While Junkyard Golf can trace its roots back to the islands of Florida, it was in the UK’s unofficial wettest city that it ultimately sprung to life. Chris Legh, Mat Lakes, James Bart Murphy and Lyndon Higginson all came from different backgrounds but assembled in 2015 after deciding to take a punt on using some vacant warehouse space.
A window between corporate parties in the lead up to Christmas meant the four could trial their concept of crazy golf, nightlife and drinking. Wanting to hedge their bets and keep costs down, they used a load of old junk lying around and marketed the entire run through social media.
“We managed to sell out a few thousand tickets over the first two weeks, so knew we were onto something,” Legh remembers. “The new step was to take it on a longer run, so we booked the same space for six months the following year and did two courses.”
The success of that six-month run, where 1,500-odd people played a round each week, saw the four budding entrepreneurs look south to the bright lights of London. The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane presented itself as an opportunity, but it was a big and expensive space that meant another leap into the unknown.
It was at this point that Junkyard Golf reached a fork in the road. Continue to utilise the pop-up model, setting up in vacant spaces for a short run, or commit to a longer lease and build the fabric of a business around it. The £6m turnover it has forecasted this year shows the punt was worth it, with growth coming in the form of an improved Manchester offering and a soon to be opened 12,000 sq ft site in Land Securities’ new Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford.
With this new-found commercial approach, Legh also admitted to transitioning from an “underground hipstery product” to something entirely more mainstream. The look and feel of the place, he added, fits in with the casual dining trend that has fast emerged in recent years.
“Everyone is after a different kind of night out, so we started this at the right time. A night has to be Instagrammable – the best night ever and not simply a drink in the pub,” Legh explained.
Doing it themselves
Growth to date has remarkably been achieved through organic means, although the business is now going through the process of securing a £300,000 bank credit facility backed up by the government guarantee scheme. Legh and his founding team have spoken to a few investors, and not ruled out taking on equity backing, but it will only happen if the right deal comes along.
“For us, turnover wise, we’ve gone from an events business turning over £500,000 to £6m today, and we are aiming for £12m within the next year. We’ve grown the business and brand from a pop-up to 100 staff, a head office of 12 and a more mainstream positioning.”
One of the big challenges that has reared its head is property, and the art of negotiation. Once longer leases were signed, that produced a requirement for Junkyard Golf to strategise in the long term – as the financial commitment meant hiring permanent members of staff, acquiring good management and building out the support services a growing business needs.
Legh is a big exponent of the value specialised advisors can bring to the task of finding and acquiring properties, and has had the same Manchester-based support since Junkyard Golf was just a pop-up brand.
OBI Property helps deal with landlords and oversees the construction management once a site has been signed up. “They helped open the door to how we talk with landlords, and facilitated discussions with Land Securities. It is about changing the mindset from being a dynamic events business to thinking long term.”
Landlords, Legh added, are after two distinct things. Firstly, they want businesses that can draw people into a new development – which supports the start-up model. “Sometimes there is a misconception that a pop-up will go in as a place hasn’t been taken for a reason.”
New tenants are also expected to not erode the revenues of neighbour sites. “With Truman Brewery, there are three or four bars on site, which we support. We are not an enormous food court or restaurant taking away retailers’ money. We’re actually dragging a few thousand there each week who then spend in other spaces,” he said.
Spreading the Junkyard Golf story
Word or mouth and social media have been the two strongest marketing tools for the business – a remarkable 80 per cent of business is generated from one person telling another about it.
“When we came to London we did everything by paid Facebook marketing. But even in the short time we’ve been doing it, we’ve moved further away form Facebook and towards Instagram and Snapchat,” Legh told us.
The return on investment Junkyard Golf got from Facebook promotions was “immediate” and easily trackable for the small team. Legh has witnessed a “massive” switch in marketing from Facebook to Instagram, backed up by being able to target the exact demographic his business is after.
“I find it interesting that all digital and social marketing does is speed up word of mouth.”
Despite two years of rapid growth, the Junkyard Golf team feels comfortable in the business model it now employs. Careful consideration has gone into factors such as how many people are on a course at any time time – too few and you lose the buzz, with too many meaning traffic jams occur.
They will be taking these learnings and rolling out into a number of new locations – the company’s rapid growth plans set to take Junkyard Golf to fresh territories.
In our visit to its Brick Lane site there was a refreshing originality to it all. By having its roots in an underground style, backed by people looking for something new, Junkyard Golf has avoided slipping down the slick corporate route and created on offering that appeals to a conveniently wide demographic.