Passion Project Becomes Small Business

There are many ways an idea can become a reality, and for one of Kirksville’s more unique business ventures, inspiration came from an unusual source – fourth graders.

Stephanie (Sonntag) Hollenbeck (’14, ’15) has taught at Ray Miller Elementary School in Kirksville since graduating from Truman. Part of her curriculum includes “genius hour” during which time the students are encouraged to research and work on a passion project. Before long, Hollenbeck’s students were the ones giving the teacher an assignment.

“Once the kids were in the swing of things, they kept asking me what my passion project was, and they made me pick one, so I picked learning how to start a business,” she said.

As the school year progressed, Hollenbeck often used the genius hour to explore the finer points of opening a small business. By April 2017, she had decided to make her passion project a reality. In July, she and her husband, Aaron, opened The Ville Escape Room downtown.

“An escape room is a collaborative, social experience where you are put into a scenario that is different from your everyday life and there is some sort of objective to accomplish,” Stephanie said.

Rising in popularity over the last several years, escape rooms commonly include locks, keys and puzzles the participants have to solve in order to be successful. Storylines can consist of scenarios such as robbing a bank or breaking out of a jail cell.

“That’s really just more of the surface level of what it is. People come because they want that social experience we rarely have anymore because of technology,” Stephanie said. “People are forced to interact together and communicate, and it also puts you in situations you never experience in everyday life. It kind of takes you back to the childhood state of play, but in an adult way.”

The Hollenbecks first visited an escape room in Kansas City in 2015 and thought it would be fun to bring something like it to Kirksville. They develop the storylines and puzzles for rooms in The Ville and can spend up to three months perfecting each one before it is made available to the public. While they do not get to participate in the scenarios they create, they do get a sense of enjoyment from the rooms.

“Seeing people play our game and come out so ecstatic, that’s the reward for us,” Aaron said.

In its first year, The Ville has expanded to include three different rooms. With bookings available three nights a week, and by appointment, the Hollenbecks do not have plans for the operation to make them wealthy.

“The escape room will probably never be a full-time business for either one of us,” Stephanie said. “This is more of something that we wanted to give back to Kirksville.”

The Hollenbecks do not take a paycheck from The Ville, and instead have chosen to reinvest their profits from it in the business and employees. They offer above minimum wage, as well as performance bonuses, professional development opportunities and a program to help pay for textbooks for the college-aged members of the staff. So far, the investment has paid off, and the Hollenbecks are pleased with the qualities they have seen develop in their youthful six-person workforce. They also hope to be setting an example in case any of their employees want to start a business of their own someday.

“I could see it happen because we are showing them that it is possible and business isn’t just left to big box stores and millionaires,” Stephanie said.

During her research, Stephanie learned most businesses are started for less than $5,000. She would encourage anyone looking to start their own enterprise to find a mentor, not pay for any services they do not understand and, perhaps most importantly, be flexible.

“It’s not going to go according to the business plan,” she said.

Aaron and Stephanie Hollenbeck

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