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“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry”, with Nate Martin, CEO of Puzzle Break

Be aware of survivorship bias. Just because the execs at Company X did things a certain way and became a unicorn doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens/hundreds/thousands of folks who did things the same way and failed. Find your own path. As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in […]


Be aware of survivorship bias. Just because the execs at Company X did things a certain way and became a unicorn doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens/hundreds/thousands of folks who did things the same way and failed. Find your own path.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nate Martin. Nate is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Founded in 2013, Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in New York, Massachusetts and across the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. He is a Business Journal 40-Under-40 honoree. Martin is a frequent lecturer on the topics of escape rooms, interactive entertainment, design, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Commonly called the “Founding Father of Escape Rooms”, he is a combination evangelist, ambassador, and thought leader. A graduate of the DigiPen Institute of Technology and former professional poker player, 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! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I spent the first part of my career in technology. I am a software developer by education, but after joining the big leagues at Microsoft I learned quickly that I’m a B- engineer on my very best day (and I didn’t have too many great days). I transitioned to the product management discipline and never looked back.

In 2013, I learned about real-life Escape Rooms that were just starting to emerge in Europe and Asia. Utilizing my experiences in product management, business development, game design, and $7,000 out of my own pocket, I co-founded Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. I also leveraged my passion for games, puzzles, and my unparalleled luck to be in the right place in the right time to catch lightning in a bottle.

Years later, Puzzle Break is a world leader in the escape room & immersive entertainment space, and I’m a bonified D list celebrity.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

Tricky question: Folks should always be a little wary of those positioning themselves as experts; they’re often trying to sell you something!

That said, I’ve been fortunate to rise pretty far across a couple of industries & disciplines. I’ve also had the good fortune to connect with all manner of people at the absolute top of their fields. Folks who have taken enormous risks and made the world a better place. I’ve been a mentor and mentee. Becoming a thought leadership authority is as simple as:

1. Striving to be the best while surrounding yourself with the best and

2. Doing #1 for a long, long time!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of Puzzle Break’s biggest successes is our long-standing partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. We have designed and produced a variety of experiences on over a dozen cruise ships to date. Millions have been entertained, jobs have been created, the impact is hard to overstate.

The entire partnership started with a cold email I sent completely blind. Since the beginning, I’ve seen the potential for growth that we’ve only just begun to realize now, but until fairly recently, escape rooms were still in their infancy. Much/most of the world hadn’t heard of the concept. One area for which I knew escape rooms would be perfect is a cruise. It’s an all-new activity that crosses virtually all boundaries, and you’ve got a rotating captive audience. Problem was, I had no way of getting in contact with any decision makers.

In 2014, Royal Caribbean hired a new head of their entertainment division. I knew Royal Caribbean really valued high-quality entertainment, and I suspected the new leader would be open to radical ideas. I sent a two-line email to several email addresses that I suspected might be his. My hunch (and luck) were on point, and we were on the phone the next day discussing a pilot game with grizzled ship captains. The rest is history.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Once we grew to a certain size, we started hiring our first employees. I lined up a particularly promising candidate and we scheduled their interview at Puzzle Break across town from where I lived. In general, I’m a huge stickler for time management and promptness. Shamefully, I was running late to the interview, and this was exacerbated by traffic. I arrived at Puzzle Break 5 minutes after the scheduled interview time to find the candidate patiently standing outside the door.

After apologizing for my tardiness, I discovered I had forgotten my keys at home. I was mortified by my own unprofessionalism. Locked out of my own escape room.

I can’t imagine what the candidate was thinking at this point, but I know I wouldn’t have been particularly impressed in their shoes. After a hasty interview at a nearby coffee shop, I went home in shame. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they never worked for us.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

The thought leader bar is high. A thought leader is an expert, often a visionary. A thought leader has accomplishments beyond reproach. When thought leaders write books on their subject matter expertise, it often becomes a “bible” in their field. They give interviews, they appear on panels, they give lectures. A common hallmark of a thought leader is their eagerness to spread their accumulated wisdom.

Thought leaders *can* be “traditional” leaders in parallel, but this is not always the case. Thought leaders can be retired or outside a chain of command.

“Influencer” speaks only to reach and (surprise!) influence. To become an influencer, all one needs is a large social media following. All thought leaders are influencers. Very few influencers are thought leaders.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

While being recognized as a thought leader is a great honor that I fully appreciate. I don’t think it’s a great idea to start any journey with becoming a thought leader as the ultimate destination. Thought leadership is only attained through excellence and successes in your field. Making a difference. Those are the true rewards of investing resources, energy, and time. When you’ve achieved great & worthwhile things, thought leadership follows.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

The business value of being a thought leader is both very real and hard to quantify. Thought leaders organically bring attention to their business. This can take the form of website eyeballs, link clicks & conversions, old-school media appearances, random introductions to notable folks, the list is endless. All this visibility comes with the gravitas associated with thought leadership.

Visibility + Gravitas = Opportunities.

Opportunities = Growth.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

1. As I’ve mentioned, a vital component of becoming a thought leader is to not make that your primary goal! Thought leadership only a secondary benefit of achieving the *components* of thought leadership. If you ask thought leaders when they set out to become a thought leader, most of them won’t have an answer. They just wanted to change the world and stumbled upon thought leadership along the way.

2. Surround yourself with the best. Exactly no one became a thought leader all by themselves. We can learn from our employers. We can learn from our employees. We can learn from our customers. We can learn from our competitors. Become a mentor. Become a mentee. Wisdom-by-osmosis is a very real thing. “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” — Jim Rohn

3. Parallel, don’t ever stop learning! It’s all too easy to stop “learning” when we leave a formal academic environment. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. The relentless pursuit of knowledge both wide and deep will pay endless dividends. Read read read. Travel. Listen. Learn. And don’t forget to read.

4. Learn how to take criticism. This one is *hard*. Successful people can look inwards and analyze their own behavior. The *most* successful people can listen to what is difficult to hear and turn that into meaningful growth. This is a challenge for virtually everyone, and harnessing this power is vital to becoming the best one can be.

5. Share the wealth. Once you’ve made it, turn your focus (if it isn’t already) towards helping others make it. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a thought leader knows that making others great makes us greater.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

I’ve been nothing but impressed by Satya Nadella’s turnaround of Microsoft. I joined Microsoft in 2006 with Steve Ballmer at the helm. As CEO, Steve missed a lot of opportunities and facilitated a not-so-great corporate culture. By the time he (and I) left, Microsoft was a dinosaur on the verge of extinction.

There’s no metaphor for how quickly and completely Satya has turned Microsoft around. Organizations have been flattened, priorities have shifted, and a herculean effort has been made to revamp the culture. Employees now feel much more valued, and the dividends are manifold. He is rightfully viewed as a thought leader in a number of areas, though I posit none are as important as his leadership in corporate culture. When you strive to make others great, the future becomes a brighter place.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

Purely anecdotally, I haven’t seen it overused. Then again, I haven’t been embedded in the tech industry for a couple years! The buzzword intensity markedly died down once I left Silicon Valley. I appreciate the term, and think it serves useful dual purposes as both a description and honorific.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

If there’s a silver bullet to universal work-life balance excellence, I certainly haven’t found it! 6+ years after founding my company, I still consider myself on-call virtually 24/7. Here’s what I’ve found makes this manageable for me:

1. Don’t be afraid to delegate when you can. It’s impossible for every member of your staff to be as good as you at the stuff you’re great at, but they don’t need to be. They have different skills, and they’re there to help. Use them.

2. Whenever possible, have boundaries. When I travel (for business and pleasure), I don’t *stop* responding to emails, but I don’t turn my life upside down trying to respond instantaneously. Miraculously, I found my business didn’t explode when I left it alone for more than 10 minutes.

3. Be aware of survivorship bias. Just because the execs at Company X did things a certain way and became a unicorn doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens/hundreds/thousands of folks who did things the same way and failed. Find your own path.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

If I could wave a magic wand and solve A. wealth inequality and B. education access, virtually every other problem of the day would suddenly be much more manageable. In the meantime, you’ll find me bringing the most amount of fun to the most amount of people I can.

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

JUST DO IT. It’s not just a trite marketing slogan, it’s the biggest secret to my success. I didn’t know the first thing about starting (let alone running) a successful company. I didn’t have investors. There were countless reasons to not start Puzzle Break. But I saw a path anyway and I walked it.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Dear Disney Chairman & CEO Bob Iger: Let’s chat about bringing a new level of interactivity & immersion to the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter @GuyFromTomorrow and I’m pretty easy to find on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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