Melissa Carbone didn't plan to become the queen of horror.
For years, she and her now ex-wife Alyson Richards created elaborate Halloween displays in their front yard. Their home became a huge neighborhood attraction, and finally in 2008, Carbone began to think that maybe she could turn her passion for Halloween into something more.
So began the creation of Ten Thirty One Productions ( TTO ), a multimillion-dollar entertainment company that produces live horror attractions, best known for its Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. "We got very popular very quickly," Carbone told Windy City Times.
In her famous 2013 Shark Tank pitch, Carbone told the sharks that the L.A. Haunted Hayride was selling out every night in a row for 17 nights, raking in a massive $1.8 million in October alone. This impressed Mark Cuban so much that he made what was then the biggest deal in Shark Tank history, investing $2 million in TTO in exchange for a 20 percent stake in the company. He now serves on the TTO board.
When Carbone started TTO, there wasn't anything else like it. While Halloween was already a $6 billion industry, Carbone explained, there wasn't much structure to the live attraction segment. Beyond that, Carbone was determined to create a horror company, not a Halloween company, one that could produce attractions year round.
She was essentially starting from scratch, building something that never existed before without any precedent for how to do it. "It was the most fun thing I have ever done," she said, "To jump into this pool of risk where there was no template, no structure, no blueprint to follow and build it as I went along."
One major unprecedented attraction that TTO puts on is the Great Horror Campout, a 12-hour, overnight, completely immersive horror adventure. Carbone described it as "a slasher film brought to life." There is also the Ghost Ship. Carbone said that until TTO created this haunted ride, there were no haunted attractions on ships that actually set sail into the ocean.
Carbone uses three major criteria to determine whether or not to produce an attraction somewhere, she said. "The first thing is that we will only use environments that are already creepy, disturbing, haunting," she said. The second is that the company will only create something that doesn't already exist in the environment they have found: "We'll never just throw up another maze and call it a day because somebody already did that, somebody already created that empire."
The final rule is that every single TTO attraction is a completely immersive world. "For us it's about achieving the highest suspension of disbelief possible," Carbone emphasized, explaining that guests are thrown into these haunted worlds from the moment their front tire hits the parking lot to the moment their back tire leaves it. The goal is for people to completely forget about their stressful days and to-do lists. All they should think about, said Carbone, is "What's coming around this corner that's going to annihilate me?"
TTO has experienced massive success, but Carbone said there are some difficulties with being a woman leading the charge. "I think being a woman has made me not very well-liked among industry peers. I don't have a lot of friends in the Halloween attraction industry," she said. Carbone could not even name another female haunted attraction owner in the United States. Being gay, on the other hand, has been an asset, she said. "I feel like the whole LGBT community is supportive of each other, so I think when a new business starts or when a new venture is public about being an LGBT business you get a whole lot of that support."
Carbone's new bookReady, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby into an Empire ( which came out Oct. 10 )details how she went from working a standard corporate job at Clear Channel Entertainment to reigning over her horror empire. The title, she said, "means 'activate.' Don't think yourself into inaction."
Carbone said she believes that those of us with big dreams cannot wait for the timing to be right. "The only time that's ever perfect is right now," she said. Carbone had a boss who used to say she would take 100 shots before her opponent had even pulled their gun out of the holster. If you fire before you aim, she explained, you may miss half the shots, but all you need to do is hit the target a few times. If you have an idea and want to turn it into an empire, you have to do it as soon as possible, she emphasized. "Once you have an idea, I honestly believe it goes out there into the ether and then somebody will grab it if you don't."
Taking the plunge, of course, isn't easy. Quitting her job at Clear Channel Entertainment to start TTO, Carbone recalled, "was incredibly scary and uncomfortable. I had a great job and worked for a great company… It's hard enough to leave a bad job that sucks. Even that's scary…I had a job that was paying me really well. I was doing well in the company, I was moving up really fast, my bosses believed in me, and I left to do something that had no track record of success that didn't even have a record of being a valid idea…I was terrified the entire way."
Fortunately, taking that big leap led to big success. TTO now has four different brands in seven different markets. In the next five years, Carbone hopes to expand the number of markets to 15. Carbone has fulfilled a need that many of us may be surprised was ever there: a need by people to get really really scared. "I always say fear is America's favorite drug," Carbone said, "Especially when you can get scared in a safe environment."
When it comes to others who want to build their own empires, Carbone did not hesitate on the advice she'd give. "It's activate. I will always say that that is the number one most important piece of advice I can give an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are the people who have to build things, who have to walk uncharted territories."