by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace Daffron
As one of the only urban axe throwing facilities in the state, Mississippi Axe Throwing Company is helping its customers #FindYourJack – that is, find their inner lumberjack.
Thirty-four days and 30 minutes. That’s all the time it took Steve Willoughby to open the Mississippi Axe Throwing Company. Thirty minutes into throwing an axe, he knew he wanted to open his own axe throwing company. Thirty-four days after he first threw an axe, coincidentally the same day he learned about axe throwing, he opened his business’ doors.
On March 30 of this year, Steve and his wife, Stacey, went to visit their daughter in Birmingham. While they were there, they went to an axe-throwing facility. On the way back to Tupelo, Stacey drove the two-hour distance while Steve wrote out the business plan. Thirty-four days later, Mississippi Axe Throwing Company opened its doors on May 3.
“I’ve always been on the lookout for business opportunities, and this is something new and different and exciting and fun, and wasn’t going to take a lot of work to get open,” he said. “It took us longer to get our permits than it did to field it out and open it up.”
Since day one, the whole family has pitched in one way or another – from their daughter first introducing them to the world of axe throwing, down to the day-to-day. Their son-in-law in Birmingham thought of the company’s name. The logo was designed in less than an hour by their daughter Rachel, a graphic designer outside of Oklahoma City. Then there are the day-to-day operations, manned by Stacey and son, Jordan, while Steve is a full-time life insurance salesman.
HITTING THE MARK
The concept is simple: Find a “rugged” place like a warehouse, get some axes, make some targets, and the people will come in droves. With only a 34-day turn around, that concept proved pretty accurate for the Willoughbys. Stacey said the upkeep is not bad, either. The wooden planks and axes come from various hardware stores in the surrounding area. She and Jordan cut planks, then use a stencil to paint on a target. From there, they replace the targets as needed, usually one plank at a time. The center plank, the one with the bull’s-eye, needs replacing more than the others.
The technique behind throwing an axe is a little more involved. While some people may have concerns about chucking an axe toward a target, Steve said brute strength has little to do with it. Instead, he said the rotation of the axe, in combination with how far the thrower is from the target, most affects the likelihood of sticking an axe to the target.
“At first, just concentrate on trying to get it to spin straight, or just throw it as straight as you can,” he said. “It normally takes people 15-20 minutes to kind of get used to it and catch on, and some people just walk in and (get it) right away.”
He said most people who try it leave the facility with a bull’s-eye under their belt, and all but three people have stuck an axe to the target. In fact, when they first opened, Steve posted on their website stating they will post a photo of every person who hits a bull’s-eye. As it turns out, that’s been a lot of people.
“I’ve been totally amazed and completely impressed with how good some people are at throwing axes,” he said. “We never dreamed almost everybody that comes in would get a bull’s-eye. It’s been so much fun.”
SPLITTING THE COMPETITION
With customer satisfaction as this family-owned-and-operated business’ main priority, the Willoughbys are determined to run things differently than the “big guys.” Chain locations regularly lose sight of their customers, and one way the Willoughbys want to break this is by making sure each customer leaves happy.
“If you don’t treat your customers like kings, they’re not coming back,” Steve said.
Most facilities require a minimum of six people throwing at a single target, even if a group comes in with less than six. That means they will have to wait for enough random customers to join their group before they can begin.
“Most axe-throwing ranges, if you come in to throw and it’s only two of you who come in to throw, you have to wait until four more people show up. And you all get in a line and take turns — six people throwing at one target,” he explained. “We don’t do that. The most we’re going to put on a target is four.”
Customers can throw with the people in their party, so they are not forced into groups with strangers. Things are adjusted slightly when Mississippi Axe Throwing Company hosts a party, whether it’s birthdays, bridal parties or even gender reveal parties. The couple said those participants would frequently split off to create competitions against each other, and said it gets pretty competitive.
Mississippi Axe Throwing Company’s record holder for most bull’s-eyes in one session is a 12-year-old boy, who threw 51. Fifty-one bull’s-eyes in one hour is quite the feat, and the boy had to run to save time when retrieving his axes. Steve likes to get to know his customers, and spurred on this one through some friendly, competitive banter.
“He was determined to do as many as he could because I told him there was another 12-year-old kid in who had done 33,” he said with a chuckle.
TARGETING THE WORLD
Axe throwing may be a new trend to the South, but Steve said it has been taking the world by storm for years. The last ones to the party, urban axe throwing locations started popping up around the U.S. a few years ago, and finally trickled down to the South. People have loved axe throwing so much that the World Axe Throwing League was founded in 2017 and has collaborating companies in 19 countries.
Registered facilities can create leagues, which compete against other leagues until eventually, there’s only one winner standing. Competitions are broadcast on ESPN, and winners can walk away with hefty cash prizes. Mississippi Axe Throwing Company is registered with WATL, and has plans to host a league in Tupelo.
“We wanted to have a sanctioned league this year, but it was so soon after we opened, we couldn’t put it together in time,” Steve said. “So we’re planning to start a sanctioned league for the spring of 2020; and then at the end of that year, hopefully we’ll have somebody qualify to go on ESPN for the World Championship.”
In addition to creating a league, Mississippi Axe Throwing Company has big plans in the near future to spread the fun. First and foremost, they will soon start selling alcohol.
“As best I know, we’re the only axe-throwing place that does not serve alcohol, and we’re planning to,” Steve said.
Due to ordinances, they are required to sell food before they can begin alcohol sales. So the company is currently working on opening a kitchen. In the meantime, customers can bring their own drinks if they would like. Customers can even bring their own axes, and Stacey said someone has even brought in a tomahawk.
Down the road, they hope to open a location in Starkville. There, Jordan, a Mississippi State University graduate, would work as a partner of sorts. To Steve, it’s a win-win: Jordan returns to the town he loves, and Steve would have a business partner with some skin in the game.
For now, the Willoughbys are having a blast slinging axes and getting to know customers.
“I try to remember everybody, and I do remember most people,” he said. “We’re just having so much fun here. I love meeting people, and now I’m getting to meet 100 people a weekend.”