When Max Simon was 13 years old, he and his cousin, 16-year-old Nick Francis, entered a national contest to create a backyard haunted house. Five years later, their business—the Fear Experience—is hailed as one of Northeast Ohio’s premier Halloween attractions.
In 2008, the cousins devoted their summer to building a haunted house on the Francis family’s private property to enter a “Good Morning America” contest. Following months of hard work, their haunted entry received the most online votes. But because their haunted house was on private property, the pair had to convince their parents to let them open it to the public for one night. In just the few hours it was open, more than 500 people came through. Excited by the success, they decided to revamp their creation into a commercial haunted house and open it up the following Halloween season.
“The city said we could never have that many people come through private property again, so we needed a real space to build it,” Simon said. “We went around asking commercial real estate owners for space, and eventually found an old abandoned grocery store to use.”
In 2009, the Fear Experience opened for its inaugural commercial season as a nonprofit partnered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They donated over $16,000 over the two-year partnership. Several thousand visitors came that first season, and the success encouraged Simon and Francis to continue the business. Now, the Fear Experience is in its fifth commercial year and has doubled in size over 2012; it now comprises four haunted houses within the attraction. It employs more than 70 workers in-season, as well as a year-round construction crew that works on the attractions.
“Even though the business is Halloween-based, it’s really a year-round job. There is always work to do, in and out of season,” Simon said. “But there’s nothing more rewarding to me than when we open up our doors and see people experiencing the haunted house and enjoying themselves.”
Over the past five years, Simon has learned all aspects of operating a business, from the creative (he gets his ideas for creepy attractions by brainstorming what would be shocking and exciting) to the functional (their fathers taught them business savvy, and now the cousins solely run the operations). He’s even developed management skills by overseeing the 70-plus employees—most of whom are older than he is and have taught him a thing or two about being a great leader.
Simon splits his time between being a first-year student studying computer science and finance and the owner/operator of the haunted house, located about 20 minutes away from campus in Parma.
“I want to do the haunted house for as long as it makes sense, and eventually, I hope to start a business that will provide custom-software solutions for other businesses. I feel that my business experience and software knowhow will be a good combination for my future,” he said.
Learn more about the young business owner in this week’s five questions.
1. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
If I could live anywhere, it would be Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland doesn’t get enough credit. There is so much to do, see and experience here. It needs more leaders and innovators to thrive, and I would like to be one of those people. One day, I hope to be able to provide good jobs and promote economic activity in the area.
2. What was your first concert?
My first concert was a Billy Joel concert I went to with my dad when I was about 13. It’s still the best concert I have ever been to, no competition. He is a great performer and one of the most talented lyricists I’ve ever heard.
3. Where is your favorite spot on campus and why?
My favorite spot on campus is the Peter B. Lewis Building. I’ve always believed that good architecture should get you thinking and inspire your creative mind. Every time I’m in or around the building, it does that for me; there’s always some new feature I notice that really gets me thinking and wondering how it was built or designed. And, of course, I like that Lewis is a Clevelander.
4. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years, I hope to be in the software business providing much-needed solutions. Processes in industries like education and health care can be more effective, and software is just the thing to do it. That increased effectiveness could mean huge savings to patients, students and more. I also believe in software as a service. It has incredible potential to benefit individuals and businesses alike.
5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The professors. In high school, you go on a lot of college tours, and on every tour you are told how wonderful all the professors are. Sometimes, I couldn’t help but feel that it was an exaggeration. However, at [CWRU], the professors have completely lived up to what’s advertised. I have found that they are engaging and willing to help students who seek them out.