Matt Wilson is living proof that you can truly pursue your passion.
His tale began in 2006 while he was working in Toronto’s hospitality industry. “I was really happy working at a couple of bars in Little Italy,” he reveals. “I actually thought I might eventually buy in as part owner.”
Wilson was tired of not seeing his friends very often and so, after experiencing the thrill of axe throwing while on a camping trip, he decided to create a small backyard league of his own to get his friends and family together and hang out.
“We started hosting an event one night a week, and eventually, word started getting out in the neighbourhood,” Wilson recalls. The first league started with eight people in 2006 and grew to 30 in 2009. At that time, a Facebook page was launched to kick-start a second league. Using a ladder system, the league had a 30-person roster with anywhere from 20 to 40 spectators.
Despite not having any early dreams of being an entrepreneur, 12 years later, Wilson is the CEO of BATL (Backyard Axe Throwing League), which operates 13 locations across North America, with plans to open another 10 over the next year. He heads a team of almost 400, who teach over 300,000 people each year how to throw an axe. He’s also the founder of the National Axe Throwing Championships.
Numerous celebrities endorse his brand and he has been featured on TSN, CBC and The History Channel. His story has been profiled in The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
The company’s rise to fame has not been without its challenges, though. The first for Wilson was taking a giant leap of faith when he opened BATL’s first warehouse in 2011. It was a relatively small space, measuring about 1,200 square feet, using the same format he had built in his backyard.
“Over the next few months leading into the summer of 2012, it really started to pick up and I went down to one scheduled shift each week at the bar.” Contrary to popular belief, yet consistent with the story of most entrepreneurs, Matt maintained ties to his full-time employment while working on his venture: “I had no idea about its possible longevity, so I still wanted to hold on to that safety net.”
What finally inspired Wilson to leave his job and pursue his passion full-time?
“The demand was there,” he says, “and it wasn’t decreasing. BATL’s only location was booked 12 weeks in advance” — and so a second location became necessary.
Wilson proceeded with caution before expanding: “Even when I used the most conservative numbers, the plan still made sense. So I knew I had to take the plunge.”
Interestingly, his continued success led to a different sort of challenge. Wilson began getting several calls from potential partners wanting to ride the wave and help him expand.
“I wasn’t interested at first because I had become so protective of what I had created. I didn’t trust anyone else to dive in and get involved.”
Wilson was finally swayed when he met Ilan Jacobson, founder of FirePower Capital.
“I liked that he had no interest in changing anything about the way I ran the business. All he wanted to do was fund the growth because he felt that if I didn’t do it, somebody else would and then I would lose out on an opportunity.
“He was very persistent and was ready to make a deal happen in whatever way I needed so that I could feel comfortable about the security of my brand and the style and direction of the company moving forward. We signed a deal in August 2014 and brought in a COO to operate as my right-hand and focus on national expansion.”
The national expansion brought a new challenge to Wilson: How do you keep people motivated to be part of your growth?
Early on, he realized the importance of providing his staff with a voice because they were the ones that were on the ground every day. Asking for their input and feedback about how to make things better made them feel more connected and accountable to the future success of the business. “That’s where the value is. No matter how large we have grown, we focus on keeping the lines of communication as open as possible.”
When I ask him about a large misconception about entrepreneurs, he highlights the mistaken belief that it requires a leap of faith. “I reiterate the napkin scratching I did to figure out the numbers I needed to make sure I felt comfortable committing to the process. You don’t need to jump off a cliff, but you do need to mentally commit to the process.”
• Craig Dowden (PhD) is president of Craig Dowden & Associates, a firm focused on supporting clients in achieving leadership and organizational excellence by leveraging the science of peak performance. Connect with him by email or LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @craigdowden.