Entrepreneurs

The bottom line of training civilians to kill zombies

I am definitely outside my comfort zone today.

A few miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, I'm standing inside a darkened, cavernous war zone, with lights flashing and music blaring, along with the sounds of explosives. This middle-aged female journalist is running around in military-style camouflage, with a protective vest and helmet, while lugging along an air soft rifle with extra magazines.

I can't see because my goggles keep fogging up. The shoulder sling for my rifle is too long for my 5-foot-5 frame, and I'm afraid I'm going to trip over my weapon. I also put on my vest backward. "You will be mocked for that," said one of my squad leaders, a man named Wombat.

Zombies at ACO
Source: CNBC
Zombies at ACO

Wombat has been in a real war. So has his partner, Gator. Yet the two U.S. military veterans are having the time of their lives this day, leading a group of us through 45 minutes of training and then into a one-hour battle. My fellow combatants, my "band of brothers," consists of a retired police officer, a retired Vietnam veteran, and about a half-dozen other men and women, including one girlfriend dragged along for the day who'd rather be anywhere than here.

Our mission, save humanity from zombies, which a group of terrorists is using to destroy free people everywhere.

By the time the battle has ended, my discomfort has been replaced by elation. I have learned to work as a team, kick in a door, clear a room and search for intelligence.

I also "killed" a ton of zombies ... and I accidentally shot two of my own men.

It was fake. It was fun. It was $199. Even the angry girlfriend seems happy.

CNBC's Jane Wells at ACO
Source: CNBC
CNBC's Jane Wells at ACO

"In my experience, this is as close as you're actually going to get to combat, without having to worry about going into combat," said Travis Krauss, founder and CEO of the company, which put on the experience, Adventure Combat Ops, or ACO.

What I didn't realize then was that all the fun I had as a civilian playing soldier was nothing compared with the therapeutic effects the zombie war experience might have on people who fought real wars, including the men and women who built ACO.

People like Krauss. His military experience includes the Army Rangers and Delta Force. Much of the team he's assembled to create ACO comes from a similar background. "We've got guys here that were in Tora Bora in 2001," he said. "There's guys here that were in the unit that killed Uday and Qusay, Saddam's sons."


Krauss started Adventure Combat Ops as an offshoot of another business he runs training government personnel for combat. "One day, one of the guys that works with us said, 'Hey, why don't we make something like this for fun, for regular Joes off the street to come in and play with us?'"

At first, Krauss planned to create a mobile zombie battle adventure, moving from city to city. After a trial run in Miami, he discovered the setup and breakdown exhausted his staff, so ACO settled in a permanent place about as far away from Iraq and Afghanistan as you can get: Sin City.

Krauss raised the first $1 million and then managed to raise $1.5 million more, including $400,000 from the Bank of Nevada. He found a large warehouse and began construction, including $250,000 spent on special effects. ACO went to the local community college to find young actors willing to play zombies four times a day. "I don't get the zombie thing honestly," said Krauss, "but, you know, what's the biggest show on TV right now, right?"


ACO Truck
Source: CNBC
ACO Truck

However, ACO itself was nearly the walking dead. Krauss almost lost the battle to get the business going. "We had six people our first weekend, six people," he said. "We had over 800 slots to fill."

A hard lesson was learned. Krauss said his team was used to operating on trust. "To me, if people tell you they're going to do something, you should be able to count on it, and that's not the case," he said, getting emotional. "It's not the way a lot of people operate."

There was a steep learning curve in dealing with contractors and marketers and insurance. Krauss said he took the setbacks personally, because so much of his team "picked up and moved cross country to be part of this because of their faith in my vision. That's a pretty intense burden."

However, the team pulled together and relied on their training to find solutions. "We literally had to write up a fire execution plan," Krauss cited as one example. "We didn't know how to do a lot of this stuff, but every one of us looks at each other and goes, 'Man, how are we going to do this?' 'I don't know, we'll figure it out.'"


These days ACO is doing a healthy business. In eight months of operation, Krauss said sales have topped $500,000. Its gory apocalyptic shuttles can be seen driving down Las Vegas Boulevard as moving advertisements. Christmas weekend was "crazy," Krauss said, and corporate team building has become a new line of business (a local law firm was in the group after mine).

ACO is starting to offer larger and longer adventures out in the desert, like the Bourne Adrenaline experience. Krauss said the company has been approached by interested parties in wanting to expand to Orlando, Floirda. There's also a private label energy drink, a potential deal with fitness event company Parkour, and a local casino is considering a partnership.

Krauss' advice to other entrepreneurs is to do more due diligence on the people you choose to work with. "It will indeed take more time than you think, it will indeed take more money than what you think, and if it's anything worth having, it will indeed take more from you than you will ever be able to imagine," he said, holding his emotions in check. "I would rather go through Ranger school and Delta selection back to back twice before I would voluntarily endure this again, and I'm a hard dude."


Why do it then? "Because people are counting on me," Krauss replied after collecting himself. "It allows them to be themselves in a way that is fun now."

Not only the people who work with him, but also the combat veterans who come in as customers, some of whom may be suffering from post traumatic stress. "It's actually therapeutic, because it's contained, because they know that it's a production, and they're in control of it," Krauss said. "It allows them to control the nightmares." And, perhaps, it also allows Krauss to recapture a tiny bit of the rush of real combat. "I miss it with every fiber of my being."

Travis Krauss, ACO Founder
Source: CNBC
Travis Krauss, ACO Founder