“It is not about the money – it is the sense of achievement!”
On Thursday, 9 February 2023, we were delighted to welcome Steve Jolliffe MBA back to the Cranfield campus as our opening speaker in this spring’s Bettany Centre Entrepreneurship Speaker series.
A serial founder of fast-growth businesses, alumnus Steve frequently returns to share his story and updates us with a new chapter each time. Originally a mining engineer, Steve arrived at Cranfield in 1985 and was hooked by the entrepreneurship classes. Almost as soon as he finished his studies, he encountered his first opportunity. A poor experience in a restaurant led him and his twin brother Dave to set up the first Mystery Shopping service in the UK. It expanded rapidly and, within a few years, was acquired by NOP, Britain’s biggest market research organisation. Even before the ink was dry on the contract, Steve thought of the next opportunity: spice up the country’s uninspiring golf driving ranges.
In his opinion, everyday life presents numerous opportunities for entrepreneurs to spot and make improvements. The humdrum driving range could be made immensely more attractive - and profitable - if it became a destination and entertainment venue. To unlock the potential, Steve needed to find a way to insert a microchip into a golf ball, record its movements, and transmit these to a scoreboard. The Jolliffe twins commissioned a technical consultancy to conduct a feasibility study. Their report said it was impossible. Steve and Dave were delighted: if experts said it could not be done, no one else would even try. They poured in the money they had made from mystery shopping to fund an R&D programme to prove the experts wrong, and, sure enough, it could be done. After a lot of time and a lot of money, in 2000, Topgolf opened its first venue in Steve’s home town of Watford.
Thanks to Steve, golf had been repurposed as sports entertainment for all. The whole Topgolf concept was based on a fun night out where groups of friends and business colleagues could enjoy the game and have a meal. Crucially, you didn’t need to be an experienced golfer to compete successfully: in fact, out of today’s 50 million visitors to Topgolf’s venues worldwide, around 60% are non-golfers, and 45% are female. Right from the start, it was clear that the international potential of the concept, in essentially the same form, was huge. The British market was tiny by comparison with the US, and golf as a leisure activity was growing fast in the Middle East and markets like Thailand. However, big ambitions need big money. The Dubai location on its own has required $85M of backing, and funding Topgolf’s current network of 100 locations worldwide has entailed $3 billion of investment. While the Jolliffe brothers retain the rights to the patents that protect the IP behind the venture, multiple partnerships have been formed along the way to develop the business. In North America, for instance, Topgolf is run as a division of the golfing equipment behemoth Callaway.
A major advantage of this scale of investment is that it creates barriers to entry by competitors. The downside is that the return on investment takes a long time, and not every investor operates to such timescales. Steve’s next venture is a variant on the same theme. Puttshack is a reinvention of the mini-golf course, taken indoors and also packaged as an evening’s entertainment for groups of friends and work colleagues. The UK flagship venue has opened next to Bank station in the City of London. It relies on a similar mix of easy-going competition and hospitality, supported by the same technology that underpins Topgolf. The advantage of this new concept is that the costs for each location are much lower, and the return on investment is much quicker. Today there are 17 venues in the UK and the US, and the business is already valued at three-quarters of a billion dollars, supported by expansion capital of $150M supplied by Black Rock.
What is the recipe for his success? Ambition, for one thing, has grown as Steve’s journey as a business founder has progressed. Personal chemistry is also a vital ingredient: Steve and his twin have a third partner who provides balance and stability. The primary focus has been on taking something utterly familiar and transforming it to make it significantly better. Take Puttshack, where the Jolliffe brothers have absorbed everything they have learnt from Topgolf and applied it to make the customer experience as engaging as possible. Social media has proved a boon since visitors record and share their own experiences. We do not need to explain Topgolf and Puttshack, says Steve: the customers do it for us!
Now 37 years out of business school, Steve might be expected to be easing himself into retirement and spending more of his time on the actual golf course. Not so. The next challenge, he told an enthralled Cranfield audience, is to reimagine the game of pool. He is already making plans.