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5 Things You Need to Know to Successfully Manage a Team, With Nate Martin, the CEO of Puzzle Break

“Give them the opportunity to fail. If skilled employees don’t have enough autonomy to make decisions impactful enough to cause real…


“Give them the opportunity to fail. If skilled employees don’t have enough autonomy to make decisions impactful enough to cause real impact on your organization, you’re probably doing it wrong. On the flip side: trust but verify. Have regular candid conversations with employees at all levels to understand parts of the business that would probably shock you. Work with them to innovate and excel. Not only will your business thrive, your employees will appreciate your investment in them and you’ll grow their skills. Skills that will further enhance your business. It’s a blessed circle!”


I had the pleasure of interviewing Nate Martin, the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Martin is a frequent lecturer on the topics of escape rooms, interactive entertainment, design, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is a Business Journal 40-Under-40 honoree and is commonly credited as the “Father of Escape Rooms.” He was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts prior to Puzzle Break. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I come from the world of software and video games. After graduating from the DigiPen Institute of Technology with a degree in computer science, I joined Microsoft as a developer working on Windows Vista (you’re welcome). Later, I shifted to the program management discipline, rose through the ranks to become an executive, and left to pursue my passion of video games. I joined Electronic Arts where I ran the Global Online Services division before leaving to start an entertainment revolution. Hopefully.

I co-founded Puzzle Break in Seattle in August 2013, which makes us the first American escape room company. For those unaware, escape rooms task teams of players with finding clues, solving puzzles, and escaping a room before time runs out. It’s the most fun you can have and a fantastic teambuilding exercise. We operated on a shoestring budget out of my own pocket and grew organically. We now have several locations across the US, a dedicated division that runs portable experiences across the globe, and a close relationship with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line that offers Puzzle Break games on over half their fleet and growing. I’ve had the fortune of being dubbed the “Father of Escape Rooms” which is a true honor; It’s been a wild ride.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Nowadays, Escape Rooms are increasingly ubiquitous. Even if you’ve never played one, you’ve probably heard of the concept. This wasn’t always the case. Throughout the first few years of our existence, we’d frequently get contacted by folks looking to purchase/outfit/discuss panic rooms, doomsday bunkers, and the like. They assumed that’s what an “Escape Room” was. We’d get some pretty irate calls and emails from folks outraged that our escape rooms didn’t meet their needs. Oftentimes, neither party realized the other wasn’t who we thought they were until after some hilarious correspondence. We still get some of those calls, but thankfully far less frequently.


How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

There’s a million wrong ways to do this, and only a handful of right ways. During my time at software giants like Microsoft and Electronic Arts, I constantly witnessed attempts at bringing larger teams closer together go horribly wrong. Often at extreme cost. At Puzzle Break, I like to take a defter approach when possible: I don’t.

Too often, large teams have little to no business working together. Spending resources to force square pegs into round holes is bad for business. My advice for folks facing this challenge:

1. Identify potential and actual problem areas.

2. Identify how these can be streamlined or removed…

3. …by involving the fewest amount of people with the lightest weight of processes.

If large teams can successfully work together via the efforts of a small number of people, that’s often the best solution. And the cheapest!

What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?

With customer-facing Puzzle Break games across the globe, our biggest geographical challenge is quality control. It’s critically important that our experiences are consistently high quality. The three biggest ways I recommend tackling this challenge (which apply to all businesses in all sectors):

1. At all costs, ensure the folks on the ground are invested in success. Without strong local leadership driving excellence, this is an impossible challenge.

2. Ensure those valued local leaders are fully empowered to make the decisions necessary to improve and maintain.

3. Understand that true perfection is impossible and is often the enemy of great.

We have an especially high-quality escape room at our Seattle headquarters that drives a lot of business. An escape room critic with a large readership played the same room at one of our other locations and had a poor experience. We did an investigation and it turned out the manager had a fundamental misunderstanding of their role. This was a minor fix and had cascading benefit when corrected.


What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Give them the opportunity to fail. If skilled employees don’t have enough autonomy to make decisions impactful enough to cause real impact on your organization, you’re probably doing it wrong. On the flip side: trust but verify. Have regular candid conversations with employees at all levels to understand parts of the business that would probably shock you. Work with them to innovate and excel. Not only will your business thrive, your employees will appreciate your investment in them and you’ll grow their skills. Skills that will further enhance your business. It’s a blessed circle!

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

In my view, too many companies foster cut-throat cultures of fear with things like zero-sum employee review systems that absolutely murder employee morale.

My advice: At all levels of management: Empower, be respectful, and be well-mannered. If you foster a culture with these values, retainment takes care of itself. And if those values are upheld, the attrition you do see will be well-served for all parties.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

1. Lead by example. This is an equally hot tip for both managers and literally everyone in society. The simple act of living the values you expect from others is peerless when it comes to managing, inspiring, and teaching others. Before I became a CEO, I worked under managers who embodied the opposite ends of this spectrum. The first was a case study of “do as I say not as I do”. His behavior never matched that of what he expected from his employees, and his team was plagued with low morale and ambiguous strategies. At Microsoft, I was blessed with two managers who were awe-inspiring. They not only talked the talk, they walked the walk. I was constantly inspired to be better and was able to closely observe how they were so successful and learn from them.

2. Empower. If you’re a manager, there’s always going to be sub-optimal stuff going on that’s not on your radar. It is on the radar of someone below you, and if they don’t have the authority to fix it, everyone has a problem. This is a common issue with startups that experience rapid growth. When it was 2 people in a garage, the 2 most junior employees had complete knowledge and complete authority. When those 2 co-founders suddenly have 50 employees, it can be extremely hard to delegate decision making authority.

3. Focus on careers. We are all the protagonists in our own stories. It is easy to focus on and map out every next step of your career path. From classes to projects to deliverables to skills to politicking, successful people in the corporate space must always be thinking three steps ahead. And you know what makes that easier? What builds your morale? What makes you loyal? When your manager remembers that they’re not the only protagonist and help you along the way. Be that manager.

4. Be respectful & well-mannered. Another lifehack for all members of society including managers. Being polite costs nothing. The return on investment for being nice to your fellow humans is literally infinite. I constantly witness folks at senior-ish career levels exhibit boorish behavior and silently wonder how much further along they’d be in their careers if they took a second to think before they spoke. And happier. That said…

5. …Some people are jerks. Over time, it is inevitable that you will end up with a jerk or two on your team. Depending on a number of factors, they can be poison to a team. I’ve seem completely healthy teams absolutely destroyed by the animus of a single jerk. Converting a jerk into a nice person is often impossible, but don’t let that stop you from trying. Kill them with kindness. Lead by example. Be respectful. And don’t be afraid to limit collateral damage by laying the hammer down when appropriate.


You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Let’s work together to figure out poverty. An enormously complex problem easier said than done, but, I’m confident that if society solves the fundamental root causes that cause those of us with the least to suffer the most, the benefits to all of humanity will be manifold.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t open your mouth without putting yourself in their shoes first.” Approximately 97% of the professional conflict I witness is utterly and completely avoidable. All you gotta do is shut up, think about where the other person(s) is coming from, and factor that into your line of thinking. This applies to managing teams, running companies, successful relationships, family, the DMV, you name it. Not only does this avoid unforced errors, it’s a shift from a society of “me” to a society of “us”, and that’s a win for everybody.

Originally published at medium.com

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