Imagine receiving a mysterious box in the mail one day. You open it up, and inside you find a typed letter from an investigator, a century-old playbill, and some cryptic, creepy, handwritten notes. What do you do? Sit down with some roommates or family members and try to solve the crime, of course. Baltimore-based Hunt a Killer has been shipping its eponymous game across the country since 2016. Customers use the props in each box to try to crack a complex murder mystery. Co-founders and childhood friends Ryan Hogan and Derrick Smith got the idea after hosting a weekend-long mystery event at a campground, complete with clues and hired actors. "It wasn't scalable," Hogan says, "but it made us realize there was a market for experiences that allow you to become a character within the story." Building off what they'd learned from running the mystery weekend--and prior to that, a zombie-themed obstacle course--the two used some leftover props to launch a subscription mystery-box experience. Now, Hunt a Killer, with three-year revenue growth of 20,484.9 percent, has earned the No. 6 spot on this year's Inc. 5000, with $27.3 million in 2019 revenue, making it one of America's most wanted games--or, at least, one of the fastest-growing.
The evidence doesn't lie
Each box is an episode with an objective--like identifying a murder weapon--that will get the player closer to solving the crime. This episode's objective is to eliminate a suspect. A new episode arrives each month, and the goal of the finale is to solve the crime. The original concept was a sprawling story with continually mounting evidence, but customer feedback taught the co-founders to incorporate a payoff into each box.
The contents can be so convincing that a Maryland woman once called the police to report that a serial killer was mailing her letters. It turned out her grandson had signed her up for the game without her knowledge. New customers now have to complete a Q&A to ensure they're a good fit for the game.
"Realism is our wow factor"
Letters, memos, receipts, newspaper clippings, and photos are printed on paper that matches that of the era in play, so a typed letter--which includes the indentations a typewriter would make--feels different from a forensic report. Upon examining the contents of one recent box, Hogan was concerned about the slightly visible copy-machine lines on a lab report. He soon learned it was a detail added by the design team, since the report was said to have been photocopied from the original and forwarded by a fellow investigator.
Early on, Hunt a Killer shipped such items as genuine alligator teeth, oil-soaked rags (for an arson case), and personal effects doused with fake blood and wrapped in cellophane to keep them wet. As the startup has scaled, it has turned to more mass-producible items, like this 1930s-style coin purse. "It still feels extremely authentic," Hogan says, "but we're
not shipping blood anymore."
When the company was shipping out of Smith's basement, his address was on the return labels. That changed when customers started driving by and photographing his house to see if they could find clues.