TUPELO • Stacked nearly from floor to ceiling in the warehouse of the Deadbolt Mystery Society are some thousands of “mystery boxes” sent not only to members and customers across the United States, but to some 40 other countries as well.
Created by brothers Jason and Shawn Brannon about four years ago, the Deadbolt Mystery Society is a monthly subscription box service that sends a new case file mystery to members’ doors every month.
Think of each box like the board game Clue, but elevated several notches.
“It’s like a ‘Criminal Minds’ themed escape room,” Jason said. “The way you unlock information is you solve puzzles, which is the escape room component. But the story component is heavily mystery- and crime-based. You get to the rest of the story by chipping away at these puzzles and these things that might be evidence-based.
And it was an escape room business – Deadbolt – that the Brannons opened in 2017 where the Deadbolt Mystery Society boxes got their start.
The Brannons had to find more room for their business and expanded a couple times. But that wasn’t quite enough, and earlier this year, they moved into an even larger facility on Graham Drive, where some 40 employees – half of them full-time – help with writing, designing, marketing and distributing the boxes.
“We’ve grown, but our business has changed,” Shawn said. “We started as an escape room, but this component of the boxes was a very small idea that we had hoped would be an add-on to the escape room so that people might take something home with them. That’s what we hoped it would be.”
It has become all that and then some.
“We quickly saw that it was what needed all of our attention,” Jason said. “It got a lot bigger than we expected to in a short period of time.”
The first subscription box was shipped in March 2018, from Jason’s kitchen table, the first of about 25 boxes that month.
“It just kept growing every month after that,” he said. “People would just find us. We’d get in front of people without even advertising to them. We send to 40 countries like Singapore, Japan, Australia, Canada ... somehow people have found us and we’ve got people doing these all over the world. We’re not complaining at all – it’s just great.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was a major reason behind the Deadbolt Mystery Society’s explosive growth. As more people were staying at home, they were looking for things to do. Family game nights become popular again, with board games finding their way back into living rooms. With a chance to solve a different mystery at least once a month, Deadbolt was in the right place at the right time.
“People were stuck at home and they found us to help them get through the pandemic,” Shawn said.
While the restrictions eased last fall, reopening the escape room wasn’t feasible, as initially there were still limits to capacity. In addition, an escape room typically involves a small group of people huddled in a small room, and with social distancing guidelines in place, it simply wasn’t going to work out well. So the Brannons pivoted fully toward the Deadbolt subscription box business model.
“We heard people all over throughout all this about the boxes helping them divert their attention and having fun,” Jason said. “We had people play though Zoom, and we even had some free activities, and we had people playing all over. People were looking for something to do, and we were fortunate they found us.”
“People kept their sanity by tracking down a serial killer in their home,” Shawn said with a laugh.
Not all the boxes involve a serial killer, of course, but they do often center around some similar event since it is about solving clues. Ironically, the most popular box during the pandemic that was actually developed a year earlier was the “Infected” box.
“This was not planned for the pandemic,” Jason said.
Subscriptions entitle members to one box a month and any special boxes that may develop along the way. The cost is $24.99 a month plus tax, but discounts are given to longer-term subscriptions. Boxes can also be purchased individually if a customer doesn’t want a membership.
Among the Deadbolt Mystery Society customers is none other than Amazon.
The Brannons signed their company’s first Hollywood deal in December, which materialized through the release of the Amazon Prime television series “Tell Me Your Secrets” earlier this year.
The Brannons were asked if they’d be interested in developing a promotional mystery box to send to influencers, actors and others to market the series.
They were hesitant at first because they were up against a tight deadline to put out another monthly box, plus the holidays were a notoriously busy time.
“There was a lot of back and forth between us and the producers on which direction to go,” Shawn said.
The series had already been written, and the Brannons had to design a box that had to have a strong connection to what had already been done. They got to see the series in advance, and they designed the box from there.
“If it had been a different company, we might have said we don’t have the time, but when it’s Amazon approaching you to do a TV show, of course we’re going to do this,” Jason said.
Other companies have also approached them about doing boxes. Some dropped off because of the pandemic, but others are still in discussion.
So what started as just a two-person team with Deadbolt has by necessity grown ever larger. The company grew during the pandemic as demand and interest soared, and having to provide one new box a month also prompted the Brannons to find a little extra help.
At the peak of the pandemic, the Deadbolt Mystery Society sent some 25,000 boxes a month. That number has dropped, but interest remains strong.
“Besides us two, we’ve got a terrific team,” Sean said. “We’ve got two other writers, a graphic designer, customer service, marketing and shipping. So many hats that we were wearing we’re now grateful to have an awesome core team that can handle their areas and contribute to our success.”