Welcome to #Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Working in the dark, dangerous and often deadly world of undercover narcotics detective work, Michael Jubie discovered an unusual and unexpected passion: he liked to dress up.
His job demanded that he don disguises of all kinds. Fake mustaches, prosthetic noses, faux eyebrows — all central to keeping his identity secret. He found over time, he grew to love the disguises as much as the sleuthing, so much so that he would eventually springboard his own businesses off of it. The Empire State native hung up his detective hat 25 years ago to launch Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses, a 65-acre “scare farm” in Ulster Park, New York.
Alongside his wife, Nancy Jubie, the Halloween-loving entrepreneur runs a mile-long haunted hayride attraction every fall, complete with freaky zombies, wicked witches, demented clowns and other ghastly ghouls that creep up out of nowhere to scare guests.
Since first opening their doors in 1992, the Jubies’ business has mushroomed from 35 employees to nearly 400. This comes as haunted attractions, once a hobby for dedicated horror fans, have become big business, ballooning to a $300 million-dollar industry, according to Forbes.com. And the outlook looks even better with the National Retail Federations’ annual Halloween spending survey estimating Americans will spend a record $9.1 billion this year on the holiday.
We chatted with Michael to find out how he spiked his headcount over the years, what it means to him to “Be the Boss” and what’s next for his eerie enterprise.
What inspired you to launch a business built around the sights and frights of Halloween?
“My wife, Nancy Jubie, who co-founded the business with me, and I have always enjoyed Halloween, since we were little kids. For a long time she worked as a registered nurse — she still does — and I was a police detective. I did undercover disguise work, which fell right in line with the love of Halloween.
We also run an embroidery business, called Sunshine Tees and Embroidery, and I had also created a high-quality disguise item line, with ears, mustaches, eyebrows and those types of products. I made my own for a time because I didn’t want to have my mustache come off when I was buying a kilo of cocaine from somebody as an undercover detective.
One time we were at dinner with friends, and it came up that we should do a horse-drawn version of a haunted hayride. We decided to give it a shot and immediately started searching out properties where we could realize our dream. We soon bought a farm and we’re still living that dream today.”
How many employees did you start out with on Day One and how many do you have now?
“We started with 35 employees, when we were a pretty simple haunted hayride. Now we have 375 employees. Many of are seasonal, but we have about 14 full-time employees as well. We also have 10 full-time employees in our screenprinting and embroidery sister business.”
What was the moment you knew you had to start hiring?
“We knew we had to hire a staff the moment we signed the purchase paperwork on the farm at the bank. With as many acres as we locked ourselves into, we knew we would need people to maintain it, let alone to build a whole staff to make the haunted hayrides work. We knew we needed actors and actresses to provide frights. We needed tractor drivers and more, all from the get-go.
We were glad to hire people to help us, because we used to do so much of our scare experience ourselves. We’d run from one haunted hayride station to the other, hiding behind a tree, waiting to scare someone when the tractor wagon would roll up with guests, frantically changing masks and outfits. It was exhausting, but in a good way.”
What does it mean to you to ‘Be the Boss’?
“It means that I work for my employees. I have to find ways to get customers in the door. And I do this while also looking out for them. There’s not a paycheck for them if I don’t keep the business operating by exceeding customer expectations every hayride, every time.”
How does it feel to create jobs for not only yourself, but for others as well?
“I love giving people the opportunity to do what they love, and in some really unique ways that aren’t like any other jobs out there. We get people who are really into Halloween coming to us, and that’s really fun to be part of.”
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs hoping to be as successful as you are?
“I would tell them to save their money and live in the woods. Ah, just kidding!
Seriously, I would say don’t take no for an answer. Don’t listen to the people who tell you that your idea is crazy and unrealistic. We had some friends tell us that we were nuts for chasing our Halloween dream. Now we laugh and say to them, ‘Remember when you told us this wouldn’t work?’”
How do you give back to the community?
“We work closely with Don’t Be a Monster, a nonprofit created by haunted attraction owners, one of them whose son is autistic and was badly bullied. We participate in anti-bullying-themed school assemblies. This is an important cause to champion every day, but especially during October, National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.”
What’s next for Headless Horseman and Haunted Hayrides?
“We’ll continue to find other ways to generate income, without raising our ticket prices. This includes creating apple cider donut and other food offerings to sell to guests, as well as working with new trends, like escape rooms.
Also, starting on November 24, we kick off what we call ‘A Frosty Fest,’ our new family fun holiday festival and light spectacular. You’d be amazed how quickly we transition from Halloween to the holidays, and we couldn’t do it without our incredible team.”