Topgolf: Middle Market Sports & Entertainment Superstar
2014 Readers' Choice Award for The Best Family Entertainment by Star Local Media in Allen, TX and named to Inc.’s 2013 list of Fastest-Growing Private Companies, Topgolf has transformed the game of golf. As their website states it truly is “like drinks with your best buddies, the weekly poker night, a Sunday tee-time, playing Wii with the kids, and the best date you’ve ever had – all rolled into one.” Topgolf has revolutionized the driving range experience by adding high-tech balls, flat screen TV’s, a full restaurant and bar, event space, live music and so much more. With 18 locations and counting this middle market company has become a superstar in the sports and entertainment industry! To learn more the National Center for the Middle Market sat down with CEO, Tom Leverton.
How did Topgolf start?
Topgolf was founded in England in 2000 by two brothers, both avid golfers, who wanted a way to improve their game. They designed and patented technology that allowed an RFID chip to be placed inside a golf ball. Readers could then be placed out in the field to measure exactly where the ball landed and the distance, all real-time on TV screens. After deploying the technology at their first site in England, they found an overwhelming majority of non-golfers and families started to come and treat it like a game (e.g., darts at a bar). To address the demand, they came up with a way to tweak it where individuals earned points depending on where their ball landed. This is really what caused the concept to explode. Everyone wanted to come play this ‘game’. Non-golfers and golfers alike. They opened up two more sites in England, incorporating food, drinks and, later, music, which created this social experience for people that really transcended its origins for golf.
The concept was brought over to the states about 10 years ago with the opening of sites in DC, Dallas and Chicago. The model was the same. It’s a game and a social experience; it wasn’t just about golf anymore. Topgolf continued to focus more and more on the social side of the concept, experimenting with better food, music and entertainment. Two years ago, we launched this new model in Houston, TX with an unbelievable building, terrific food, great music, and even live music on the weekends. The ultimate goal was to bring people together for a social experience centered around a golf-based game. Since then we have been growing the model deployed in Houston, opening a total of six new sites this year and targeting 10-12 next year, which is why Topgolf hired me. My background is in multi-site high-growth businesses. I did a long tour at Kinko’s back in the day and then stayed on and did a lot of growth and expansion with FedEx Office after they acquired the Kinko’s concept. From there, I moved on to a middle market company that is also multi-site, an air medical business (emergency helicopters) in which there were 80 locations across the country. I then joined Topgolf just over a year ago.
To what do you contribute your organization’s recent success?
At our core, we are a hospitality business. It’s not really about the game of golf. It’s about that social experience, so I attribute 99% of our success to the associates we hire. We require a guest-focused personality more than a skill set. We believe we can teach someone the skills needed to work the front counter or even be a waiter/waitress. We can’t teach an individual to have an energetic, quirky, fun, dynamic personality. Recruiting based on that guest-oriented nature has made a tremendous difference and is really what has driven our success. Our Topgolf sites deliver a level of energy I’ve never seen in any type of business before. If our guests are having the time of their lives, a low energy busser or waiter/waitress can wreck the evening just by his or her attitude. It takes a different type of personality to go into a high-energy environment and take it higher, but that’s what we really want from our associates.
The energy we deliver to our guests is what makes us special, and it’s why we haven’t explored franchising. We believe we’ve cracked the code on delivering that high-energy experience, and by opening company owned sites, we hope to protect and hopefully enhance that going forward.
Outside of investing in new locations, what other significant investments is Topgolf making?
We are constantly investing in technology because, on top of being a hospitality business, we are a technology business as well. Outside of the RFID aspect of the game, we have touch screens and TVs in each bay. Our Topgolf app is dynamic down to the point where a guest can change the channel on the TV in the bay, directly from their phone. We want to continue to develop that technology and link it to social media so our guests can share their scores and even talk a little trash with their friends who are also topgolfers. Investing in technology and innovation allows us to keep the game fresh and deliver a better and better experience.
Where do you see growth opportunities over the next 3-5 years?
Definitely new locations, but we still believe there is a lot we can do to continue to deliver a better and better experience for our guests at the current sites.
What is the biggest challenge facing your organization?
Protecting what has made us special as we grow. New sites mean new people and often new leaders who set the tone for that site. So for us, it’s how we direct, train, and hire in a way that doesn’t dilute what makes us special. And again, being a people-focused business, that’s difficult and something we need to be super diligent about. Protecting the culture as we grow.
How do you handle training for new leaders that come on board?
In order to maintain the culture, our site leaders work at an existing site for a period of time. There is formal training, but much more importantly, they are learning the job at an existing site that exemplifies our culture.
To form a “tee-up” crew for a new site, we have an audition process that is similar to what you see on shows like “America’s Got Talent” or “X-Factor.” Anyone can audition, and the auditions are a lot of fun in the spirit of Topgolf. Some individuals even go the extra mile and submit videos or email us their version of what makes them special. Our tee-up crews are some of our best, brightest and highest-energy associates from across the world. Some might come from the UK or from a site in Houston or Chicago. That team of 20 people in turn delivers the training to the rest of the team at the new site. Our training comes from individuals who have been successful and exemplified our culture at a current site. Would a professional trainer probably hit the skills points better? Potentially, but no one is going to hit the culture point better than some of the fantastic associate we have working hourly shifts at our sites.
What are the traits you look for in an individual considering a career at Topgolf?
Energy, quirkiness, eccentricity, and a desire to work hard. I was talking with a new associate who is a bay host at our new location in Alpharetta, GA. Bay host is our term for waiter/waitress. She was telling me how bopping up and down to the music was viewed as unprofessional. Here, if somebody’s not bopping up and down to the music as they’re walking up and down the tee line while they’re working for us, that’s a miss. Our associates are singing at the top of their lungs and doing a little spin moves on their way to take a guest’s order. That’s what we look for and the energy level we want.
How do you market the experience to non-golfers?
The best analogy I can provide is bowling. You can throw 10 gutter balls, and it really doesn’t matter. Bowling is really the hook that gets you together with your friends. Topgolf is the same way. Even though you have a golf club in your hand, and over the past several hundred years, we as people have been trained to look at golf as a very serious sport, Topgolf shatters that. I go with my kids and play a game called Topscramble, where my two kids pair up and play against me. They might be aiming for a different target, but if the ball goes in, they get points. They think it’s the best thing ever, and they will hoot and holler, so it’s fun and there is an immediate reward.
I like to say at Topgolf we discourage etiquette. Out on the golf course, you have to be quiet and better never talk during someone’s backswing. Here, the people who really get Topgolf are the ones trying to sneeze, cough, make loud noises, or maybe sing AC/DC at the top of their lungs while their friends are playing. That’s what Topgolf is about: having fun with your friends, your family, or your colleagues.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in business?
Don’t be afraid of failure. I believe from a business standpoint, in order to be successful, you need to constantly try new things, knowing that many of them will fail. The goal being to identify some major successes. Embrace your successes, accept your failures and move on. That’s the way you really progress and learn as you go.
What advice do you have for other middle market executives?
Protect what makes you special. Don’t let your business get away from its core for the sake of growth. If something makes you special, grow at the rate you can while sustaining it. There are plenty of examples of large corporations who haven’t done that and have suffered because of it.
What advice do you have for students interested in career in the middle market?
A midmarket company, regardless of the role for which you are hired, gives you general management experience. You might be a 21-year-old coming into a midmarket company, but you are going to be in the thick of it because it’s small. It’s “all hands on deck” all the time, and you’re going to be faced with problems you would never see somewhere else. You have to be interested in juggling and solving puzzles. Joining a large company, you’ll get deep functional expertise, which comes with a different set of benefits. But again in a midmarket company, you’re going to get trained from day 1 about general management on top of function. They are very different career paths, and you really just have to follow your heart.
Is there anything else you want someone to know about Top Golf?
When people think about going to a bowling alley or a driving range, they think about snack bar foods. We take it a very different way. We’re about the social experience, and in order to deliver a great social experience, you have to deliver fantastic food. We are a 95% from-scratch kitchen. Each site has an executive chef, and we have a staff of corporate chefs at our headquarters. Our head chef literally cooked for the Queen of England and was a participant in the Beckham wedding from a catering standpoint. We take our food very, very seriously. It’s not hot dogs and pizza. We have chicken curry sandwiches, high-end vegetable sandwiches, flatbreads, etc. Our goal is to compete and beat most of the restaurants people go to nine times out of ten.
If you do end up waiting for a bay to open up, it’s extremely pleasant. Our restaurant and bar has 20+ TVs so you can watch sports or whatever your favorite programming is. Downstairs in our lounge, we have free pool, foosball, shuffle board, and Xbox, so there is plenty of entertainment.
To visit a Topgolf location near you or learn more go to www.topgolf.com.