Merle McKenzie is a self-described serial entrepreneur who “has an incessant need to build things.”
Over the last 10 years, Merle owned and operated several CrossFit gyms in Connecticut. He still owns a smaller key-fob gym. After someone approached him to buy his last CrossFit gym, Merle was ready for his next entrepreneurial adventure.
“I thought it was time to transition to something else—but I didn’t really know what,” he admits.
A Cutting-Edge Business Concept
About two years ago, Merle saw some posts on social media about the growing popularity of axe throwing bars in Canada. About a year later, he saw the concept start taking off in the United States.
That was when Merle began toying with the idea of opening an axe throwing bar. “I posted on Facebook saying: I think I want to own an axe throwing bar, who wants to jump in with me?” he recalls.
First, he did his research. Merle visited Kick Axe in Brooklyn, NY and spoke with the owners to learn about their practices and operations. “I visited a few others to compare business models before I decided: I’m going to do this,” says Merle.
Montana Nights Axe Throwing opened in August 2018. Merle and a friend brainstormed brand names, and his friend came up with Montana Nights. “I knew the moment I saw it that was the name. If feels like the brand is bigger already. It’s a connotation of everything I want this place to feel like,” says Merle.
With a name in mind, Merle needed a business concept.
“Axe throwing bars have two different models. In one model, your ‘axepert’ shows you how to throw, explains the safety rules, and then let’s you do everything on your own,” Merle explains.
“With the model we chose, our axeperts stay with you the entire time and conduct games. So, they are there for the full experience to tweak your technique and ensure your safety,” he adds.
“This place is much safer than the outward appearance of the name leads you to think. Our axeperts monitor safety all the time. They’re also there to make it fun. I think that’s a huge difference, not only in the level of service, but also in the entire experience,” ensures Merle.
He points out that axe-throwing is a family-friendly activity for ages 10 and up. Montana Nights also accommodates group parties. In fact, corporate parties have been a high priority and drawn business.
Finding a Location
Newington, CT was always on Merle’s radar when he considered a business location. “There are about one million people in the 15- to 20-mile radius around Newington, which is my drawing point,” he explains. “I subsequently found out that my drawing area is even out of state, so I’ve expanded what I thought was my initial base.”
He’s happy with his decision to locate in Newington. “A friend owns a Big Sky Fitness up the street. He’s done demographic studies, so I knew this area was good for business,” says Merle. “It’s close to West Hartford. There’s easy highway access. And we’ve got Central Connecticut State University nearby.”
Merle was aware of the building on Fenn Road, which he notes was empty for about 20 years. “There was nothing going on here. There was no business. I remember saying: What can I do with this place even before Montana Nights became a reality,” he recalls.
The biggest startup challenge for Montana Nights was construction delays. “That and the weather pushed our start time back about three months,” Merle confirms. “I’m overly optimistic about everything. I was thinking would be open at the beginning of June.”
He adds, “Being unrealistic in my expectations, I burned through three months of money I needed to pay my own bills, figuring this place would be open and producing. So that was really my biggest challenge.”
Cash flow is challenging for most startups—and Montana Nights had its struggles in the very beginning.
“The biggest lesson I’m aware of, and I still haven’t fully implemented, is making sure I have reserve money when I open a business. I had reserve money, but I didn’t factor in the toll the buildout process would take. I spent on things I probably would not have,” admits Merle. “In retrospect, I’m glad I did, because it really completes this place—if I had pinched my pennies, it wouldn’t feel the way it feels.”
He adds, “The opening seemed to hit to that magical point where the business takes off and there’s just enough revenue coming in to get me through. But it’s been a roll of the dice for sure.”
Hitting a Target Market
Merle began marketing Montana Nights before it even opened. “Back in February, the moment I made the decision to pursue this, I created a Montana Nights Axe Throwing Facebook page. I used Newington as the location, without having a street address. I started telling the story to attract a following—every purchase I made, pictures of this place throughout the buildout, every concept or thought I had.”
He notes that media stories, including Innovation Destination Hartford, have helped spread the word. Montana Nights was featured in the Hartford Courant and the Hartford Business Journal, as well as several local radio and television stations.
“The only other advertising I’ve actually paid for is via Facebook and Instagram. Everyone is on it. It’s so easy to reach. That’s where I put most of our marketing dollars, what little we had to start,” Merle says. “Through my gyms, I have a lot of Facebook friends. They’re scattered throughout Central Connecticut, so that helps spread the word too.”
Learning from His Entrepreneurial Experience
Merle is going into Montana Nights as a solopreneur—although he would like to partner in the future if, and when, the business opens a second location.
“I’ve been very lucky to have some partners in my past businesses who had the strengths I lacked,” he notes. “I’ve always been the idea and vision guy, so it’s been helpful to learn from others who are more focused on the details—seeing how things need to operate. It’s helped me see what I need to be aware of from the get-go.”
Merle also learned to be more open minded and ask for help. For example, he explains, “I originally was going to go with one distributor because I didn’t want a lot of bills. I was convinced by a couple of other distributors, and now I’m glad I did because people love our beer selection.”
Merle is quick to admit he’s “not the detail guy.” He’s also quick to admit his gratitude for his wife, Diana. She’s been the detail person who set up all the systems.
“Everything is paperless, explains Merle. “We keep everything electronically stored in case we have legal reasons for the information, but it also gives us emails in case we ever do a marketing campaign.”
He adds, “Diana has picked up the slack where I lack. I’d rather have someone here full-time to manage all that, so I can just dream a lot and be the relationship guy. But that will come in time.”
True to his entrepreneurial spirit, Merle plans for more.
“I have a big appetite,” he says. “Initially, just getting Montana Nights open was all I cared about—which was how I felt when I opened my first gym. I just wanted something I could call my own, do things my way, and make my own decisions. I didn’t care about the hours I had to work or what I would earn.”
He continues, “This place is similar in that originally, all I wanted was to get it open. But just before the doors opened, I started thinking: There’s a real opportunity here. So, I definitely want to open a second, and probably third and fourth location in Connecticut, strategically planned. I’m leaning toward doing a franchise model, where other people can use the name and processes and spread the brand throughout the country.”
The long-term goal is to ensure the activity has sticking power.
“Axe throwing is very one-dimensional. After you’ve done it a few times, you probably don’t come back unless you have an event or you’re bringing new friends. I want Montana Nights to be more than that. That’s why there are pool tables, a foosball table, a chess set, and a comfortable seating area. We hope to host live music once a month as part of the experience, too,” notes Merle.
“I’m super excited,” he emphasizes. “I have a very vivid imagination, so I knew what this place could do and what it could feel like. It’s exceeded every vision I had.”