Escape rooms opening exciting doors
After expanding his smartphone repair business, Justin Milligan is plotting a new venture. John Mulgrew reports
Starting out tinkering with now decades-old early computers in his Carryduff childhood home, Justin Milligan has now expanded his iPhix phone repair business to four locations.
But he's also one of just a handful of businesspeople here to see the burgeoning demand and growing market for escape rooms - a timed, often themed, puzzle, in which a team answers clues, following a story, to escape.
Justin operates four iPhix stores and has two top-end escape rooms in Castle Street. But his company Timescape is undergoing a major investment in four new sites at Royal Avenue, taking on Mark Maher, a senior designer who worked on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit films, for model making.
IPhix began in 2014, but Justin's interest in repairs started at a young age - breaking down and fixing old computers, bought by his father at auction.
"That led to an interest in computers. Back then it was the Commodore 64s and Nimbus computers, and I started repairing units that my father would pick up from auctions. After that, smartphones hit the market," he says.
And as friends and family began asking for his help in sorting out their devices, he decided to take the plunge and begin repairs.
"I bought a job lot of broken phones, around 50, and managed to get 30 or 40 up and running. The knowledge of computers is applicable - they are small laptops, aside from the GSM," he explains.
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After he was charged £85 for a 30-minute phone repair, he said "the light bulb went off". iPhix began with an ad on Gumtree. But demand grew quickly, with his phone ringing off the hook.
"Following a meeting I was in for work, I had 20 missed calls and voicemails - it started to snowball from there. Clearly there was a demand for this."
And after leaving a comfortable, well-paid and secure job to pursue his own new venture, Justin didn't - at first - tell his other half that he had packed it in, putting his suit on each morning before going to visit his mother.
The business grew and with that so did the number of cars parked outside his house - to the point that he realised his next step was setting up shop.
He's now grown that business to four locations, from the original store at Bow Street in Lisburn to include Castle Street in Belfast, Lurgan and the latest at the Cregagh Road in east Belfast. The firm employs 12 staff, taking on four new workers this year.
Even in the wake of the Primark fire - which cut off Castle Street from much of the city centre - the iPhix store remained busy.
It's now working with companies such as engine parts manufacturing giant, Montupet. "Businesses can go online, log a ticket, and then you will get updates throughout," says Justin.
Turning to his latest venture, escape rooms, the interest came from a hobby turned business.
"My brothers and I love them - we travel a lot and are big into the escape rooms. The first thing we do when we travel to a new city is book a steak dinner and book an escape room."
That then led to Justin converting the upstairs floor of his Castle Street business in to two new escape rooms, one centred around the Titanic and another around Jack the Ripper.
Since then, he says the "perfect spot" came up on Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre, where the company is now developing a series of top-end escape rooms. Fit out is under way, and up to four games are likely to be launched.
"It's so much more advanced than what we have done before. Our prop designer is Mark Maher, who was head prop designer on The Hobbit movies," says Justin.
"While he's normally big budget Hollywood films, he bought in to myself and the escape rooms. He's designing our props now and a local guy is doing our set design. We are trying to raise the bar on a global level."
And next on the agenda is trying expand the escape rooms business as a franchise - taking on the United States and the rest of Europe.
"It's a very franchisable model, with a strong brand and strong games," adds Justin.
"That's global, as long as you can cross the language barrier. We will probably go to Europe and then go to America. It's a hard nut to crack."