There are people who've always wanted to run a business. As kids they set up lemonade stands, in college they sold jewelry to friends, and as adults they tinker in the basement.
Then there are people such as Barbara Fox -- for whom going into business was kind of an accident.
By training, Fox is an actress. She has platinum blond hair. She is a sun worshiper. She drives a red convertible. She likes hot tubs and ice in her wine. She won't say how old she is (hint: She has four grown children).
But by profession, Fox is also a business owner, having founded, 13 years ago, a small company that produces interactive murder mystery plays around Washington. Her company brings in about $100,000 a year for about 130 performances, and Fox pays herself between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. For this, she also acts in most of her plays.
In her slightly dank Georgetown basement office, Fox reflects on this situation. Next to the upstart Internet companies you read about, it seems kind of grim.
Not to Fox.
"It's a miracle to me," she says, "that I can do all the stuff I want and get paid for it."
In many ways, Fox is the face of small business in this country. She's not aiming to go public, or be bought, or build a million-dollar business. Like so many other business owners -- accidental or incidental -- she is doing what she does because she loves it, and it works for her.
"Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!" Barbara Fox is jumping around in staccato little steps, ushering her actors out of a makeshift rehearsal room at the Washington Hilton. A few steps away, in the ballroom, 300 people from a doll convention have assembled half an hour early for dinner and a murder mystery play. Fox had hoped for another half-hour of planning, but it's not an option.
She is no longer Barbara Fox. Now she is Laura Lovett, talk show hostess.
Fox got into the murder mystery business in 1986 when she made an offhand comment to the owner of the Coolfont Resort in West Virginia -- where she was "vegging out" -- that there were no interactive murder mystery productions around Washington. The owner suggested Fox put one together at the resort. She did.
The show was a hit, and Fox was in business. Sort of.
At first, Fox did more shows for Coolfont, and publicity from that led to performances on a private train from Washington to New York called the American Zephyr. Soon she was doing private shows around Washington for fund-raisers, birthday parties and other functions. Finally, she incorporated as Mystery on the Menu.
Thirteen years later, the business is still successful, but not by traditional standards. It keeps going because of Fox, and because of the unique economics of employing people who would almost happily work for free. By necessity, Fox pays her actors little and herself less still, given the hours she puts in. For a typical performance, the six to 10 actors are paid an average of $75, and they rehearse for free.
Yet she never has trouble finding actors. Just try to open a restaurant with that kind of budget.
"You know, actors -- God love us -- we're not mercenary people," Fox said.
Laura Lovett, her hair a mass of draping curls, explains to the audience that a scene for an upcoming movie is being shot on the set of her talk show. She introduces the characters, and soon the scene is underway. A robbery takes place. A prop gun is used. But wait! The actor is really dead! It was a real gun, and there has been a murder! A cop shows up and tells the conventioneers they cannot leave the room. An investigation ensues while dinner is served.
Off to the side, hidden behind a control board, sits Cate Carroll, stage manager. She laughs at the production along with the audience. She acts in the plays, too, sometimes. Usually she plays the tart, she says. By day she is a computer expert at the National Museum of Natural History.
She suggests Fox has one flaw. "She's way too nice to the actors."
Loving your work is something many people strive for, but living that way poses a dilemma for Barbara Fox. It's hard, when you love what you do, to hustle to make more money. And while Fox doesn't do this for the money, as president of Mystery on the Menu Inc., she knows she's supposed to be hustling. Marketing herself. Building her business.
She's creating a murder mystery game, and writing a mystery novel, but she's not really marketing herself, not like she could. She's plenty busy and, frankly, having a great time.
"Isn't that terrible? I shouldn't be content," she said.
Three years ago, Amtrak stopped service to Atlantic City, and took from Fox the most profitable part of her business. Mystery on the Menu would buy the seats for an entire car, and sell tickets for a day trip to the casinos with a murder mystery play en route. Murder in the morning. Solution in the evening.
It was 30 percent of her business, and she has not made it up. Maybe she will, she said, when another private train starts operating here this fall.
But the answer, she said, is to do more corporate business -- more conventions, meetings, executive retreats. They are moneymakers, like the play she wrote especially for Deloitte & Touche, which was performed this spring by Fox and a cast of 11 actors.
"I told them I'd have to charge them a lot for it," she said. "Three thousand dollars."
Hmmmm. That doesn't seem like a whole lot.
"It doesn't? Oh, I thought it did."
The diners have been interviewed, and the denouement begins. The question is: Who switched the guns? Laura had a motive. So did Chip. So did Tonya. But it was none of those. The murderer was -- well, we won't ruin it.
The diners had been asked to solve the murder, and two tables out of 30 guessed the convoluted solution correctly, after gathering evidence from the characters and decoding an encrypted note. But everyone applauded.
Back in the rehearsal room with the actors, Laura Lovett is gone, and Barbara Fox is jumping around again in tiny little steps. This time, though, they are about excitement, not anxiety. There are hugs all around. Congratulations. Analysis. Camaraderie.
"They loved it -- they really did!" Fox says, over and over. She is, it seems, amazed.
Fox fills her days scoping out performance sites, auditioning actors, teaching acting classes, seeing meeting planners, selling tickets, writing scripts. On Mondays, alone in her basement, she plays the part of Sandy, the part-time assistant who does paperwork. She has an accountant and a lawyer for the hard stuff.
But as much as she berates herself for not being more business-minded, it is pretty clear she is not going to change. Fox is one kind of entrepreneur: the kind who works endless hours without keeping track, and without caring to.
Even today -- in an era of hot stocks, huge payoffs and moneymaking heroes -- for some people, money is not the object.
"When I'm on stage, if people laugh when I do something, there's no greater feeling in the world," Fox says. "If I couldn't act, I don't know what I'd do."