How the high score on a pinball machine saved my failing business

pinball winning business quoteMy Twitter Bio reads – Blogger. Essex pinball wiz, co -author of Zero to Social Media, sci fi fan, chief Bird on the Blog, wife to Kevin, mother of dragons. I’m always get asked about the pinball wiz part. So here it is, the tale of how I became a pinball wizard and how it saved my failing business.

Back when I was a slip of a girl I used to manage pubs. Public houses are the original community hubs in towns and villages all over the UK. Female pub managers were known as landladies, and even though it was the early 90s, we were rare. The landlady title always rested uncomfortably with me, I was just out of my teens… I didn’t feel very lady-like at all ;).

I spent a year travelling from pub to pub all over the south east of England before I finally settled in Chiswick, in a pub affectionately known as The Duke. During that time I discovered playing pinball. Some pubs are very quiet during the day, you have to be on the premises and when you’ve read all the books you can lay your hands on, you have to do something or get real crazy.

When I arrived at the Duke, the place was a mess. The outgoing manager made things easy for me by holding parties every night and telling everyone that a child was taking over the pub and they had a duty to manage the place for me. He also green-lighted drug taking on the premises and other things, just to boost business for me when I arrived. Please read those sentences with dripping sarcasm. The man was an idiot who felt insecure and thought that his legacy was to make my life hell. Pubs are not places of constant partying, they are real businesses with profit and loss sheets, and they are expected to make a profit.

The outgoing manager had destroyed the pub’s community and I was left to pick up the unprofitable pieces.

After I cleared out the drugs and barred 76 people in the first week, things got a little quiet in the pub. The community did not like that I was acting with my own mind, they were supposed to be the bosses. How dare I come in and assert my authority and ban people for taking drugs. Word of Mouth was killing the business. I was in the possession of a public house that had no customers until 9pm of an evening. The brewery were on my case, I was costing them money, I had no idea what to do or how to do it and I was stressed.

And there’s nothing like whacking a few balls to alleviate stress so I ordered in a pinball machine. The pinball machine cost £70 a week to rent and I was only spending £20 a week, I was making a loss there too.  I played for 9 hours a day, every day until the brewery ordered me out of the pub and into the competition. I had to tour the other pubs and assess what they were doing, an inspection. I had to have lunch, try the beer and write a report on each outlet. Then my boss would come down and analyse the data with me…

So I trundled around Chiswick visiting pubs, and I discovered that most of them had pinball machines and a core group of men who played every lunchtime.

I’m a reasonably good player, so I left a high score on every single machine in every pub I visited. In one, I was the top of the leaderboard by 100,000 points and it seemed like no one could touch that score. After visiting the pubs I went back to mine to write the reports. No computers back then, it was all handwritten and then typed up. And as I sat in the corner writing I noticed that I was starting to get a steady trickle of lunchtime visitors. They had lunch and played pinball and they were determined to get my name off of the leaderboard. When they couldn’t do it of a lunchtime, they bought their partners back and tried again in the evening.

They had seen my SA initials at the top of the leaderboards on all the machines in town. They asked the bar staff who they belonged to and they slowly worked out where to find me. They were coming to show me how to play, and they were going to remove my initials off of all the leaderboards come hell or highwater.

Those pinball machines were my word of mouth, they told everyone who I was at every opportunity with my initials and score flashing up every time a game wasn’t being played.

The makers of pinball machines decided the best advocates for their machines would be the players. Advertising would only go so far, word of mouth would be better and by publicising the player’s scores people would talk about the scores and the players, and by default they would talk about machines themselves.

The brewery was pleased. My Pinball machine that didn’t cover it’s rental cost was now taking in £700 a week. I had a lunchtime trade and I was seen as a highly competitive pinball player rather than a landlady. And whilst they struggled to beat me at pinball they discovered I couldn’t play pool, arm wrestle or sing karaoke…

And my pub had a community again, the word of mouth was no longer about drugs but about pinball scores…

And I remained a rarely beaten champion until my eldest daughter was born. I ran out of time to practice but by then it didn’t matter.


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Sarah Arrow

Blogging an issue for you? Social media not quite working how it should be?That's okay I understand. I started blogging back in 2006 and grew into a kick-ass blog coach as well as creator of Birds on the Blog (listed 3 times by Forbes as a top 100 website for women), I'm frequently listed as both a top content marketing expert and as an influential marketer.
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  1. Love this Sarah, I really shouldn’t have read it while sipping a little glass of red wine, but other than the keyboard, all is fine!

    • Always a pleasure to ruin your keyboard my lovely :)

    • Great story Sarah and inspirational too!

  2. What a wonderful story Sarah!

    I just love it when I come to a blog with a real life lesson and a moral to the story. I find that this is the best way to teach people.

    Word of mouth does go a long way. I love pinball too…one day when I cross the pond, I’ll have a game with you lol!

    Seriously though, it took great courage for you to get in there and turn things around at that pub. Because of your natural talent, and belief in yourself, you cleaned up that mess and gave it a good mindset – a healthier one at that and business increased. Good for you at such a young age.

    I must say that I have the song “A Pinball Wizard” by the Who in my head now. Yes, I am dating myself. If you have never heard it, youtube it…

    • Hi Donna, it’s a date or should I say Game On? If I get to your side of the pond, we’ll hook up and flip a few balls :)

      and now I can’t get PinBall Wizard out of my head… I’ll be humming it all night now ;)

  3. I love this story Sarah! It’s great to hear more about your story and what made you who you are today.

    • Thanks Claire, it was a baptism of alcohol and silver balls that makes me the person that I am :), that and several replays ;)

  4. Hi Sarah,
    That’s a great story, I love the fact that you traveled around and were able to have your name on the high score of every pinball machine and for that you were recognized.
    It’s great you could make a come back at your pub and it was obviously great advertisement for you and your pub!!

    Thank you,

    Regards, Jessica.

  5. Enjoyed your story Sarah – and only just now realized you are in the UK. That’s just one of the things I love about the internet – today I’m reading your UK blog and yesterday I was chatting with an author from Afghanistan who’s living in New Zealand now. All from the comfort of my little house in Hawaii :-)

  6. Hi Sarah,

    What an inspiring story! I love happy endings! You had the guts and you got the glory.

    Back when my kids were still in grade school, we used to love to play pinball too but on the computer. We didn’t have internet connection because it was still new then and quite expensive so we just use the computer for MS Office and games.

    Great lessons from your story!

  7. 76 people in a week in Chiswick – that was rough Sarah. Great story though and a great understanding of the power of word of mouth. I can imagine men in particular would have hated to be outdone by a woman on a pinball machine

  8. We are kindred spirits not in a pinball wizard way! I’ve managed several pubs myself had my first licence in Nottingham at 21. Later went on to European Openings Management for new pubs, had my own pub company delivering turnkey bars to investors in partnership with an Irish pub build company. Those days were over 15 years ago these days my businesses are online, I really enjoyed this post. Bien fait! :)

  9. Stories, Sarah, keep our attention. I wanted to know how you beat the odds and revived your pub. Laying down a challenge brought people around, to seek you out, to beat your score.

    We should all strive to be known for something, to challenge the status quo.

    Well done. Thanks for the entertainment and the lesson.


  10. Hi Sarah,

    you obviously were an entrepreneur from a very young age.

    To take on a pub with that kind of history takes a lot of courage and then to make a stand against drugs, well done!

    Did you intentionally go and play pin ball at those other pubs to start with?

    How about your daughter has she picked up the pin pall wizard gene?

    You story is a great classic and very unique example of how the word of mouth can work!

    Thank you for sharing it.

    To your ongoing Success!


  11. It is always the oddest things that could be what do it for a person. In your case pinball machine whiz. You know, I am sure you’d have some really cool pub stories you could write about. It is interesting how pinballing related into business… and that much in a week….wow!

  12. Brilliant example of failing forward! I love that your tool was so unusual and I love that your boss gave you the time to figure out YOUR unique marketing position. Who knew the desire to knock off the high score would have such a community building effect? It makes me think about how often we shy away from competition, instead of jumping in and seeing how we actually measure up. Thanks for sharing the story.

  13. Wow! The moment I read the title I knew the content would be very interesting. Such a unique story have! Keep inspiring others.

  14. Love your story, Sarah! And I agree with Marquita, I love to read real stories about folks and I too didn’t know you are in the UK. I used to live in Cobham, Surrey. I spent 19 years of my life there so I relate totally to the pub story!

    Best wishes


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