The Guy Who Designs Puzzles for Escape the Room

If you haven’t heard of Escape the Room, you’re missing out.

The concept, which was initially inspired by online games, is much more thrilling as a live experience. You’re locked inside a web of 150-square-foot rooms for an hour, maybe with your closest friends or maybe with strangers (you decide which is scarier), where you must work as a team to find hidden objects and decipher clues in order to solve the puzzle and break free.

Behind the curtain — or in this case, behind a big TV monitor on a perch outside the room — is Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, who co-founded several Escape the Room locations with his friend Max Sutter. (“Think of it like a karaoke bar,” he says. “Anyone can open one.”) They now have three spots: New Haven is their flagship, but the Escape Industries network, which they co-founded with local partners, also includes Sacramento and Rhode Island. They build a new game every six months, so each has a lifespan of about two years.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a video game designer, so similar tendencies are at play with the Escape the Room design,” Rodriguez-Torrent says. He’s experienced 20 or 30 different rooms, but he’s still no master: “I should be better than I am.” Here, he discusses the key to success (in Escape the Room, but also in life), how he creates puzzles in a former brothel, and the time he almost banned a bachelor party. Spoilers ahead.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Sutter.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Max Sutter.

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The Soap Maker

Cirese Clindinin whips up 50-pound batches of soap three times per week, which translate into more than 2,000 bars every month.

Inside the confines of her 12′ x 5′ kitchen, Cirese Clindinin makes soap. Lots and lots of soap. She boils down hundreds of pounds per month, on the same stove as she cooks her chicken dinners.

“They’re like my kids,” Clindinin says of her 15 varieties, from almond to eucalyptus, that she concocts for craft shows and online sales on the Down To Earth Body Shop. “I love them all.” She’s a one-woman show, handling research and development, sales, and marketing. She even tests all products on herself to ensure the ingredients — like oatmeal, goat’s milk, and rice bran — won’t irritate her customers’ skin.

Click [HERE] for the chance to win one of Cirese’s handmade soaps through No Joe Schmo.

Age: 31
Based in: Irvington, NJ
Graduated from: I dropped out of Rutgers in my junior year, when my business really picked up.
In the soap business for: About 12 years
Previous jobs: Sales temp jobs and receptionist positions. But I was the worst employee ever, because I would just be working on products for my personal business.

How you got your start: When I was 21, I was working on my business, going to school, and going to craft shows. Then I met Bobbi Brown, and a year later, my products were transformed into a real business when I landed an account with Estée Lauder.

Most valuable lesson learned: Bobbi Brown taught me that nice people finish first. And from Estée Lauder, I learned the importance of business integrity and putting out a good product. If your customers tell you a product doesn’t work, they’re probably right.

Where did you learn to make soap? From Barnes & Noble, mostly, and trial and error. I bought some books, tried it out, and honed it over time. I really like The Natural Soap Book: Making Herbal and Vegetable-Based Soaps.

What were some of your “errors”? Oh, man. I remember being on a crazy deadline for Estée Lauder. I had a big pot with 100 pounds of soap to be melted, and I forgot to cover the pot. I came back four hours later, and there was 100 pounds of soap all over the floor. You would think I would have only done that once, but it’s happened three or four times.

These lemon-vanilla cupcake soaps are topped with real pink coconut.

So you no longer work for Estée Lauder? I worked for her for nine years. That ended when the recession started getting bad. But getting back on my own [and starting the Down To Earth Body Shop] was exactly what I needed, because it was time for me to grow.

What have you learned as a small business owner? Have confidence in yourself, in your ability, and in your product. I’m still learning that.

What ingredients do you use? Mostly simple things you can find in your kitchen cabinet: oatmeal, milk (whole and/or goat’s milk), olive oil, avocado oil, sugar. It’s just like cooking. I add scent, texture, and color with things you might not normally imagine go into soap, like poppy seeds, sesame seeds, rice bran, pink and green miniature lentils, quinoa meal, millet seed, wheat germ, and shea butter.

The process: All the ingredients go into a pot on the stove at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, which takes a few hours to melt down. Then, I pour the mixture into 2-pound trays and add essential oils made with fresh ingredients, like mango oil, tangerine oil, almond oil, and safflower oil. After that, it’s time to create designs, often using old soap. I’ll cut up vanilla soap and layer it into the mango soap and let it dry. Finally, I let the soap harden at room temperature, or put it in the freezer for five to ten minutes. At craft shows, I like to leave it out in blocks and cut it fresh for customers.

Your workspace: I used to work out of this big, 500 square-foot warehouse. Now, I make soap right out of my own small kitchen. I get a much better response, though, since I’m really making it from scratch.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? You have to be strategic. Soap is something that you think everyone needs, but it really requires marketing. It’s also a very messy business, which is perfect for me, since I’m already messy. It’s hard work — my schedule is pretty much seven days per week — and there is a lot of competition.

Best part of your job: Meeting new people, since I don’t really have any coworkers.

Most challenging part of your job: Learning the business side of things. I didn’t really want to, since I tend to be more creative, but I had to.

Cirese’s signature Sandbar Soap is made with a layer of sand and a layer of oatmeal and apricot seeds.

How does your soap differ from the regular store brand? Store-bought soap has more detergent in it, which dries out your skin and makes it tight. My soap, which contains Vitamin E, gives your skin more sheen and makes it softer.

Do you carry spare soap in your purse to avoid that milky pink soap in rest stop bathrooms? I suck it up at rest stops, but I do carry my own soap to hotels — usually something citrusy, like my lemongrass soap. And I always keep a box of soap in my car trunk for emergencies.

Your car must smell really clean. I can’t even smell it anymore. I think I’m immune to it by now. Sometimes, when I’m cutting up the soap at a craft show, I’ll hold it up to my nose and think, Wow, this smells so good! That’s the only time, though.

Your required reading: I love self-help books. I often reread 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself on mornings when I don’t feel like getting much done.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Find one product that you think you can make really well — and that you have a unique perspective on — and brand it. Instead of selling a ton of products, just choose one or two that are really solid. And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Enter below for the chance to win one of 10 homemade soaps from the Down to Earth Body Shop. Entry period closes on Sunday, June 10 at 11:59 p.m. ET. [Browse more of Cirese’s products on her website and Facebook.]

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