Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! My name is James and three years ago I started an axe throwing venue called Forged Axe Throwing. We teach people how to throw axes and then run amazing tournaments with everyone. Many of our clients are visitors to the area as we’re in a resort town, but we also have a locals league and get lots of local businesses coming to us for events.
In a year we will host upwards of 30,000 people in our venue. This is a mix of bachelor/bachelorette parties, corporate groups, birthdays or special events, and just anyone who wants to learn how to throw an axe. We really play up the Canadian-ness of our activity and I think we have some really great culture that resonates with visitors (it’s not just J-Beebs and Celine up here!).
We do about $960,000 of revenue per year through our in-venue axe throwing business and I can’t wait to cross that sweet sweet $1M mark!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve always wanted to run my own business. I think I have a general problem with authority.
The first job I ever had was teaching windsurfing in the summer for a summer camp, then in the winter I would teach snowboarding for a small hill in Ontario. This was my first exposure to the tourism industry.
We had a lineup out the door for ages and introduced hundreds of people to our venue. We even ran out of waivers because we couldn’t anticipate how busy we were going to be.
In high school I struggled to get through with passing grades but I eventually made it. I was so fed up with the education system that I took off one week after my last class and headed to Costa Rica for some adventure. I ended up working for an American e-commerce business which gave me my first taste of small business and what’s possible with the power of the internet. I was actually in the Google Adwords Beta program which gave me some really interesting insights into the ad marketplace.
Anyway! When I came back to Canada two years later I knew I wanted to pursue a career in tourism while using my new found internet skills to make my own business. I graduated with a degree in tourism five years later (did an exchange year in Mexico which set me back…. Well worth it!)
After school, I worked for a tourism marketing firm for four years before I found my opportunity.
We took my friend Sean on a white water rafting trip for his bachelor party. We had brought about 1,000 beers with us and we needed a creative way to hand out some beverage punishments… so someone picked up the axe from beside the fire and we discovered our love of axe throwing!
When we returned back to civilization I started doing some research and we found one guy in eastern Canada who was doing it. I actually emailed him and asked him if I could franchise, he said no, so we built it ourselves.
Brett (my best bro and business partner) and I each invested $30,000 into the project. This got us a venue, construction materials, and a small bit of runway for the first few months of operations.
Take us through the process of designing and prototyping the business.
I actually have no skills when it comes to construction, luckily Brett is really good at that so he would make a plan and I would try and follow it as best I could. The first purchase we made was two camping cots and we set them up in the warehouse so we could work everyday, pass out, and repeat the next day with no travel time.
Construction took a while, but after two months we were ready to open. So many trips to Home Depot…. So many.
We built our experience from the ground up. Brett and I went to tourism school together and worked as guides for a white water rafting company. When you’re rafting, the rapids are the easy part, you make your money as a guide when it’s flat and you have to keep your clients entertained. We wanted to do the same sort of thing with axe throwing.
Throwing axes is fun, but throwing axes at Forged is AMAZING (seriously, read our Tripadvisor reviews! Our staff are epic.)
When we first opened we did a lot of discounted tours for local businesses and not-for-profit groups. It allowed us to test new experience flows and Brett and I would meticulously debrief each session to see what we could improve.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We didn’t want to take out any loans to get started so we each used $30k of savings. We didn’t put the whole $60k in at once but about $10k per month was used for our first six months as we got things going.
The current marketing/advertising narrative is that print is dead/dying and you should spend all your money online. Our experience has been different. There’s been lots of “traditional” advertising avenues that have produced huge results.
Basically everything we did is more expensive than we thought it was going to be. Our rent is pretty high at just over $5,000/month and every time we went to Home Depot it felt like $500 was the minimum charge.
Launching Forged was probably the honeymoon phase of the business. We had a chaotic two months to get everything in place before the “GRAND OPENING” party that we started advertising the day we got our lease.
My role was marketing, sales, and admin. Brett’s role was all things construction.
For our launch I did a few things to generate some interest. #1 got a big ass banner and put it outside announcing our opening party. It helped that this faced the entry to a brewery, our next door neighbor.
Next I created a Facebook and Instagram account and posted a few teaser photos from the interior once it was looking good and then created a FB event. I think I boosted the event with $50.
I then printed off 500 flyers and went around to every local business in our region and invited them to come to our opening party.
And….. IT WORKED!
We had a lineup out the door for ages and introduced hundreds of people to our venue. We even ran out of waivers because we couldn’t anticipate how busy we were going to be. We had to call our buddy Matty who worked at an accounting office and got him to print off 300 emergency waivers for us. THANKS MATTY!
Funny story, Brett and I both worked until 3am that night keeping the party going. It was so much fun and we were so stoked that we hit our goal of opening on the day we aimed for. But we kind of forgot that we would have to actually work in the business the next day….
When we woke up we were so exhausted from the past two months of construction sprinting to the opening day. We made the decision to close, on our FIRST DAY of being open. What an embarrassment! But the good news is that our phone line was ringing off the hook and we were making reservations for every day in the next week.
If we were to do it again I’d probably enlist some more help with construction and we could have cut our time down to opening.
I’d also definitely make sure we had some staff hired and trained already. Brett and I worked every shift for the first three months as we got our feet under us and fine tuned the experience. I wish we had got that dialed earlier so that we could work on the business instead of in it.
We weren’t sure what to price our product at so we made up a few tiers based on the company in Toronto that was throwing axes and our local competition, an escape room. We wanted our product to be comparable to other indoor recreation activities while also ensuring we could cover our expenses and re-invest in the business.
We’ve since increased our prices twice as we’ve been too busy, especially on the weekends. We implemented a weekend premium price so now we’re at $37 Monday - Thursday. $39 Friday and Sunday. $42 Saturday.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I think my answer here will surprise some people and probably annoy others. The current marketing/advertising narrative is that print is dead/dying and you should spend all your money online. Our experience has been different.
I’m not saying we don’t spend money online, we do, lots of it. But there’s been lots of “traditional” advertising avenues that have produced huge results.
As soon as you launch a business you sort of get a “new business halo”, there’s lots of buzz and people just want to come check you out! That fades quickly though so don’t rely on it for too long.
Having worked for a tourism marketing firm for years before I started Forged gave us a huge leg up. Not just from my experience and knowledge within the industry, but also for the contacts I was able to leverage. I created our marketing/communications plan before launch and shot it over to my former boss, she looked it over and gave me some pointers. Deirdre, if you’re reading this, THANKS so much for all the continued support.
As soon as you launch a business you sort of get a “new business halo”, there’s lots of buzz and people just want to come check you out! That fades quickly though so don’t rely on it for too long.
Your network is so valuable, try your best to never burn bridges!
1 - SEO
One of the areas that I identified in my SWOT analysis of the marketing landscape was that our competition wasn’t investing heavily into organic search engine optimization.
I focused a lot on this while working in marketing and it was an area that knew we could excel in. Since SEO is really a long term investment I knew it wasn’t going to pay off right away and we’d need to get some quick wins with other campaigns.
As you can see from those graphs it takes a while for your SEO efforts to pay off but now I’m pleased to say that we get a ton of bookings from our online presence. I would caution people against benchmarking this traffic against an ecommerce business, or other online-only business as that doesn’t tell the whole story. Almost all of our traffic comes from a very small geographic region and converts extremely well as it’s geared towards purchasing intent for activities.
Here’s how I do SEO.
Step 1. Figure out what market you’re in. Most people who come to Whistler are looking for something to do, there’s tons of activities here so we need to find a way to stand out. They aren’t going to be searching for axe throwing so I need to market my site to people who want to do things, sounds simple right!?
Step 2. Create content that will resonate with that market. What do people who want to do activities search for? Here’s a couple of examples “things to do in winter”, “things to do for families”, “activities when it’s raining”, “hot springs around here”, “spas in whistler”... the list goes on. Content also isn’t just blog posts. It’s photos, videos, ebooks, podcasts, and anything else that people might want to consume.
Step 3. Do proactive media outreach to get your site some exposure. I’ve heard people say “don’t do link building”. While I always hit spam on those emails from people with shitty thin content (Hi please link to my blog), those are bullshit. What you can do to build links though is find journalists who are keen to write about your topic and pitch them a story. We’ve been written about in dozens of outlets such as the BBC, Mountain Life, Readers Digest, The Knot, Trivago, Seattle Met, Newsweek, and many more.
An example of a pitch would be my one to the BBC, I told them that I wanted axe throwing to be the next Olympic sport. They thought it was a great story and ran with it. For the Knot I pitched a story about alternative bachelorette parties for badass women who didn’t just want to do the spa.
Get creative and find a good story hook and journalists will love you!
2 - Pay Per Click
I set up some very basic PPC accounts to go after purchase-intent terms. Our ROI wasn’t great on this at first but as our business grew and our website became more relevant costs when down and conversions went up.
It helps a lot to be invested in SEO as well as PPC. Once you see certain terms performing well in PPC you can create some content around them and try to take the organic positions. It’s a long term approach that can really pay off huge.
3 - Offline Advertising
About a week after we opened we started handing out our brochures in town and making sure they were in every brochure rack we could find. These bring people in! This is our third most profitable channel.
We also set up a party and partnered with a local radio station to do an “on-location” event and we would run a tournament for their listeners. This was a great way for us to kick off our league. I think a lot of people would be surprised how effective a well planned offline campaign can be. We were also able to trade the value of the party back to the radio station in return for advertising credit. Radio stations are always looking for prizes to give away.
We also had some amazing people show up! We’ve been lucky (we make our own luck*) to host the Washington Capitals, DJ Tiesto, and a bunch of TV/Movie celebs who were visiting the region while filming in Vancouver.
Travis Fimmel and Alexander Ludwig from Vikings:
Skateboarder/Influencer Sierra Prescott:
Note about luck: We make our own! Luck is the intersection of hard work and opportunity. It’s not going to happen if you don’t prepare for it! We are constantly working on a proactive media outreach campaign to keep our product interesting and top of mind so when big names are in town they WANT to come see us. You can’t just build it and they will come, you need to build something awesome and then create the buzz.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our traffic to our website has been steadily increasing every month. Some of the big spikes you see are when I land a good piece of media outreach or we get a big name influencer in.
We do get quite a few sales through our website but we also get a lot of sales through other online marketplaces such as TripAdvisor, Expedia, GetYourGuide, Veltra, Airbnb, and local affiliates such as concierge desks and call centre reservation departments. About half of our bookings come direct and the other half is through one of our partners.
We have been cash-flow positive since our second month. I’ve been really happy with the growth of the business and we have re-invested almost every dollar back into the business. Brett and I get paid a modest salary and we’re stoked that we’re able to provide salaries to about 20 staff members in a very high cost of living area.
Since we opened we’ve expanded the physical space twice, we now have three times more space than when we started which means a whole lot more capacity.
I’m sure people want to know what our net revenue is and the truth is that it’s hard to tell sometimes since we’re a rapidly growing business. Almost any mature business can take home between 5% - 20% of gross if it’s well optimized. Certain industries perform better than others but I think we’d fall into the middle at about 12% net. We could take out more money if we wanted to but we’ve made the decision to re-invest aggressively and grow our business.
Right now our business is the best investment that I can make so I’m putting a lot of resources back into it.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Sometimes you need to spend money on things to find out what doesn’t work. Every time I do this I go in with high expectations and then beat myself up when I realize that I’ve wasted so much money on something that in hindsight was a bad decision.
Advertising is always something that I’m willing to spend on and try different things but make sure you track every single thing here. I use a service called CallRail to track incoming phone calls, every campaign gets a unique phone number and I can tell from my dashboard which campaigns are giving us a positive return. The ones that don’t perform are cut and I move that budget into a new experiment, rinse and repeat!
If we find a channel that works I’ll try and increase the spend to see if it scales, half page ad instead of quarter page, 30 second spot instead of 15, etc. Once you hit that point of diminishing returns we leave it alone and look for new avenues.
We were fortunate that the global economy was doing really well when we started and consumer confidence was really high (a great indicator for travel), unfortunately we’re in a period of political instability in some of our key markets, US, UK, and China, which has made us re-evaluate the next year’s outlook. Things like divisive elections, trade wars, and Brexit have been tough to deal with but we’ve just had to look for other markets to advertise into.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Fareharbor for reservations. They’ve been great to work with and have helped us grow without a ton of fees passed along to us.
Square for point of sale. We tried two other POS systems and they sucked, really restrictive contracts and confusing pricing structures. The entire payment system industry is awful to deal with. Square isn’t perfect but at least there’s no contract and pricing is easy to figure out.
Zapier to connect a lot of dots. Zapier makes so many things simple, such as adding each new row of a spreadsheet into ConvertKit, or sending Facebook lead ads into an email sequence. I use it to automate a lot of social media as well since it’s an enormous time suck.
CallRail for call tracking. Probably the best money we spend to figure out what works on marketing.
Ahrefs for keyword tracking and research. I’ve heard people say this tool is similar to SEMRush but I like Ahrefs.
ConvertKit for email marketing. Support is so-so but the platform is great and the cost is low.
GSuite for our team. It’s great, don’t have much else to say. Probably works as well as Office365 if you prefer going with Microsoft products.
Slack for communications. Slack is a pretty great way to keep up with our remote team who works in the Philippines and the UK. It’s mostly a chat app but you can add in integrations with your other systems. I’ve seen some people using Discord recently which is very similar but more gaming focused.
WhenIWork for scheduling. Scheduling is a nightmare! WIW takes some of the pressure off and also helps us forecast labor costs.
Asana for project management. This is a good way to keep focused on long term goals and bigger projects. It helps us remember to work on the business and not in it all the time.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The first season of Startup from Gimlet is an awesome podcast. I really loved listening to their journey to start something. Even though the industry and their business model is miles apart from mine there are so many similarities. The conversations the partners have is also really insightful.
The Tropical MBA is another good podcast. I was actually referred to it from another Redditor who works in Ecommerce. They focus on online business, I treat my website like its own online business so there’s tons of tips in there.
Delivering Happiness, the story of Zappos.com is an amazing read. Their focus on company culture is really inspiring.
I read a book on the 80/20 rule one time, I can’t remember which book but it’s a great theory that I think has helped me focus on key elements of my business and ignore a lot of noise.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Write a business plan and refer back to it frequently. I don’t mean a 50 page meaty plan that you’ll learn in business school. I’m talking about a 1 to 3 page document that clearly lists out the strategy, goals, and tactics for the year.
A lot of people trying to start a business get into it with their heart bursting with excitement and their mind brimming with ideas but then they get beaten up through the process of actually starting and running a business and forget to do the tactics that will help them achieve their goals. Then at the end of the year they wonder why their strategy didn’t work.
Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Also, free advice is some of the most expensive advice out there. If I listened to the trolls on Reddit who are going to pick apart this interview I wouldn’t have ever started in the first place. Obviously there are people who will give you free advice just make sure it comes from a trusted source who has achieved the sort of results that you want to see.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always hiring great axe throwing hosts! It’s hard to hire for this position as you need to be the life of the party all the time.
Where can we go to learn more?
- My Axe Throwing website is www.ForgedAxe.ca
- My activity booking site is www.WhistlerAdventures.ca
- If you want to start up your own venue I’ve made a free resource for you www.AxeCourse.com
- Forged Instagram is https://www.instagram.com/forged.axe.throwing/
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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