A Life of Climb Podcast Episode 2 – Hunt A Killer CEO Ryan Hogan on managing explosive growth
Hunt A Killer CEO Ryan Hogan joins A Life of Climb podcast to talk about the challenges of managing explosive growth and going from a good idea to a sustainable business. Plus, Ryan shares how failing at a Zombie relay race sent him on a path to #6 on the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing companies. Then I speak with Ryan’s mentor and Vistage Chair Thomas Tomasevic about the potential, and the pitfalls, of evolving from a successful entrepreneur to an impactful leader.
Sam Reese (00:31):
Hello and welcome to A Life Of Climb podcast. I’m your host, Sam Reese, CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses. Today’s episode is going to be a fun one because we’re talking with Ryan Hogan who is the CEO of Hunt a Killer, an immersive game company that has exploded in the past few years. Ryan will take us through an amazing journey that started with a failed zombie race idea, and eventually landed him on the Inc. list of the fastest growing companies, thanks to his unique approach to using storytelling to create products. Along the way he learned some great lessons about what it takes to scale and manage a company through rapid growth. Also with Ryan, his Vistage chair Thomas Tomasevic, who I spoke to about the power of learning and growing from failure, plus the often overlooked superpower of great CEOs, that superpower being listening. Thanks, and here’s Thomas and Ryan.
Introductions: Vistage Chair Thomas Tomasevic and CEO of Hunt a Killer Ryan Hogan
Thomas Tomasevic (01:40):
Hello, everyone. My name is Thomas Tomasevic. I am a Seattle chair. I am the chair of the group in which Ryan Hogan, our guest for today, is participating in. I’m happy to introduce Ryan. Ryan is the CEO of Hunt a Killer, one of the fastest growing companies in our group, and certainly broader than that. Hi, Ryan. Thank you for joining us.
Ryan Hogan (02:04):
Awesome. Thanks for having me, Thomas.
Thomas Tomasevic (02:05):
Tell me, how did all of this business start going back to Baltimore? Going back to your Naval background. Were you always an inventor? Were you always an entrepreneur? Tell us a little bit about it.
Ryan Hogan (02:18):
Yeah, sure. Probably all my life. Thinking back to third grade selling creepy crawlers in Mrs. Price’s class, to shoveling snow and cutting grass through middle school and high school, always very much an entrepreneur or just trying to figure out what is this unique thing that exists where you can make it for yourself? I certainly had the McDonald’s jobs and Burger King. I think I was at Burger King for a couple of years. But there was just always something very special and unique to the feeling and the freedom that comes with entrepreneurship. That’s really been kind of the genesis of all of this.
Ryan Hogan (02:55):
But you’re right. I am a new Seattle transplant, certainly still getting my Seattle legs and building a network out here. That’s really because I spent the last 19 years in the United States Navy. 15 of those years were active duty. I actually transitioned out of active duty in 2017, and I was stationed in San Diego, California. If we rewind about a year before that transition, my partner and I Derek, we started Hunt a Killer. And Hunt a Killer was a live event. Basically we transformed a 200 acre campground into a living crime scene. We brought a whole bunch of people down. There was actors and stage bodies, and just a whole bunch of great immersive storytelling where people can become characters inside of the universes that we created. But unfortunately the concept just didn’t scale.
Thomas Tomasevic (03:52):
So at that time, was there an intention to create a company or was it just an idea about having an event? What was the genesis of Hunt a Killer?
Ryan Hogan (04:00):
Take over the world. Well, that’s not the genesis of Hunt a Killer, but that’s always kind of been the genesis or motto of me. It’s just how many people can we impact with just amazing experiences, and distorting reality, and giving people a break from reality? I mean, there’s just something fascinating and unique about that. So, the game plan was always to build a company, and this was actually our second company, Derek and I’s second company together. Like I said, I’ve had many ideas and different things that I’ve done, but only two have really gotten traction. And the first one was with Derek, my co-founder as well. It was called Run For Your Lives. It was the first ever zombie infested 5K obstacle course race. We grew that. We scaled it zero to 8 million bucks over a couple of years, and then ultimately paid the price of not keeping track of your books and not hiring the right folks.
Thomas Tomasevic (04:54):
There you go.
Ryan Hogan (04:55):
… and all these great things that Vistage has taught me. But, that was really the genesis.
Thomas Tomasevic (05:00):
So let’s stay a little bit with that original business, the zombie business, clearly something that is excitement, adventure, energy-based, something that definitely represents you as I know you. Tell me, those days, so basically there was your need to create new stuff. Your entrepreneurial you was emerging. You had the drive to get things done. And zero to 8 million is not a small success. That actually is noticeable and relevant. Tell me, what are the things that you learned during that experience?
Ryan Hogan (05:33):
A lot, and all the lessons came from all the failures. First and foremost, especially with Run For Your Lives, the first thing we did was hire all of our friends, and that’s cool because you’re never going to get people that are more committed to the vision and what you’re trying to accomplish than those that are closest to you. The problem is, is that once an organization begins to scale, there is a whole new need for different types of skill sets, different types of experiences, different types of leadership and management that you really need to solve before it’s too late, because it becomes too late once you’ve already baked in or made the decisions, the wrong decisions, because you didn’t have that bench strength.
The Hunt a Killer journey
Ryan Hogan (06:15):
What’s been incredible throughout the journey of Hunt a Killer has been, it is a never-ending transition. I can look at the company from zero to five, five to 10, 10 to probably 25 million, 25 million to 50 million, and now 50 million to 100 million, and that’s like seven, eight different phases of a normal growth company that we’re doing over 18 to 24 months. The problem is, there’s a very specific skill set or experience that is needed for each one of those inflection points, and so that was probably the biggest takeaway.
Thomas Tomasevic (06:52):
Typically what we consider that is to be the relationship obstacle. In other words, you create relationship before they vet themselves as relevant members of your team. So would you hire friends for company today as it is?
Ryan Hogan (07:07):
Less so. Less so than the beginning. I mean, Derek is an anomaly out of all of this. Derek is my co-founder. He’s currently VP of development at Hunt a Killer, so he’s working on all the new stories and new ideas. But Derek’s an anomaly because it’s kind of like, he’s got the product and I’ve got the marketing, and it’s just kind of yin and yang.
Thomas Tomasevic (07:28):
Ryan Hogan (07:29):
But early days of Hunt a Killer, we really weren’t looking at that. And the reason for that is, it busts a lot of relationships. I get pinged on Facebook and LinkedIn and phone calls and texts of like, “Hey, my cousin, my uncle, my…” these people that are talking about other folks that may want a job. The problem is, that can complicate relationships and that was a hard lesson.
Thomas Tomasevic (07:51):
And your success, absolutely. So that is something I often see in startups is that lots of it is… Well, it also depends on relationships because you’re expecting a lot and friends are willing to jump in at least for a short period of time. But at some point, you don’t need them as they are. You need people as you need for your functions. Company grows and then relationships becoming a liability to an extent.
Thomas Tomasevic (08:16):
So one of the things that you mentioned is that there were many things you didn’t do or control, and that caught up with you, probably some financial decisions or financial tracking or something like that. I see that a lot in people who are entrepreneurial because they are by nature very optimistic, and optimistic and trusting come hand-in-hand. The end result is not necessarily controlling every single lever that you need to do. So what happened there? How did it affect you?
Ryan Hogan (08:46):
Yeah. It’s so relevant because our new chief business and operations officer, we had a one-on-one this week and she was like, “It’s okay to be optimistic. But sometimes we got to be careful drinking our own Kool-Aid.” I thought that was a really interesting point. And that goes back to Run For Your Lives. There was nobody there reining in my optimism and let’s take this from one event to 13 events to 26 events. We probably should have went from one event to three events, three events to five events, and we could have controlled cash, but yeah, we were very optimistic.
The first thing that formed the story of Hunt a Killer
Thomas Tomasevic (09:20):
So let’s circle back to Hunt a Killer. So you mentioned a big event that was very experiential. You admitted it wasn’t scalable. Was that the first thing that started forming the story of Hunt a Killer?
Ryan Hogan (09:33):
It was. So the difference between the Hunt a Killer event and Run For Your Lives is, Run For Your Lives, we could go and put 15,000 people through an obstacle course race in two days. We could net food, beverage, tickets, spectators, a million-and-a-half, a million seven on a really good event. Well, then we’ve got Hunt a Killer, and we had to the cap it at 600 people because in order to distort reality, we couldn’t have a thousand people standing around a crime scene trying to investigate it or interviewing suspects. So to keep the intimacy and break reality, it needed to be smaller. So when we got done with the event, there was like five grand left over in the bank account. Derek and I were like, “Gosh, this was an entire year of work, and now we get 2,500 bucks each. That’s not a business. This is a hobby.”
Ryan Hogan (10:27):
But we wanted a business. And so we knew that, listen, we’ve got product market fit. There were people, even outside of the people that came that wanted to come to this experience, and folks are always looking for immersing themselves inside of a story, or to be entertained, or to break reality. And people are looking for connection and community. Derek and I looked at that and said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be an event. This could be a physical product that we distribute and we could create that community-like vibe with Facebook groups.” And that was really the genesis of the first iteration.
Thomas Tomasevic (11:15):
So this is a very, I think, critical moment for you also as a very experiential connecting person to be open enough to change your vision from being hands-on and enjoying the sweat and enjoyment that excited people around you are going to get in your events to turn it into something that, frankly, removes that personal connection in real time, but add scalability to a huge extent.
Ryan Hogan (11:42):
Yeah, so we still have our community on Facebook and we’ve got 140,000 people in the secret Facebook group that are doing everything from sharing their cat photos to dressing their dogs up like detectives. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to watch everybody talk about this and share it. But yeah, right now we’re still there. We’re trying to build our own platform and I think we’re a few months out.
Ryan Hogan (12:09):
The first transition for us was obviously from live events to subscription box business model. And that was, to us, the same value proposition, just changing the distribution in which we can connect with our audience. From there, what we really started to look at were things like Harry’s razors.
Thomas Tomasevic (12:29):
Subscription services for target audience.
Ryan Hogan (12:31):
Right. The ones that were successful were doing this in retail environments. So we started to look at this and we start to look at the Birchboxes and the Loot Crates, and started to say, hey, customer acquisition cost and trying to scale a subscription business with consumer product goods, types of churn… This isn’t a SAS business, so we’re not churning at less than 1% or less than 2% each month. It becomes unsustainable. Every company that is a “subscription box company” will ultimately fail if that is their only distribution method. So we started to look at this and say, “Well, how do we get into the Targets and the Walmarts?” It really started to open up our minds to, we needed more products. If we’re going to grow this into a billion dollar company, we can’t do it with a single subscription product. There needs to be more products and we need to open up the markets, target a little bit.
Ryan Hogan (13:25):
So we did two things. The first is we started developing one-time experiences, and these are at a higher price point. So if you look at our subscription as a Netflix series, because it’s episodic, there’s six episodes with each season, you can look at our premium experiences as one time like a full feature length movie. We started to get pretty good at selling these. And we said, well, maybe there’s a way we can take this thing and create kind of this Hunt a Killer box zero, which is an on-ramp. So if you to Target and you look at the Harry’s razors, you can get your razor, your first pack from Target, and then you join the subscription. They’ll keep sending you blades. And so our whole concept was, well, what if we developed a product like that, that was an on-ramp to the subscription and to the direct consumer side? So that’s really what we’ve been focused on. We got picked up by Target. We got picked up by Amazon. We’re working with Kohl’s and some other retailers. But we’ve got a retail extension that currently sits on the shelves, which we’re really excited about.
Thomas Tomasevic (14:23):
What were the good things that made you successful as you are today?
Ryan Hogan (14:27):
I would say the iteration of the product. So everybody wants to talk about great marketing and great distribution and all of these other things that come along with building great businesses. It all comes down to the product. Marketing may get you a bump, PR may get you a bump, distribution may get a product to someone’s doorstep. But if that product is not right, it will never go to that same doorstep, or you’ll never get that customer that you acquired via that Facebook advertising ever again. Business is all about product, and if the product is right, you can solve for everything else.
Ryan Hogan (15:01):
But the one misconception is that the product is never right, ever. We are in a constant flux of iteration. So we have a feedback loop, and one of the things that I’m probably most proud of at Hunt a Killer is the feedback loop that we created since day one. I could make jokes about that we kind of stumbled into creating the community on Facebook, and we stumbled into that because I wanted to get all of the early adopters of the experience in a group to ask them, “What sucks about this experience? What do you not like about this experience?” We’ve been doing that since day one. We listen. After we listen, we make the adjustments. Just the constant iteration and improvement in product, if I sent you our first product, season one episode one, you would be like, “What the heck is this?” And it’s because we continue to improve.
Thomas Tomasevic (15:52):
Ryan, so success is best demonstrated when it’s documented. You were up there somewhere in the Inc. 5,000 rating. Can you tell me more about what the number was?
Ryan Hogan (16:02):
Yeah. We were actually number six on the Incs. fastest growing company list last year. We were also number one in consumer product goods.
Near and long-term future for Ryan’s business
Thomas Tomasevic (16:11):
So what is in the near future, and then in the long-term future with Hunt a Killer? Are you becoming to become number one growing or do you want to slow down the growth and have a sustainability? How are you going to get to a billion dollars that you’ve mentioned before?
Ryan Hogan (16:26):
Yeah, it’s interesting. Growth is fun. I mean, growth is exciting and it’s energizing, and your energy brings other people, great talent on board. When you start to deviate from that, you could lose some great folks. But I think we are going to slow down just a bit. We were, for the first time ever, profitable last year and that’s exciting. We have run this company in a loss since day one, and last year we were profitable. And it was like, “Well, that didn’t take much effort, much more effort or energy just to take a step back or not spend as much money over here.” I think we’re going to continue that trend.
Ryan Hogan (17:03):
I mean, it’s still ambitious what we’re doing. So over the next three years we want to get to 250 million. So this year heading towards that a hundred million mark, three years, 250. So those are still very ambitious. Not as ambitious as the billion dollars in five years, but I don’t think we have to be a billion dollars in five years. I think we can do really good. We can make a profit, which is, I think, why companies exist, or so people tell me, and we could have a lot of fun doing it.
Thomas Tomasevic (17:29):
So Ryan, lots of success, lots of roads that got you here. Can you give us top three that have resulted in your success?
Ryan Hogan (17:38):
The first is hire great people. Hire folks that have the experience that you need for the stage and the size company that you are and that you aspire to be. Number two would be, build a great product. It’s not just about the product that you developed or your version one. It is the iteration cycles that you continue to improve the product or the experience service that you’re creating. And number three is, build a great culture. All of this is meaningless if people are walking around with frowns and not happy at work. So being able to really understand who you are as a company, what it is that you do that’s best in the world, the value proposition that you deliver, and what do you stand for and really articulating that through the values that you create.
Thomas Tomasevic (18:26):
This is all just excellent bookcase example of how things are done. Ryan, I want to thank you for today. I think this was a remarkable time for us to spend together in front of camera and microphones. I hope that other people will benefit from you. I certainly have. Thank you very much, Ryan.
Ryan Hogan (18:43):
Awesome. Thanks, Thomas.
Sam Reese (19:27):
Hello, everyone. Welcome back. I’m sitting here with Thomas talking about to Hunt a Killer and their CEO, Ryan Hogan. It was really interesting to me how Ryan was really open about the failure he experienced early on with that zombie racing business here. I just wondered from your point of view, why you think those setbacks ultimately helped prepare him for future success?
Thomas Tomasevic (19:50):
Multiple reasons. First of all, Ryan, he’s a unique person that has the strength of character to learn from his mistakes. A more likely explanation, if you will, if you want to generalize it, is that all of us learn best from our mistakes. It is our character that shows how do we handle those mistakes, and Ryan being the person that he is, and I have greatest respect and liking for him, he learns and he brushes off the dust and learns that he shouldn’t do the same mistake again, and that is where his greatness comes from I think.
Sam Reese (20:23):
Yeah, I’ve run into many that say, “I was going to be an entrepreneur, but I had this big setback,” and they’re done forever. What’s the difference? You said strength of character. Tell me more about what you think about when you talk about that difference.
Thomas Tomasevic (20:37):
Got it. Well, I have my own explanation, which may be right or wrong. But in my opinion, it is essentially how much do you believe in the world that what feels good is good? So in other words, it is a psychological state effect that some people would say that only the things that feel good are good, and I’m going to live by those things. And essentially that defines the personality type that is going to be discouraged by failure because failure doesn’t feel good. Then the rest of the people that I think get strengthened by the failures are the ones that believe that everything happens for a reason and the reason is learning. So when they are facing something that is not pleasant, they say, “Okay, let me see why it’s unpleasant and what do I need to do about it next time?”
Sam Reese (21:21):
He said something in the interview with you where he talks about being passive. Is that true? It says, I’m not really aggressive. Is that more him being humble? Or how would you describe his personality when it comes to defining himself as passive versus really aggressive?
Thomas Tomasevic (21:39):
There’s no lie in his statement. I think he perceives himself as passive. I would say that he’s not pushy, he’s non aggressive type. But it doesn’t mean that he’s not extremely determined and extremely durable as a personality type. So in other words, he may not insist on his opinion, but he’s going to hold on to it and ask other people for their opinions in a non-threatening way. He really doesn’t start from the perspective of I’m right. He starts from the perspective, I’m curious.
Sam Reese (22:13):
One of the struggles he had, when you listen to him, first of all, even when he has struggles, he never talks about quitting. It’s like, just this is what he’s going to do here. But I think many people probably when they listen to the story, one of the struggles is that he had too much customer demand at the start. While it seems like a good problem, it can actually cripple a business. You talked about this term of being an idea maker. You said the difference between being an idea maker and actually running the business. Explain that difference, why it matters, and how it connects with really this demand issue and challenge that you’ve got.
Thomas Tomasevic (22:52):
Oh, that’s a good one. So thank you for asking that, Sam. So idea makers are essentially people who are visionaries who take pride in being the idea makers, right? So what does that mean? That means that they are driven by creating opportunity or responding to the environment in a positive manner and turning whatever lemons we are served into lemonade. And that’s a positive trait in general. Where I think Ryan goes a step further is he is an idea maker and he gets excited about an opportunity to make lemonade from lemons. But he seems to keep a strong touch with what is possible and what is real as well. So his enthusiasm will take the best of him, but he will learn that that is a potential weakness that he needs to deal with, and he did.
Being aware of your blind spots
Sam Reese (23:43):
He said he needed somebody to counter his enthusiasm. Is that how he explains maybe the difference between what he learned in his first venture versus the success he’s having now, is he’s got this realist who can tell him the way things really are?
Thomas Tomasevic (23:57):
I think so. I think basically that he’s aware of his blind spots, and instead of avoiding them, I think what he is doing is he’s basically creating compatibility with other people who bring him the benefit that he needs. Because I think when it comes down to it, Ryan is committed to his success, not necessarily to him being right, not necessarily to him being egotistical in a certain way or being self-expressed to a higher degree. He wants to be successful, and therefore, when he recognizes that he’s a little bit too much in some area, he seeks help.
Sam Reese (24:28):
When you talk about leaders and you think about this challenge of managing explosive growth at the same time, how does he and how do you counsel leaders to make sure that they keep their life in check while they’re experiencing this explosive growth? There was a point, as you two talked back and forth, where he kind of says, “I got to watch my health, too.” How do you talk to leaders about that so this doesn’t get off balance?
Thomas Tomasevic (24:53):
It’s unfortunately a very common topic. It’s a common topic that many of us have experienced firsthand, and essentially and that is where we realize that our will is stronger than our body. So we are ready to commit to things that frankly are physically impossible and the end result is that something breaks and typically it is us. So with Ryan, Ryan he is… First of all, he is young and he is more cognizant than most people of his age, I would say, in respect of the experiences. Nevertheless, it doesn’t really slow him down from really operating at the edge of his capability, which is pretty high and remarkable.
Sam Reese (25:31):
Has there been personal experience in your professional career that you had to overcome with the will being stronger than the body? I love that. It seems like you’ve talked about that with such passion. You’ve had experienced that yourself?
Wearing many hats as an entrepreneur
Thomas Tomasevic (25:45):
I’m an entrepreneur myself. So the company we mentioned, the one I started some 20-odd years ago, startups, you tend to wear many hats. You need to be in 10 places in the same time. My experience was that during this explosive growth, I was at some point, I was in charge of engineering, marketing, and sales, and that essentially was a rhythm that was hyper exciting. It was very enlivening. It was great in so many ways. And I ended up being a hard to diagnose what was wrong with me at some point when the system started failing down. And essentially what it was, it was a combination of unhealthy lifestyle and too much stress that essentially you just assume that your level of energy is constant and there forever, and at some point your body says, “No, I’m not.”
Sam Reese (26:42):
That’s hard us as leaders and entrepreneurs to believe that, though, right? Do you draw on your personal experiences a lot when you think about how you help some of these leaders that you’re mentoring right now? Is that something you’re constantly thinking about?
Thomas Tomasevic (26:56):
I do, Sam. But you do know that having an opportunity to work with high performing executives, I get more [inaudible 00:27:05] than all of them combined. I benefit from their experiences as well. But yes, unfortunately in this case, I certainly have plenty of my own experiences to learn that there is a limit to everybody’s ability no matter how powerful you may be in your mind. There are limits that physics and physiology bring with them.
Sam Reese (27:25):
I think there’s strength in understanding that, too. I like how you talk about it, that energy oscillates. I think that’s a great way to think about it. Entrepreneurs often create the business, but then when it comes to scaling, they almost always, I’d say the majority, move on because they can’t scale it. How has Ryan made this transition? It was interesting to just hear him say the ways he talks about different phases, but like, “Now I’ve got to get to the next one.” What is unique about the way he’s approaching it versus the way other entrepreneurs may typically struggle?
Thomas Tomasevic (27:56):
There’s still a puzzlement in my mind, because he seems to be operating equally well after this single event category, as well as a running company that is essentially a moving a machine, so to speak. And he’s doing that remotely in most of the cases with multiple conflicting objectives. I think where his strength is, that he is learning to let go of the things that other people can do better than him. I think that is a unique insight that frankly does not come logically because you know what the idea is. You know what you need to do to execute it. It is easier to do it than to explain it. But essentially sooner or later you become a person who is in your own way, and somewhere along the way Ryan has learned that lesson and lived it.
Sam Reese (28:47):
So self-awareness. When you think about that trait, how does that connect to success for leaders? Why do you think that’s such an important characteristic?
Thomas Tomasevic (28:56):
When it comes down to his unique capability, I think that he has learned to listen, and listening to other people allows him to see reality from different perspective, and that is, I think, is one of the ways of his self-awareness. Also the level of humble to accept that his ideas are one sided. They may be brilliant. They may be great. But three heads together are more than one head, and he lives by that rule without thinking that his head is the biggest. So there is a humble aspect to that that I celebrate him for, and I think his self-awareness comes from the fact that he listens.
Sam Reese (29:35):
As you look into the future and his success moving forward and his company’s success, what gives you the most confidence that they’re going to continue, Ryan’s going to continue to thrive, his company is going to continue to thrive?
Thomas Tomasevic (29:47):
Probably the fact that Ryan has never been alone. He has always found a way to surround himself with people that he can benefit from that wish him well, that respect him, and he keeps living down that line. So I think every new challenge that he meets, he creates an environment that is going to support him to find a solution every step of the way.
Sam Reese (30:12):
Well, Thomas, thanks so much for your insights and thanks so much for sharing Ryan’s story. What a success. And listening to the relationship you two have formed and listening to the future ahead of the plans that Ryan and team have, I think this is going to be a really exciting adventure to hear for their success in the future. Thanks so much for your time.
Thomas Tomasevic (30:30):
Thank you for having me here.
Sam Reese (30:31):
Thank you, everyone, for joining us and thanks again to Ryan and Thomas.