Value Added: Terrapin Adventures in Howard County makes owner Matt Baker's ‘heart sing'

By Thomas Heath
Monday, November 16, 2009

Entrepreneur Matt Baker's outdoor Terrapin Adventures in Howard County has a 43-foot climbing tower, a 2-G-force giant swing and an adrenaline-pumping, 330-foot-long cable "zip line" that slings you along at 20 mph, 30 feet above the forest floor.

But Baker said the key to making his outdoor dream into a success will ultimately depend on the personalities of his guides and not on the $250,000 worth of wooden poles and steel cables he has planted near the Little Patuxent River.

"The guides make the difference," said Baker, 52. "You can always be trumped by someone who has something taller, faster and maybe a more beautiful location. But if you have engaging staff and are creating memories, that's going to be something that they can't trump you with."

I never tire of hearing business people talk about their special something. As with Disneyland and its expertise at moving people through lines, the secret is not always obvious.

Baker is still trying to reach his ambitious revenue targets. But the challenge has not dimmed his enthusiasm. The former medical consultant from Columbia has had the entrepreneurial bug since the days when he was drafting white papers on solar energy for the Carter administration. His bug-eyed dreams have included a "Moon Over Baltimore" gondola ride near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which proved too costly.

"I had been looking for something entrepreneurial for quite awhile now," said the soft-spoken Baker, whose love of outdoors stretches back to riding his Raleigh three-speed through the Massachusetts woods. "I wanted to do something that made my heart sing."

He decided on adventure tours following a 2004 family trip to Costa Rica, which is mecca for the zip-line crowd. Zip lines are the Swiss Family Robinson version of a roller coaster. Instead of riding in a car on a circuitous track, you strap yourself to a pulley and speed across a cable strung high up between trees.

Internet searches led him across North America, where he learned the technical aspects of the business, including the feasibility of building a park, how to get financing and insurance, where to locate it and how to find an audience.

"If I was going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, I wanted to make sure it was the right business, the right investment," he said. "Part of the entrepreneurial thing is, 'If not now, when?' "

His epiphany about employees came in a fact-finding visit to Whistler, British Columbia. There were two zip-line companies eight miles apart.

"I went to one where I am going 60 miles an hour on a 2,000-foot zip and it's hundreds of feet in the air, eyes watering, heart pounding. The guides were technically proficient, but they weren't engaging."

The next day, Baker went to the oldest zip line in North America. The second zip line was older and slower, but the chatty guides and their store of knowledge made it more fun.

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