Of all the challenges Mondie Gonzales has designed and completed, the most notable may be the one at JumpStart Inc., from which she recently emerged victorious.
Twelve weeks after enrolling in JumpStart’s small business impact program, Gonzales, co-owner of “Escape in 60” in Cleveland’s Warehouse District, won its entrepreneur showcase competition. Her pitch? A unique, more impactful line of escape rooms and other puzzle experiences.
“I was in utter shock,” said Gonzales. “The people in this cohort with me were amazing, with incredible businesses. I did not go in expecting to win.”
The idea that won Gonzales $10,000 from JumpStart was to specially address the corporate community. Her plan is to offer businesses custom escape rooms and other experiences that will help teams re-forge bonds after returning to work or keep up camaraderie while working from home.
In this, uniquely, she’ll also apply her other talent: psychology. A licensed social worker, Gonzales already spends at least half her time running a private practice called Oasis Counseling Services, whose stated mission is to help people realize their goals.
In that respect, Oasis is not unlike her work at “Escape in 60,” where visitors must pick up on clues and agree on the best course of action in order to break out of a room.
“It kind of touches on both of my skill sets,” Gonzales explained, noting that an escape room “can be a therapeutic activity. It requires you to communicate and work together well. The team building aspect is super-important to me.”
JumpStart, certainly, was impressed. Shanelle Johnson, senior deal flow analyst, said Gonzales is a “passionate entrepreneur who brings a unique viewpoint to team building and collaboration.”
Johnson said the contest-winning plan submitted by Gonzales, which includes running scavenger hunts in collaboration with other downtown businesses, will “enrich our small business community” through cross-pollination and “bring new products and experiences to Clevelanders.”
That, of course, was the plan all along. Long before she found JumpStart, Gonzales and her husband were already injecting the local escape-room scene with fresh energy.
Self-described “puzzle nerds,” Gonzales and her husband bought “Escape in 60” in 2019. They’d come to do an escape room, and when they learned the previous owner was selling, they leapt at the opportunity to design new challenges of their own, challenges not to be found anywhere else, such as rooms resembling a prison block and the sets of “The Office” and “Friends.”
The pandemic hit “Escape in 60” hard. And yet, by welcoming only private groups, adopting stringent cleaning protocols, and reducing capacity, Gonzales said she was able to bounce back quickly.
Business picked up even more once people returned to work or committed to remote operation. Gradually, companies started approaching “Escape in 60” for team-building exercises, virtual escape rooms, scavenger hunts, and other morale-boosting adventures.
“I can design puzzles for whatever your goals are,” Gonzales said.
That’s when JumpStart entered the picture. Like a major clue in a difficult escape room, Gonzales said JumpStart’s 12-week small business impact program proved “so unbelievably helpful,” teaching her to think like a customer and focus on what she does best.
Winning the top prize was like breaking out of an escape room completely. It gave her both the confidence and the resources to pursue the ideas she’d developed with JumpStart.
Previously, Gonzales said, “Escape in 60” relied for traffic almost entirely on word of mouth advertising. There was little to no money for marketing.
Now, as a JumpStart winner, she can begin actively promoting her escape rooms and targeting the corporate sector. In particular, she said, she hopes to boost her downtown scavenger hunt menu, believing that to be the most beneficial for Cleveland.
“Those get people through the door, and even just a little exposure can be incredible,” Gonzales said. “The more we can do that, the better.”
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist living in Shaker Heights.