Jonah Sandler, CFA, is the founder and CEO of Scene75 Entertainment. Scene75 brands the largest indoor entertainment centers in the country and was named the Top Family Entertainment Center in North America by IAAPA in 2016. With locations in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, and two additional locations under development in Pittsburgh and Columbus, Scene75 will attract more than 1,500,000 guest visits next year. Jonah was selected from among 15 million global small business owners to serve as a keynote speaker at Facebook’s Global Annual Sales Meeting in 2013 and served as one of 12 business owners on Facebook’s inaugural Small and Medium Business Council, advising Facebook on its marketing tools. Jonah is the author of Before the Doors Opened: How One Entrepreneur Captured the Hearts of a Community and the Attention of Facebook. Jonah was recognized as one of the Dayton region’s most influential leaders as a Forty under 40 Award Winner and presently serves on the Raj Soin College of Business Dean’s Corporate Advisory Board at Wright State University. Jonah graduated summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis and with honors from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Jonah is a CFA charterholder.
How did you get into the industry?
During the summer of 2008, amidst the global financial crisis, I was a summer associate at an investment bank in Chicago. On the last day of my internship, nearly half of my office was alarmingly terminated. Yet on that very same day, much to my surprise, I received a full-time job offer to return to the bank that next Fall upon graduating with my MBA. As I traveled home that evening, in shock from seeing my equally hardworking teammates, who had graduated from the same school with the same grades only one year prior, being asked to leave the property, I began to contemplate my life and my career through a new lens. If I were truly passionate about my work that summer, I would have accepted my experience as a casualty of the most turbulent of times within an ever-changing market cycle. But the more I tried to reason with myself, the more frustrated I became. While I liked banking enough, it was not my passion. It was my job. And I found myself wondering the following, ‘If I am not passionate about my job, will I ever be able to reach my potential in such a career?’. I thought not. But what was my passion? The more I thought about this question, the more I realized that my family was my true passion. And my family was struggling. My father, a real estate developer in Ohio, owned a 164,000 square foot, vacant warehouse north of Dayton that he had been challenged to lease for years. The building became a financial burden to my family, so much so, that I was inspired to return to Ohio to try to create a plan with my father to fill that building with an entertainment concept – a concept that I believed would be able to weather the storm of a challenged economic environment. If we were successful, I would not only be helping my family to the best of my abilities, but also be building a career for myself and potentially creating something of regional significance to our community. And for those three reasons, I knew of no higher calling for my time and began working 80 to 100 hour weeks to learn the industry, experiment within it, develop contacts, negotiate unique deals and ultimately open our very first Scene75 Entertainment Center in 2012.
Any emerging industry trends?
The family entertainment industry has experienced quite a bit of change over the last ten years. We have seen a transition from league based bowling centers to bowling anchored entertainment centers that feature multiple attractions, such as laser tag and arcade games. Most recently, we have seen the proliferation of escape rooms and trampoline parks. We have also seen a increased emphasis on food and beverage across the industry.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
We all know that retail is changing; many large retailers are closing their stores nationwide on a seemingly daily basis. Though certainly a state of concern across the country, this challenge poses a unique opportunity to our industry. We are able to backfill many of these large vacancies in malls, plazas and big-boxes with entertainment concepts that can re-energize centers and breathe new life back into communities. With more than 250,000 visitors per year to each of our locations, we can help these centers drive foot traffic.
The challenge I see that stems from this is that with increased opportunity comes increased competition. At Scene75, we need to continually improve to ensure we are living out our mission of saving communities we care about from boredom. We must continue to show our guests that we are the best entertainment option for them and that at the end of their visit, they leave happier than when they arrived – though I must add that a crying child who had so much that he or she does not want to leave is typically a sign that we have done our job well.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I believe that an entertainment center should do more than entertain, it should serve the community. At Scene75, we spend most of our strategic hours thinking about not only how can we deliver the best experience to our guests but also what can we do to improve the lives of those in our communities? I want our business to be that incentive that inspires a child to study harder in school. I want our business to help families, friends and co-workers make today different from all other days. I want our business to be instrumental in teaching high school and college students about entrepreneurship, data analytics and marketing. I want our business to inspire others to pursue their own passions. And I want our business to be the source of ‘do you remember that one time when’ stories that we all know make us smile years down the road.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We have an exciting year ahead for us at Scene75 as we plan to nearly double in size. We plan to open our fourth and fifth locations by year end, taking our brand to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Columbus, Ohio. Our Pittsburgh location, which will be our first out of state store, should open late summer, with our Columbus location to follow this winter. Next year, we hope to expand our original location in Dayton with the addition of a ropes course, amusement games, a drop tower and more.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
We will continue to utilize Facebook marketing as a key tool within our marketing toolkit. We will continue to try to attract engaged fans to each location’s Facebook page prior to our physically opening our doors to the public (Dayton, Cincinnati and Cleveland each attracted 23,000, 28,000, and 50,000 fans, respectively, during the pre-opening construction phases). We will continue to focus on improving the guest experience through more in depth training and new products (whether additions to our arcade, modifications to our VIP program, or revisions to our menu). We will continue to think about what factors make one location more successful versus another so that we can continually tweak our operating model. And we will continue to share our story with and provide teaching opportunities to anyone who is willing to listen.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
Scene75 is a family business as my father jointly serves as partner and CFO (and my mom, bless her heart, assists with a little bit of everything at our Cincinnati location). It is a beautiful thing to be in business with family, but it also poses some of the most trying moments. When I decided to move back to Ohio to begin in the entertainment business, my wise father and I made a promise that regardless of the challenges we would face, we would remain best of friends. The most difficult moment for me, and likely for him, occurred about six months into our opening, a moment that tested our promise. Business thankfully was doing great, but my father and I found ourselves stuck in a week of differing opinions on nearly everything, leading to hurt feelings and a sense of inadequacy. This period challenged me so much inside that I contemplated my resignation, as after all, it was my desire to help my family that inspired me to launch this business in the first place. Thankfully, he and I were able to put life back into perspective, and we have been pushing with more success, more laughter, and a lot more fun than ever before. From this experience I learned that family comes before everything and that no one, not even my hero, my father, is perfect. And lastly, that when you have one successful location with two strong willed individuals with differing opinions, it is best to grow to a second, third, fourth and soon to be fifth location to help spread out that will.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
At Scene75, we take great pride in offering a memorable experience for all ages. With more than 150 arcade games and at least 9 attractions per location, we offer fun for the entire family, the date night or the company seeking a team building party. The best part about our facility is that a guest can customize his or her experience to best match desires. We do not charge admission, nor do we require (nor offer) the purchase of a food buffet. A guest can come in and do as much or as little as he or she wants. If a first date, I recommend drink at one of our bars and an 18-hole round of blacklight mini-golf followed by some arcade play. If a birthday party, I recommend our popular pick-4 birthday party package that includes a private room, pizzas, sodas, party host, 4 attractions (such as go-karts, laser tag, bumper cars, and bouncing) and arcade play. If a group of guys or ladies looking to hang out for a few hours, I recommend the Scene75 SuperPass that includes multiple attractions and 1 hour of unlimited video gameplay in our arcade. And if a company, I recommend our team building challenge that creates an Olympics-like arcade and attraction competition complete with bragging rights.
How do you motivate others?
I try my best to motivate through my passion. I love what I do, I love the brand, I love what we do to try to improve our communities, I love the opportunities the brand has given to me, and I love my team. I try to infuse this passion into my teammates. We work in perhaps the most fun industry imaginable – how can we not be passionate?!? I try to ensure my team understands their roles while also ensuring that what they do fuels their own passion. If they are spending too much time on areas outside of their passion, I encourage them to find new ways to tap back into it. I believe leading by example has helped motivate my team. I often find myself working alongside my teammates doing whatever is necessary to help our business succeed. I have been known to jump in the kitchen to help the pizza line or burger prep station, paint walls during the construction phase, greet guests at the door or work the welcome desk, or take some work off of my teammates plates when able. I find that one key to motivating others is to be willing to listen. I care about the well-being of my team, and if I can do something to help empower them or improve their own lives, I am always willing to try.
Career advice to those in your industry?
This industry is far too over-reaching into one’s life to be in it for a paycheck alone. To be successful, this industry requires one to give up weekends, resolve guest concerns on a daily basis, deal with unforeseen circumstances on the regular, understand the needs of a typically young workforce, and interact with a smile each day no matter what is going on in your own life. I believe some contemplating our industry think that they can throw money, games and/or attractions into a building and expect the concept to work. For better or for worse, this industry is far more complex than that. No matter how much capital is thrown at a building, this is a business of people – people banding together to do something for the greater good of a community through a mission in which they believe and a team with which they genuinely want to stand.
What do I do best?
Connect with empathy.
What makes me the best version of myself?
The pursuit of excellence. Though I almost always fall short of excellence, I love the pursuit. I don’t want to be good. I want to be great. And I want that for Scene75 Entertainment as well. Hence, it is one of the core values of the company.
What are my aspirations?
When I die, I want people to think of me first and foremost as having been a good person. Anything above and beyond that will simply be a bonus; anything less is simply unacceptable. I want to live a full-life filled with travel, adventure, love, and continual education. From a business perspective, I want the Scene75 brand to be looked upon favorably by millions of people. I would love to be that old man with the good fortune of hearing from dozens of people as to how Scene75 played an important role in their lives – whether as a source of fun, a source of inspiration, a source of employment, or a source of fond memories.
My Biggest Success?
In 2016, I had the distinct honor of standing on stage at the IAAPA conference with my father as Scene75 was named the Top Family Entertainment Center in North America. While the award was great in itself, it was being on stage with my father that made this moment so special, particularly so knowing how hard we had worked, how we had risked everything to make Scene75 a reality, and how so many did not believe in us or our vision. We proved that sometimes the ones with the least experience but the most passion can come out on top.
My Most Challenging Moment?
During the summer of 2008, amidst the global financial crisis, I was a summer associate at an investment bank in Chicago. On the last day of my internship, nearly half of my office was alarmingly terminated. Yet on that very same day, much to my surprise, I received a full-time job offer to return to the bank that next Fall upon graduating with my MBA. This offer essentially symbolized what I had worked so hard in life to achieve – a coveted job, a career in finance after completing both my MBA and the CFA exams, a six-figure salary with signing and year-end bonuses, and the opportunity to continue living downtown Chicago. Yet I turned the job down, leaving me with no promise of a paycheck, the loss of a girlfriend, and a move that pulled me from the excitement of Chicago to suburban Ohio. Many thought I was crazy. I too wondered at times. But I knew that while I liked banking enough, it was not my passion. It was only my job. Fast forward 10 years from that decision date, we will have 5 Scene75 locations that should attract more than 1.5 million combined visitors per year.
An entertainment center should do more than entertain, it should serve the community. So many in our industry focus on only the first part of this sentence; I live to do the second.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
I am fortunate to have many, but none have played as important of a role as my parents, my number one fans. My mom puts everything aside to be with and help her family, no matter what is going on in her own life. My dad has shown me how to keep going in life when life simply does not go as planned. He also gave me the courage to dive head-first into entrepreneurship; Scene75 would not exist without him. Both of my parents taught me that integrity can never be compromised and that life is too short to waste it consumed in ourselves.
Though I have never met them, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a brilliant psychologist who first named the concept of flow and identified that people are happiest when in flow, and Karl Anthony Towns, a current NBA star who wants to be the best and commits the time and energy to do so, are both my role models. Mihaly’s construct led me to my path, at least in part, with Scene75. Towns’ reminds me that having the confidence to achieve the best is necessary to achieve it and that even the most talented of individuals must put in the time to yield results.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
Las Vegas, Orlando and Atlantis are my favorite places to frequent. Trips to Israel, Spain and Italy are among my favorite exploration destinations to date.9. My Favorite
Microsoft OneDrive: makes my life a lot easier to be able to access files from anywhere; Ebay: fuels my hobby of sports card collecting; Don Quixote Award Statue: won this in high school for ‘seeing the good where there is evil’ and it reminds me of the ‘Impossible Dream’, that of Scene75 Entertainment.
My Current Passions?
My current passions include collecting sports cards, following the NBA, public speaking, spending time with family, working with local universities, traveling to new destinations, and of course, all things Scene75.