Halloween queen Melissa Carbone doesn't scare easily. "I call myself an 'unscareable,'" she asserts. Flesh-eating zombies? Weak. Tales of ghosts and supernatural spirits? Nah. But the lady who makes a living by terrifying others, was finally frightened when she gave up a corporate job to start her own company--one that made money only 21 days of the year.
The Connecticut-born founder of Ten Thirty One Productions has been scaring willing Los Angelinos since 2009 with haunted hayrides, but her history of spooking family and friends dates back to her childhood days in Coventry, Connecticut. She and her mother, who passed on a love of Halloween, once spent a month planning a holiday fest in their barn.
"My mom is convinced she's a witch," says Carbone, laughing.
Friends could dip their hands in a bowl full of worms, or spaghetti, and bob for apples in the space, which was adorned with pumpkins and bales of hay.
"Halloween has been my favorite time of the year since I could talk, since I could eat candy, " she says.
Growing up in a farming town, hayrides were Carbone's favorite seasonal activity. When the small-town girl moved to suburban Westwood, California, in 2007 she missed the magic of an autumnal Halloween that wasn't easily found in palm tree-lined L.A. So she began building her own Halloween landscapes, which only got more ornate every year.
"There's actually a term for it called home haunters, which I didn't know at the time, but I was one of those," she recalls. "I just thought I was a girl who liked Halloween."
Three years into her yard haunts, she realized a business opportunity as neighbors made their way through, many coming back several times. Once all the trick-or- treaters left that evening, Carbone researched the revenue behind Halloween and was shocked to discover just how much money people spend on the holiday. At the time, in 2008, annual Halloween spending had hit $5.8 billion. (This year, consumers are expected to shell out $8.4 billion during Halloween, the highest it's been in the past 11 years, according to the National Retail Federation.)
Carbone was sold. Starting that November, she and her then partner, Alyson Richards, endeavored to create a woodsy wonderland in beachy L.A.
For the next 11 months, the two worked on transforming their front-yard attraction into an event for the masses. While her first L.A. Haunted Hayride attracted 25,000 people, it only broke even in terms of sales. Today, with Halloween-themed attractions in various cities around the country, the business is on track to reel in $5 million--with 80 percent of the revenue arising from just 21 days in October. And did we mention Shark Tank judge Mark Cuban is an investor?
Here's how the scream queen turned her favorite holiday into a seasonal payday:
Market like you're Disney.
Before launching Ten Thirty One Productions, so named for the main event on Carbone's calendar, the entrepreneur worked at Clear Channel, now iHeartMedia. There she built marketing and advertising platforms for companies like BMW, so naturally she thinks big. For funding, she pitched her idea to companies across L.A., with no luck at first. Finally, she found a winner. "As we were starting to get really nervous, we got Mini Cooper on board," says Carbone, referring to the partnership she lassoed with BMW, the maker of Mini Cooper and a then Clear Channel client.
"We had just enough money, almost down to the last 10 bucks to produce the L.A. Haunted Hayride for 21 nights." Yet, she says, she went for it--with towering billboards greeting commuters on Sunset Boulevard and radio ads on every major radio station in the L.A. market. Her philosophy? Go big, or go home.
"If you market yourself like you're Disney, the world will believe you, but if you market yourself like you're small-town Podunk, then they'll believe you, too," she advises.
Learn to take criticism.
Of course, marketing can also backfire. In 2011, when Carbone launched a ghost ship in Orange County, her attempts to spread the word about the experience bricked. While the haunted booze cruise on a yacht was targeted to 40-year-old women seeking a cushier Halloween experience, she promoted it as a creation from the L.A. Haunted Hayride producers. Naturally, it brought the horror-loving crowd who were fans of the original event. Customers weren't satisfied.
"All over the West [Coast], it was 'boycott Melissa Carbone,'" she says. Hate mail came pouring in after she escalated the situation by attacking back when customers complained. "It was like calling my baby ugly," she explains of her defensive attitude.
The issue was finally resolved after the founder reached out to customers individually with solutions based on their concerns. "I learned how to take criticism," says Carbone. "I learned how to deal with unhappy customers."
Embrace your fears.
"The best advice I can ever give anyone [is] you need to walk into the fear," says Carbone, who understands giving up your steady job isn't an easy decision. A self-professed, born-and-bred corporate girl, she started at Clear Channel after college and worked her way up the ladder for 10 years. But after her first L.A. Haunted Hayride, Carbone realized that was the only thing she wanted to do.
So with a fire firmly ignited in her belly, she opted to quit her job in April 2010-- six months after that first hayride. Well aware the risk might not be worth the reward, Carbone also understood there would never be a "right time." "It's never going to feel like you're ready," she explains. "Sometimes, when something is super scary, it makes me want to do it even more."
Say "yes" to good things.
Despite that ghost ship mishap, the company maintained the course. It even passed up a chance to appear on Shark Tank in 2012, because the founders weren't interested in relinquishing equity. That was a mistake Carbone wouldn't make twice. Fortunately, she had another chance. In 2013, Carbone appeared on the show, and after wowing judges with how much revenue she could generate in such a short period of time, she walked away with $2 million from investor Mark Cuban.
That investment is helping fuel her company's growth. Later that year, she launched "The Great Horror Campout," a haunted overnight trip in Los Angeles that has since expanded to six U.S. cities. "The Great Horror Movie Night," hosted in L.A.'s Griffith Park, followed in 2014. Next year she plans to expand that event to Dallas, to hold hayrides for holiday revelers. Even the ghost ship will make a comeback, confirms Carbone, who is planning a relaunch in either Miami or New Orleans next fall.
"The nerves from it all are starting to boil over," she laughs. "I love the idea of having a haunted hayride in every metropolitan area."