UT business students and alumnus bring panic to Austin with their puzzles

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Business seniors Robert Ma and Leo Chen supervise participants in their live escape game, the Austin Panic Room.

Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

There are 30 seconds left. A team of eight people frantically attempts to solve a collection of puzzles and codes while encased in a small, dark and decrepit house, hoping to unlock multiple padlocks and successfully escape the Austin Panic Room. 

Four UT business seniors — Sean Shen, Robert Ma, Leo Chen and Shannon Wey — paired with UT business alumnus Henry Shi to found the Austin Panic Room in September. Teams try to solve puzzles that lead to clues hidden around the room. If the team correctly answers all the puzzles, it is able to unlock exit doors. 

Cameras inside the room allow the co-founders to monitor what happens and, when needed, offer guidance over walkie-talkies. The founders, who said only 5 percent of participants are able to escape the room within the one-hour time limit, declined to comment on the puzzles’ specifics to keep the clues a mystery.  

“It’s an opportunity for people to come together and really work on their teamwork and logical reasoning,” Shen said. “Especially in a society where everyone is in front of a screen, it’s a chance to do something fun [and] something interactive.”

The idea for the Austin Panic Room came to the four students after they participated in the Ernst & Young Beam Abroad Case Competition and won a trip to London over spring break.  

“We thought it was just such a cool game,” Ma said. “It was like nothing we’d ever been exposed to. It’s such a different way of having fun.”

From there, they scouted potential real estate until they found their current location in East Austin, not far from campus. The team split the costs and used their own personal funds to begin their business. 

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Chen said. “You don’t really learn the entrepreneurship side of business in McCombs, so it’s really awesome getting that firsthand experience,”

By next month, the group plans to hire more employees and open a second room for increased capacity. Ma and Shen said they were surprised that their customers were not just students but also tourists and corporate teams. The attraction now ranks 20th on TripAdvisor. 

To ensure their customers will return, the founders create and write different interactive stories and puzzles every six months.   

“We write out these puzzles and, of course, know how to solve them,” Shen said. “But the greatest thing is just watching people do things and try to solve in ways that are so different.” 

As far as the future is concerned, the founders hope to reach more people and eventually open up additional locations around Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. 

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but none of us came into this with the mind-set that we were going to make a million dollars,” Ma said. “It’s about the learning experience, what we can take away from it and what we can provide for people. Sure, we want to be profitable, but, at the end of the day, we’re all looking to accomplish more than just
making money.”