In 2009, Clear Channel general sales manager Melissa Carbone strutted into her boss's Los Angeles office. She told him she was quitting her high-paying post at the radio giant to launch a haunted house business called Ten Thirty One Productions. "You're resigning to do what?!" her boss spat out. The company would operate a haunted hayride through an LA park, she explained. "This hayride is gonna be my empire."
"I had a lot of raised eyebrows," Melissa recalls in a phone call. "People thought I should be certified as crazy!" If she was crazy, she's now a crazy millionaire. Today, the Haunted Hayride is one of the most popular Halloween attractions in Los Angeles. Ten Thirty One Productions has grown into a multi-million dollar business according to its eternal evaluation, with Mark Cuban investing $2 million—and Melissa is pulling a Cuban herself, spouting her business acumen in a new book called Ready, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby into an Empire.
"I went through corporate America," she points out. "There were lessons that would keep showing themselves, lessons that would keep occurring. I wanted to start documenting it all and talk about it with people who are aspiring to be the same thing. A lot of people have huge goals, but most of the time that goes unrealized."
"Corporate America," Melissa explains, "had nothing to do with the haunted house business," but she learned business skills at Clear Channel (now IHeartMedia), where she took an entry level job after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 2000. "I learned about working as a collective group instead of as an individual," she acknowledges. "As I climbed the ladder, I got more and more responsibilities." After moving to Los Angeles, she became one of the company's leading sales reps, designing multi-platform events for clients and managing "millions of dollars."
She married a woman named Alyson Richards, who also worked at Clear Channel, and they moved into what Melissa describes as "Suburbia Los Angeles." Every fall, they would build elaborate "yard haunts" with animatronics, fog, and actors. Neighbors stopped to gawk.
"Me and my wife at the time were [the] only gay couple in neighborhood," Melissa jokes. "At first there were these eyebrows raised because we were the gay house in the neighborhood."
One night, Melissa looked out her window and found several hundred people lingering in her decorated yard. "A lightbulb went off: Clearly there's something here," Melissa remembers. Her corporate skills kicked in. She turned to her own childhood in New England, where she rode haunted hayrides, for inspiration and began researching the $6.5 billion Halloween industry and learned that it was actually growing instead of shrinking during the recession.
"It's an industry that's going up in revenue," she recalls discovering.
After Melissa quit Clear Channel, she and Richards collaborated on all aspects of the business, designing wardrobes and special effects, and courting investors, which ranged from former Clear Channel clients to friends willing to put in some cash. (They have since divorced, but continue to work together today.) Sponsorships were easy with the couple's experience from Clear Channel; Mini Cooper sponsored Ten Thirty One Productions's first haunt. "By pounding the pavement and finding every dollar that was out there, we ended up scraping up a good several hundred thousand dollars," Melissa exclaims. It's a point of pride she returns to throughout her book.
The hardest part was securing a permit for the hayrides at Griffith Park, America's largest urban park where visitors can view the Hollywood sign. "They had never done a private/public venture before!" Melissa notes.
Today, Ten Thirty One Productions is opening sister haunts in New York and across California, and Melissa reports that the Halloween industry has grown to $8 billion a year. When she entered the haunting biz, Melissa recalls noticing that it was a billion dollar business without a household name business leader. There was no Steve Jobs or Walt Disney of haunted houses. Melissa is looking like she could be that woman.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that only Melissa Carbone quit Clear Channel, and that Griffith Park is the largest urban park, not largest public park, in the US. It has also been updated to reflect that Melissa and Alyson Richards have since divorced. They remain partners in Ten Thirty One Productions.