With 25 years working in the wireless sector, Mike Roberts had little reason to suspect that a team building exercise would be what changed the course of his career forever. Only a year or so later, that team building exercise became Roberts’ career though.
Call it fate or maybe just one of life’s happy little axe-cidents, but Roberts’ visit to an axe throwing venue during his company’s annual meeting is what inspired him to start a business of his own after he was laid off near the start of the new year in 2020. When one of his employees at the team builder jokingly suggested he start an axe throwing venue after he retired, the idea that would become The Horse’s Axe started to form.
“I remember at that moment looking around at that venue and thinking to myself, ‘you know, I think I could do this better, maybe,’ because there were a few things that jumped out to me that I thought could be improved upon,” Roberts said.
After realizing he wasn’t interested in jumping back into the corporate world following the layoff, Roberts and his family decided to start the pun-fueled axe throwing venue, opening the first location of The Horse’s Axe in Denton in November 2020 with a mission to keep the business both “fun and funny.” Now in 2023, Roberts owns another location in Denison with plans for his first franchised location to open in McKinney this Spring.
It’s been an axe-ceptional journey to get to this point for Roberts and The Horse’s Axe to say the least though, starting with throwing around axe-themed puns for a potential business name with his wife, sister and brother-in-law who were all helping with the endeavor and continuing through an unexpected pandemic-era opening.
In fact, the challenges of safely opening following COVID-19 related shutdowns helped The Horse’s Axe develop one of its defining features and gain nationwide recognition.
“As we were planning the business throughout that summer of COVID, one of the things that came up was obviously sanitation,” Roberts said, explaining that the wood handles of the axes were an obvious point of concern when it came to transmission.
After workshopping through some potential ideas to sanitize the axes, Roberts landed on a rather unique solution for the store’s opening.
“When customers would come in, we would have axes lined up on the table and we would say, ‘ok, pick an axe.’ They would pick it; we’d say, ‘hold it up in the air.’ They’d hold it up in the air and we would clap our hands and say, ‘congratulations, you now own a horse’s axe,’” Roberts said.
He said that customers originally thought the whole routine was a gag, something befitting of a venue that doesn’t miss an opportunity for a good dad joke, not knowing that Roberts had solved a major sanitation problem by simply eliminating the transmission risks of sharing an axe.
“Everybody took home an axe, and it took a while for it to catch on,” Roberts said. “But when it caught on, it spread like wildfire.”
Roberts credits social media, specifically TikTok, with helping popularize the venue’s throw and take policy. Roberts said people started to fly in from all parts of the country just for the ability to take back a Horse’s Axe.
Eventually, all that axe-citement caught the attention of some big names. Legal Zoom, the service Roberts used to help create The Horse’s Axe, decided to make the company part of a national advertising campaign, leading Roberts to develop a franchising strategy just six months after The Horse’s Axe began.
That strategy is now in full swing thanks to Andrew Duncan and Jason Pearson, two longtime customers of The Horse’s Axe who started going to the Denton location within weeks of its opening. The pair will be moving from the education field to run The Horse’s Axe’s upcoming location in McKinney.
“I think they’re going to be fantastic at it because they enjoy it so much,” Roberts said of his first franchisees who he’s become friends with over the years.
Roberts explained that the McKinney location will have the same DNA that’s helped make The Horse’s Axe a success. That includes a desire for the venue to be more than just another place to throw an axe.
“We want it to be inviting, and we don’t want it to operate like a theater,” Roberts said, detailing how other axe throwing venues only offer the ability to throw an axe for an allotted amount of time and leave. “We want to be a place where people can come and hang out.”
The Horse’s Axe accomplishes that by providing other activities like pool tables at each of its locations, which Roberts’ brother-in-law originally supplied, as well as an extensive selection of more than 100 different drinks. The first two locations even have their own unique attractions such as dining options and an arcade inside the Denison Horse’s Axe or cornhole at the Denton location.
“The Horse’s Axe is an axe throwing venue, and that is the main attraction, but you don’t have to come to a Horse’s Axe and throw axes. You can just come in and hang out,” Roberts said. “I think in downtown McKinney that’ll go a long way.”
The venue also offers projected games in its axe throwing lanes, another twist on the traditional axe throwing model, allowing participants to try to hit zombies, knock ornaments off Christmas trees or play each other in a game of tic-tac-toe.
“At a Horse’s Axe, there’s so much to do,” Roberts said. “We just don’t see people getting bored.”
Similar to the company’s other locations, The Horse’s Axe in McKinney will include the ability to play those projected games as well as shoot pool and enjoy a large selection of drinks. Roberts notes that Duncan and Pearson tentatively plan to host a soft opening for the two-story location in mid-to-late April, depending on construction time, followed by a grand opening in May.
“I’m thrilled that Jason and Andrew are our first franchisees because they’re great guys,” Pearson said, adding that the location will work to be involved with the local McKinney community as well. “We’re excited about it.”