Backstory: Treasure hunt turns into team-building business

vbridges@newsobserver.comMay 20, 2013 

After Dennis Putnum lost his job, he turned a childhood adventure into a full-time business.


  • Advice from Dennis Putnam

    •  Focus on your business full time.

    •  Get comfortable networking.

    •  Create a search engine-friendly Web presence.

    •  Know what you are selling, and who your products benefit the most.

— Dennis Putnam’s first small-business puzzle was how to establish credibility while selling murder-mystery treasure hunts to adults.

However, his own love for treasure hunts started 35 years ago.

When he was a young boy, Putnam, owner of Motley Clue Adventures, and his three cousins were running amok while visiting their grandmother in Pickens, Miss. To settle the kids, his grandmother pulled the family Bible off of a shelf and Putnam watched as a piece of parchment paper fluttered to the floor.

It was a treasure map.

“Within 20 minutes we had shovels and picks and all kinds of stuff,” Putnam, now 44, said. “We must have dug 20 holes that day, all over the yard and everything else.”

They found a tin coffee can, with a dollar for each of the cousins, and some small toys.

The experience has evolved into Motley Clue Adventures, a Holly Springs-based, one-man business providing team-building experiences that encourage participants to pool their talents and use a bag of props, puzzles and clues from exhibits in a local museum to solve a murder, science fiction, spy or thriller-adventure mystery.

“It is a very Da Vinci Code-style experience,” Putnam said.

Putnam worked as a computer programmer and project manager for Electronic Data Systems and then Guardian Industries, based in Michigan, for a total of 16 years. He was laid off by the latter at the end of 2011.

In 2006, Putnam, who has worked out of his home since 2000, started a side business centered on treasure hunts for children and others. Over the years, he tested and built a model for corporate team-building activities that went beyond a night of bowling or watching a baseball game.

The usually half-day events are held in various locations such as downtown Raleigh or the N.C. Museum of Art, or the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

After an initial ice breaker, Putnam divides employees into teams and frames the mystery that will unfold on their hunt.

Teams use shared expertise and skills, a box of tools and props such as a calculator, jelly beans and fortune cookies, and clues throughout the hosting museum to solve intricate puzzles and advance in their hunt for the treasure.

“So, it’s not how much trivia you know,” Putnam said. “It’s how you use information directly in front of you, and working back and forth with your team to figure out what you are doing.”

After Putnam lost his job, he decided to focus on Motley Clue Adventures full time. Putnam upgraded his website, established himself as a preferred vendor with museums, created social media accounts, and participated in the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s annual business shows.

Putnam also started listing testimonials on his website from clients, which included Lenovo, Cisco and Allscripts.

In 2012, his goal was to book 15 events. He booked 19. This year he wants to book 30.

The combined marketing efforts have attracted clients, which brings in more customers with recommendations that follow, he said.

“Really what you are trying to do is establish a presence, almost credibility” he said. “If people see you at two or three shows, and they see a big client list … that gives you – as a small business – credibility.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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