Inspiration and opportunity often come from unexpected places. For Michael Roberts, a layoff provided the spark that would turn a family joke into a viable business.
A visit to an ax-throwing venue a few years earlier had planted the seed. “I remember thinking to myself, I feel like I could do this better," says Roberts. The establishment was Bring Your Own Beer and didn't sell any beverages, a turn-off for non-drinkers and drinkers alike. It also lacked merchandise and on-site branding.
Instead of embarking on the search for a new job after his layoff, with the help of friends and family, what had been a passing thought became his next career move, the owner of an ax-throwing establishment.
The name game
Roberts's idea turned out to be a perfect match for another idea that had been simmering for some time. His brother-in-law, Darin Guynes, an area entrepreneur, always wanted to open a pool hall and already had the necessary equipment in storage. A small pivot was all it took to get him to throw an ax on the concept.
It wasn't long before the duo and their wives, Holly Roberts and Michelle Guynes, settled on a business plan. All that remained to bring the idea to life was a name, which quickly became a game in itself.
“We just started cracking jokes," Roberts says. “We knew we were going to do something very tongue and cheek." It wasn't long before the ax puns began flying, and someone yelled out, "The Horse's Axe." A quick Google search yielded no results, and they bought the domain on the spot.
Pivoting in the pandemic
The Horse's Axe opened its doors in late November 2020 amid a massive coronavirus outbreak in Texas that all but guaranteed they'd see no foot traffic.
“We were praying for people to pull into the parking lot," Roberts recalls.
In an effort to build awareness, the company ordered more than 2,500 face masks with logos, puns, and one-liners, like “Read my Lips." The original plan was to sell them as merchandise, but realizing they didn't have the necessary clientele to buy merch, the founders changed course. Instead of a revenue-generating item, they turned them into a marketing vehicle. They began giving them out at high school football games, local businesses, and grocery stores, as a way of announcing that they were there. Free masks quickly became free advertisements.
“Before you knew it, we'd go out shopping and see people in our masks," Roberts says. “We slowly started getting people walking in."
Ax handle innovations
Another pandemic-generated issue the team made work to their advantage was the need to sanitize ax handles after use. Instead of taking on the problem, they worked around it with a smart marketing strategy. Instead of lending people axes to use for the duration of their ax-throwing session, every customer now receives an ax to take home included with the $29 session price. On return visits, customers who bring in their ax get a $9 discount.
Like any new business, the concept required Roberts to venture into arenas he hadn't imagined. To source and stock enough axes, “I learned how to import," Roberts explains.
Giving away the ax spread like wildfire.
On Jan. 2, a Saturday, the business was so slammed with customers it had to turn some away. Traffic was similar the following day and the next weekend.
By the end of January, visitors were traveling from Dallas/Fort Worth and Oklahoma City to visit the venue and take home an ax.
“We went through all 2,000 of those axes in four months," Roberts says.
Building and zoning challenges surfaced immediately during six months of construction on the former site of an auto repair shop.
Roberts learned shortly after signing the lease the property wasn't zoned for selling alcohol, forcing the business into a BYOB establishment for its first four months.
The company sought a liquor license as regulating consumption under a BYOB model was nearly impossible and presented liability issues, according to Roberts.
“We had to go through a very long process with the city to get that approved," says Roberts, who worked with LegalZoom to develop its C corp status, ax throwing waivers, and social media launch, as well as securing licenses and build-out insurance.
“It was a big learning curve," he says. “If we would have known what to do from the start we would have probably opened two or three months earlier."
The Horse's Axe is expanding the concept in Denison, Texas, where it's building a 6,000-square-foot venue with 10 ax lanes, pool tables, a bar, and adjoining restaurant. A push to host corporate events and team builders should also boost profitability, a distinction the brand has carried since its fourth month in business.
“We've been profitable ever since," Roberts says.
The company recently started franchising and is currently accepting applications through the franchise tab on its website.
The developments and early success has given Roberts a new outlook on work and life balance.
“I look forward to going to work, and all of my employees do, too," he says. “It was a leap of faith, it was scary at times, but once we got involved in the work, it just felt right. It was fun."
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