Business alum’s inspired idea results in Great Urban Race
Joe Reynolds ’03, right, and Ryan Kunkel from Red Frog Events.
Joseph Reynolds ’03 has amassed in his 29 years more amazing adventures than most people experience in a lifetime. He’s traveled off the beaten path in 40 countries, exploring the world using income generated from a house painting company he started while at Illinois State.
The sale of that business gave Reynolds the opportunity to blaze yet another trail—this one as an entrepreneur who is energizing communities across the country with an event called The Great Urban Race.
“I was watching on television The Amazing Race, which was my original inspiration. I thought I could take that concept, which so many people love, and offer it on a local level,” Reynolds said.
That lightbulb moment occurred in May of 2007. Within a few days Reynolds had content ready for a Web site, which was activated in July of that same year. With Chicago as his home, he chose that city for the first race just weeks later. Enough people showed up that he planned seven more races in seven cities around the country through the fall of 2007.
“It went well enough that I felt I could do it as a full-time job,” Reynolds said. He subsequently sold the company he’d launched his junior year, College Best Painting, and opted to put his money, time, and energy into the Great Urban Race (GUR). His instincts were good, as there was so much interest he offered 20 events last year and has 21 scheduled for 2009, including a race that will be held on campus this fall as part of Homecoming (see sidebar).
It’s the first time Reynolds has organized a campus race, which he intends to continue offering as an offshoot from GUR. He has so many other ideas for activities that he has created a company called Red Frog Events.
“I got the name from a moment I spent sitting on Red Frog Beach in Panama,” Reynolds said, recalling one of many exotic international locations he explored after graduating from the College of Business. He enrolled as a transfer student and graduated with an entrepreneur/small business degree.
“I’ve just always been interested in business,” said Reynolds, who proved his natural ability in the field while still an elementary school student. Upset that there was no community-wide tournament for his fifth-grade basketball team, Reynolds decided to create one himself.
“My parents supported me, especially when I needed a ride to the grocery store for the concession stand items,” Reynolds said. The event was such a success that he donated $500 to the parks and recreation department in his hometown of Maple Park. Years later as a college student Reynolds remained focused on a future in business. He made his way to Illinois State as a sophomore, eager to hone his skills.
“I had a wonderful experience, and am thrilled I chose to go there. What made my experience great was being part of the business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi,” said Reynolds, who served as president of the group. “I learned so much, and met so many wonderful people. I don’t discount the fact that my time at ISU was important, and accounts for part of who I am today.”
His collegiate experience was enriched further by his painting business, which he started with just a few friends working over summers. They painted the exterior of houses in Bloomington-Normal. After graduating he expanded the business to include interior painting, with upscale Chicago homeowners as his targeted customers. Most of the work was still done during summer months, which gave him time to escape.
“For three years I traveled for several months each winter. I have seen many corners of the world,” Reynolds said. A Moroccan camel trek in the Sahara Desert left him wanting more diverse cultural experiences, which he obtained by roaming from Europe and Africa to Central and South America.
One of his most memorable moments occurred while he was taking intensive Spanish classes in Guatemala, which borders El Salvador. “I had no definitive plans, and decided I wanted to see El Salvador in the best way possible,” Reynolds said. “So I bought a bike from a local vendor, took a bus to the border, and biked until I got to the other border.”
While many envy such opportunities to explore new places, few ever attempt the international treks Reynolds has enjoyed. That’s one reason his Great Urban Race idea became an immediate success. Reynolds found a way to bring a one-day adventure to neighborhoods across the country at a price that is affordable, and with such a mix of competition and comedy that the most intense athletes have as much fun as families.
Advertised as “part adventure, part scavenger hunt,” the race is open to all ages. Participants register as teams of two for as low as $45 per person. The race starts with teams receiving 12 clues at the same time. Teams then scatter to solve those clues in any order.
Some clues require a moderate physical challenge, while others are purely a mental exercise. Teams can use electronic devices to help complete the challenges or phone a friend, but nobody is allowed to use anything other than their feet or public transportation to complete the course that encompasses six miles or less.
The team that finishes with the best time and has all the clues solved correctly wins the race, which ends at the five-hour mark. The first two teams receive a cash prize. The top 25 qualify for an annual national race, where the winner receives $10,000.
There are also prizes for best costume. “We had ninjas doing flips in Phoenix,” Reynolds said. He was even more impressed by the Boston team that competed in a full donkey suit on a hot summer day.
“It’s just a unique and fun experience that you really can’t describe,” Reynolds said. He makes the point by noting participants range from serious athletes in training to relatives seeking a bonding moment.
“We have a lot of people who show up with no intent of even finishing. They just want to go out and have some fun with friends,” Reynolds said. The fun is so contagious that Reynolds credits word-of-mouth for much of the race’s success, with the recession a factor as well.
“We might be one of those few businesses benefiting from the economy, as people who would have gone on vacation will instead look for something fun to do locally,” said Reynolds, who is having as good a time as the race participants.
“I wake up every morning, and I am thrilled to get to work. It’s just a pure love for what I do. I can’t imagine a different job,” Reynolds said. “It’s growing so fast that it’s just been a fun and wild ride. It’s now way beyond what I ever thought would happen.”
The rapid success has kept Reynolds busy as he adds events coast to coast. It’s been so hectic he has not yet taken the time to write a formal business plan, which he knows from his days at Illinois State is supposed to be the first step when launching a business.
“I have a clear idea of where everything is going,” he assured, “but I know my professors would not be happy.”