(Note: this is the second in a series of stories on UAFS alumni entrepreneurs. If you are a business owner and a UAFS alumni and would like to have a story written on your business, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
When Jeremy May talks about the impact of his business ClueMasters on Fort Smith, he alludes to a quote by Steve Clark, CEO of Propak Logistics and mentor to May, concerning the city of Fort Smith.
“He told me that we often compare ourselves to other cities. And while we may not be able to match them financially, we can certainly meet or exceed their wit and creativity as well as show a greater passion for our city,” May said.
“To me, that’s what ClueMasters represents,” May added. “Other large cities may have escape rooms, but we’ve made a better one in Fort Smith.”
The business, which is located in downtown Fort Smith and co-owned by May and three others, offers three escape rooms, where participants are placed inside a room and must use clues to solve a sequence of puzzles within 60 minutes to escape.
For May, the business was less an investment for himself than an investment in the Fort Smith community.
“This isn’t what’s putting food on my table. It was something Fort Smith needed,” said May, who works full-time as a lead marketing analyst at ArcBest Corporation. “Some talk about what our city needs while others complain about what we don’t have. The good news is those aren’t our only two options. We can contribute to the problem or do something about it. ClueMasters is my response. It is an investment I could provide to improve the community rather than criticize it.”
ClueMasters is just the latest business venture for May, whose entrepreneurial spirit was fostered as a student at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith after graduating from Booneville High School. May initially came to UAFS to study for a career in healthcare, but an introduction to business course May took his freshman year changed his career path.
The course tasked May and a classmate with running a small business on a computer simulator. They chose to create a bike-selling company.
“I thought, ‘This is awesome. This was me,’” May said. “We had full control of our business. We picked the quality of parts we bought, the sales price, and how we marketed it. We sold a lot of bikes on that simulator.”
After graduating with a degree in marketing from UAFS, May landed a full-time job at ArcBest Corporation, but he pursued his own business ventures in his spare time. He started small with a cattle farm in 2008, leasing land near his father, who made a living raising cattle.
From there, May undertook a more risky venture: taking out a business loan to buy Carnival Party, a company that rented bounce houses and carnival games for birthday parties and corporate and community events.
“Carnival Party was where I was able to take the model I used in the simulator and apply it,” May said, adding that he quickly learned that he “had more sweat than money.”
His work paid off, but it took him to a crossroads: Carnival Party had grown so much that he either needed to leave his full-time job and fully focus on his business, or remain with ArcBest.
The decision, in a broader sense, dealt with his future as a businessman. Did he want to forge a career as an entrepreneur, or did he want to stay with a company that would provide consistent employment in a job he enjoyed?
He found a way to choose both. He sold Carnival Party while remaining at ArcBest, but his entrepreneurial spirit remained.
“I’m not leaving ArcBest,” he said. “They are a phenomenal company with outstanding leadership and have provided ample opportunity for me to succeed. I’m extremely satisfied with my job and proud of my accomplishments, but I still have some personal goals to accomplish there.”
“This isn’t what’s putting food on my table. It was something Fort Smith needed. Some talk about what our city needs while others complain about what we don’t have. The good news is those aren’t our only two options. We can contribute to the problem or do something about it. ClueMasters is my response. It is an investment I could provide to improve the community.”
With two ventures under his belt, May felt experienced and confident with whatever his next entrepreneurial effort would be. In 2015, May and several coworkers traveled to a nearby city to try out an escape room as a teambuilding exercise. He immediately saw the positive impact the room made on the chemistry between him and his coworkers.
Afterwards, he and his coworkers thought two things: “Fort Smith needs one, and we can make one better.” And the result was ClueMasters.
May wanted ClueMasters to be a cultural staple in the city, so it only made sense for him to open the business at a location in the city’s downtown area.
“I wanted to be downtown because I want to be a part of the downtown energy,” May said. “We wanted to provide something that families can come and enjoy, that locals can be proud of, that visitors would leave wishing they had this back home, and that our local companies have a team building tool to help build those essential relationships and equally important retain those valuable leaders right here at home. If we can make a profit, that’s great, but ultimately this is an investment in our community.”
“The dollars people pay for entertainment downtown are votes for a better downtown and a better city,” he added.