How the high score on a pinball machine saved my failing business
My 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 whom 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 its 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.