A decade later, Baysinger, c’09, g’11, and Henrich, ’09, his 33-year-old cofounder and chief operating officer, believe they are feeding a similar craving with the apparently random mix of businesses that operate under the Swell Spark name. Breakout, the company’s first venture, challenges groups of two to eight people to unravel clues and solve a series of puzzles that allow them to “break out” of an escape room. Choir Bar, a once-a-month group singalong and social event, brings together a few hundred strangers for one night to learn a song and share cocktails; the evening ends with a performance in three-part harmony that’s videotaped and made available for participants to post on social media. Blade & Timber is a stunningly simple concept: Players throw axes at targets—like darts, but way more badass.
“A lot of people are like, ‘How can you go from escape rooms—these epic 60-minute adventures—to ax throwing to Choir Bar?’” Baysinger says. “And we’re like, ‘Honestly, it’s the same thing!’”
“It’s all an epic adventure,” Henrich says. “Just in a different way.”
In fact, the unifying thread between these inventive business concepts that at first glance seem to have no connection is, well, the idea of connection itself.
Baysinger was working as a high school guidance counselor and Henrich was a firefighter with a custom design-build operation on the side when they began tossing around business ideas in 2014.
Baysinger had discovered the concept of escape rooms; he was intrigued but realized his mechanical aptitude wasn’t ideal.
“I call it dad-rigging: If I need to fix my sink, I’m at least handy enough to try. I knew I was not gonna be the guy to build an escape room. But I was like, ‘Dude, I can dream up nerdy puzzles all day. Do you wanna try this together?’”
Henrich did. They traveled the country, visiting escape rooms to see how the businesses worked, and they were convinced they could do better than most they saw. They worked 14-hour days—Matt refining the concepts and Ryan building them—to get their first room, Breakout Kansas City, up and running. For customers, even finding the place was a bit of an adventure: The entrance was the back door of an old grocery store in Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood.
“Ryan and I were like, ‘Man, Breakout is a fun activity,’” Baysinger says of the venture’s early days, “but we didn’t put a lot of thought into why. We were just working really long hours and drinking a lot of coffee.”
One day a group of teenage girls came in. They successfully cracked all the clues, screaming and laughing as they broke out before time elapsed. They posed for a triumphant victory photo, then left for coffee—at the same coffee shop Baysinger and Henrich were heading to for their caffeine fix.
“We were behind them for three blocks, and the whole way they were deconstructing what they’d just done,” Baysinger says.
Most amazing: Not once did they check their cellphones.
“We’re behind them in line, and they still haven’t pulled their phones out,” Baysinger recalls, noting that players are asked to stay off their devices during the game. “So at this point they’ve gone an hour-and-a-half without checking their phones, which for teenage kids just doesn’t happen very often.
“Ryan and I had this moment where we were like, ‘This is it. This is something that’s better than.’”
“This idea of shared experiences, and what that does culturally, what that does for families or businesses, has been huge for us,” Baysinger says. “But also what we love is this idea of new experience. There’s no pressure to be good; the hope is just that you have fun. There’s a vibrancy when you have this shared thing you’re doing, when you’re not going face-to-face every time, but instead you go shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Once upon a time, the most iconic example of that shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie was the bowling league. Back when Baysinger and Henrich were born, in 1986, the archetypal Everyman outing (even Fred and Barney were in a bowling league) was already losing popularity. In his noted 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” social scientist Robert Putnam traced the decline in American civic engagement with attendance drops at social clubs, PTA meetings and bowling leagues. While the number of people who bowled had risen 10 percent since 1980, Putnam observed, those who bowled together in league play decreased by 40 percent.
At Blade & Timber Leawood on a blossom-sotted spring night, league play is back.
Alex Pope, who formed team Sheesh and Slice with his fellow engineer, Regan Wilson, says his introduction to ax throwing came during a work retreat.
“No one in our group had ever tried it before,” Pope says. From interns to C-suite execs, everyone was a novice.
“It evens the playing field,” Wilson adds. “You don’t feel embarrassed if you’re bad.”
“It’s the bowling of 2019, but it’s actually easier than bowling,” Pope says. “I’m much more likely to get a bull’s-eye than a strike.”
Though ax throwing may be a hot trend, it’s not merely for the trendy: The appeal extends beyond 20-something hipsters to grandmas, tweens and teens, bachelorette parties and a sorority that rented the entire Lawrence location for Mom’s Night.
“I never imagined so many women would be coming in the door,” says Clint Metcalf, Leawood Blade & Timber’s league coordinator. “People thought it would be lots of bearded, roughneck guys, like a lot of us who work here,” jokes Metcalf, himself a big, bearded fellow whose imposing stature is moderated by a generous laugh. The self-described “avid outdoorsman raised by avid outdoorsmen” with a quarter century of competitive ax-throwing experience (yep, there’s a pro circuit, the World Axe Throwing League, televised on ESPN) says women not only outnumber men, but also often out-throw them.
“And I can tell you exactly why that is,” Metcalf says. “Gals listen to coaching instructions and follow them better. The fellas get up there and it’s, ‘I’ve been selling photocopiers for 20 years, get out of my way, I know what I’m doing!’”