Matt Baysinger and Ryan Henrich pedalled 100 miles over Utah’s rocky terrain as a milestone marker in the duo’s relationship — exiting a business partnership and riding ahead on a tight, decades-long friendship, Baysinger shared.
Swell Spark is an entertainment company that creates interactive entertainment through shared experiences such as escape rooms, axe throwing and (soon-to-come) mini golfing.
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“You hear time and time again that you shouldn’t go into business with your friends,” said Baysinger, who in October 2014 co-founded with Henrich the venture that eventually became Swell Spark (the parent company of brands like Breakout KC and Blade & Timber). “That’s because I think a lot of people start businesses without the end in mind; in reality, most businesses have an end — either for the people who run it or for the business as a whole.”
As Swell Spark grew through the years, daily operations intensified and increased the need for frequent interactions in Kansas City, Baysinger explained. That meant staying tethered close to home.
“Ryan is truly the epitome of the adventure/traveler, and he had this realization that he wanted to spend more time traveling and going on these adventures,” Baysinger noted. “My roots are pretty well planted [in Kansas City], and I wanted to continue with the company. … This [exit for Henrich] was a discussion over the course of years, really, and then in the midst of the pandemic, we were able to revisit it.”
At the core of Swell Spark: a friendship that transcends all obstacles and allowed for the duo to agree on a buyout arrangement earlier this year. The commemorated the handoff with a “friend and no longer business partner” adventure — the first of many planned, Baysinger said — that saw the two ride 100 miles in a day around the White Rim Canyon in Utah.
“I think and hope Ryan will continue to be an important part of the Kansas City startup community, future facing. He just may not spend as much time in Kansas City,” Baysinger said, laughing. “We both know that a win for Swell Spark will continue to be a win for him because he’ll always be tied to this business. Our success is his success.
“We started this business 15 years into a friendship, and collectively, our excitement is that we get to be friends for another 20 or 40 years.”
Swell Spark on Friday was named a Top 10 Small Business of the Year finalist Friday by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. Click here to see the Chamber and its media partner, Startland News, surprise Swell Spark’s co-founder Matt Baysinger with the news.
Success over the past 12 months proved evasive for those in the entertainment industry, Baysinger noted. A year ago, he would not have imagined Swell Spark making its first acquisition during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“But a number of things lined up, and this acquisition in Nashville was a good opportunity for us — as well as a good opportunity for the folks who were trying to get out of the industry,” he said.
Swell Spark acquired and rebranded an axe throwing venue in Nashville to its own staple brand, Blade & Timber, which also has locations in Kansas City, Leawood, Wichita, Honolulu, Portland and Seattle. Blade and Timber’s Nashville space opened Sept. 10, 2020.
“We very much had to dive back to our roots of being really scrappy and putting far more sweat and elbow grease than what we’ve had to do the past couple of years,” Baysinger said of the Nashville acquisition. “We now know with certainty that we can overcome some of the weird obstacles that are presented through an acquisition.”
Exploring south, Texas is expected to be the site of the next Blade & Timber location — within the next eight months, Baysinger said.
“We’re looking at all of the growth opportunities in Texas, and I would say that the big three we’re focusing on right now are Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin,” he said. “We of course also have interest in Houston and San Antonio. Ultimately one of our company goals is to open a Texas store.”
At the start of the new year, upward trends finally returned for Swell Spark, Baysinger noted.
“It was like someone snapped their fingers on January 1st and was like, ‘This is going to be OK,’” he recalled. “We started to see really steady growth and positive momentum. At that point in time, we had started to get some of our projects back on track.”
One of those efforts: Sinkers Lounge — an upscale, indoor mini golf bar and restaurant set to open next door to Swell Spark’s popular downtown Blade & Timber location.
“So many people have this nostalgic feeling of mini golf from our childhoods,” Baysinger said. “We’re taking the best components of mini golf, which is family-friendly entertainment and competitive socializing, and pairing that with what’s going to be an upscale facility.”
Sinkers Lounge was slated to open in Kansas City’s Power and Light District in June 2020, but because of the pandemic, will now be opening in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Along with envisioning entirely new concepts, Swell Spark is continuing to create original experiences within its established locations.
“This partnership has been a long time coming; we’ve always had a really good informal relationship with Sporting KC,” Baysinger noted. “When we first opened in 2015, the majority of Sporting KC came out and played a game. They ended up gifting us a jersey with the number 55, which was how much time it took for them to break out of our first room.”
Customers do not need to have any prior knowledge of soccer to play the Matchday Mayhem escape room, Baysinger said, but people will likely pick up new information along the way.
In an unprecedented year that had several lows and highs, the biggest takeaway for Baysinger is that Swell Spark can continue to be a part of Kansas City’s startup community, he said.
“In this crazy year, we’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished and really grateful for the opportunity to work alongside Sporting KC — a brand that we admire so much,” Baysinger said. “Most importantly is that we are really excited to continue accomplishing our goal of making Kansas City an incredible place to live, work and play.”