices, Henrich added.
“What got us so excited from Day 1 is having like a group of 17-year-old gals come to Breakout, finish, walk out the door and then walk two and a half blocks before they even pulled their phones out,” Baysinger said.
The founders sat down in front of Blade & Timber’s prototype axe-throwing lane on the fourth floor of their West Bottoms headquarters to discuss the experience-based journey that led to Swell Spark, one of Startland’s Top Kansas City Startups to Watch in 2018.
Keep reading below the video.
No nostalgia without memories
A lot of people recall terrible high school experiences, Baysinger said. He and Henrich aren’t among them.
The duo met in their teens at Blue Valley West High School, after Baysinger moved to the metro from Boulder, Colorado, and Henrich relocated from the East Coast.
“For better or worse, Ryan and I have known each other for a long time,” Baysinger said. “And whenever we would get together and talk about high school, we were like, ‘Dude, high school was awesome.’”
They tailgated every day in the parking lot after school. They set up lawn chairs in the middle of an intersection and waved at passing cars. Later, they went parasailing together in Minnesota.
“We have always been goofballs and have always found new ways to hang out with each other. We were never the kind of dudes who got together to play video games. It was always something over the top and totally ridiculous,” Henrich said.
“We have done some really neat things together,” Baysinger added. “So when we would get together and kind of reminisce, it was always about those shared experiences.”
Reconnecting periodically after college, the two began exploring the idea of an escape room concept in 2014. The venture caught fire in Kansas City and beyond, with the Baysinger and Henrich eventually opening locations Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Hawaii.
But escape rooms felt like too much of a niche, Henrich said.
“We’ve been brainstorming a long time about what we could do to diversify our concepts,” he said.
“The center, unifying thread that we have is meaningful shared experiences. So it starts there,” Henrich said. “And what we do is we ask, ‘How do people come together? How can they come together?’ And then we pick a concept like throwing axes — something that’s atypical, that takes you out of your normal day-to-day life.”
Among their tricks is crafting an experience — whether a new escape room or an entirely different concept — that’s enough of a challenge for someone to enjoy and make memories, but not so difficult that the person can’t be successful, Baysinger said.
“It’s not any fun if you can’t win,” he said, noting Blade & Timber, for example, went through a variety of iterations to find the right balance for axe-throwing customers. “One of our jokes is that it’s the most fun you can buy.”
Scale fast? ‘Let’s do this’
Realizing the potential for building the business beyond Breakout and Blade & Timber, the company rebranded as Swell Spark this winter.
“It’s this swell of enthusiasm, energy, vibrance and excitement behind an idea. And then there’s a spark that ignites that idea into a real concept,” Henrich, Swell Spark’s chief operating officer, explained. “Matt and I are both very fire-type personalities, so we get really excited about new things.”
Opening Blade & Timber is a good example, he said. They signed a lease on a Friday and had the business opened by the next Thursday.
“We had almost 20 people working at our headquarters. And we just had everybody drop everything they were doing and said, ‘Guys, we are opening this in five days. We’re doing it,'” Henrich said. “They were like ‘Are you serious?’”
“That’s our company. That’s what we do,” he continued. “I said, ‘You guys signed up for this.’ And they were like, ‘Hell, yeah! Let’s do this.'”
The logistics challenge involved launching a new website, establishing policies and procedures, securing signage and, of course, the actual buildout of the space, Henrich said.
“We launched in the flash of that spark,” he said.
A catalyst for innovation
Swell Spark can act so quickly, in part, because it owns a manufacturing and production operation within its West Bottoms headquarters. Catalyst Build provides much of the decor for Breakout and Blade & Timber, as well as supplying to other escape rooms across the world, Baysinger said.
“Catalyst Build specializes in building crazy stuff that Swell Spark dreams up,” Henrich said.
“We have several CNC machines, so we use basically robot-aided manufacturing here,” he added. “It’s not automated by any means, but it’s precision machining — tooling that’s aided by CAD or computer aided drafting. And what that allows us to do is to be able to turn out a really excellent, top-notch product, and be able to make it deliverable for our experiences.”
Catalyst also has a professional-grade spray booth and some of the best woodworking and welding equipment they could get, he said.
“And some of the best woodworkers and welders,” Baysinger added.
“We really do have some of the most talented people that I’ve ever worked with,” Henrich said. “I’ve been doing fabrication for the last decade in some way shape or form. And the team that we have right now is just hyper-talented. They’re extremely elastic in the ways that they try to do things, being understanding of taking on a new process or procedure to think outside the box.”
The pipeline of ideas continues to flow, the pair said. Not only is Catalyst helping Swell Spark develop an entirely new vertical — custom-built and kit secret passageways for homes — the team continues to painstakingly cultivate new experiences, some of which are already in the works at their headquarters.
“We’ve seen some concepts pop up on the coasts, and they’re going totally bonkers,” Henrich said. “And we’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh! We are totally going to do that better.'”
It’s not good enough to be the newest thing on the block, Baysinger emphasized. Swell Spark needs to provide the greatest experience possible.
“Before we launch a concept, we research the heck out of it, and we go and we travel around and ask, ‘Who’s doing this well? Who’s doing this poorly? What are the mistakes people are making? How are they doing it awesome?’ And we try to one-up the best version that we found,” he said. “We take great pride in bringing the best version of things here to Kansas City to launch.”
A swell of support for (and from) KC
Kansas City has proven to be a great testing ground for a variety of reasons, Henrich said.
“One, it’s a gut feeling just from traveling to a bunch of other cities,” he said. “Inside the loop, it feels like it’s pretty politically even. It’s not really a granola town, but it’s also not like a super-conservative manufacturing town, even though those elements exist. Most of the metro is in some sort of neutral or close to it.”
But Kansas City offers more than a baseline for how customers of average Midwestern incomes will react to Swell Spark’s experiences, Baysinger said. The company’s location isn’t just about number-crunching or even convenience, he said.
“A lot of folks ask me, like, ‘Dude, why don’t you want to go back to Boulder? It’s Colorado. You’re missing out.’ Or folks are like, ‘You came from the East Coast? Dude, go back! That place is awesome.’” he said. “Time and time and time again, we’re like, ‘I’d rather be in Kansas City any day the week over Denver, you know? And what we’ve come to find — partially because of our community — is that the ethos of Kansas City is ‘Kansas City looks after its own.’”
Support among the startup and entrepreneur communities is amazing, Baysinger added.
“Kansas City loves local — I think more than just about any town that I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit,” he said. “When you see people doing great things here, there’s almost this familial aspect of like, ‘We want to go support them in what they’re doing.’ And so we’ve been able to ride that early wave with our businesses here.”
Curated experiences like Blade & Timber are made even better when fellow entrepreneurs and even customers tell the company how they can continue to improve their concepts, he said.
“And so when or if we have the opportunity to expand things outside of Kansas City, it’s because Kansas City has made it a better product,” Baysinger said.