Quick word-association game: What image pops into your brain when you see the phrase Booger Wars?
Whatever grossness you came up with, well, that's snot it (sorry, we couldn't help ourselves). A veteran warrior explains:
"Booger Wars is kind of like dodgeball, except there's no chance of getting hurt, because you don't use red rubber balls," says Colin Eardley 18, a senior at Ronald Reagan High School in San Antonio, Texas. "You throw green bean bag 'boogers' at each other and they stick to Velcro vests. There's also these big ol' noses rigged where you can pull out more green boogers. It's quite comical."
Booger Wars is just one of the experiences available from Games2U, an Austin, Texas-based company that quite literally brings the party to the people. "We provide an over-the-top mobile entertainment experience," says Stuart Pikoff, 46, who runs the company with brother David, 43. "We like to say work should be all fun and games."
Stuart and David had both built careers starting and running small businesses (their other two brothers are attorneys) in industries such as telecommunications, property management and homebuilding, and had long talked about a joint project. As the self-described "free-thinkers" in the Pikoff family, Stuart and David's entrepreneurial leanings came from their mom, who has been involved in real estate, importing art and raising emus on a 100-acre farm.
The initial plan was to buy a franchise of some kind, but they wanted to steer clear of the ones that required a lot of employees and had high rates of turnover -- meaning retail and fast food were out. So the Pikoff brothers decided to start a franchise of their own, where they could act as a franchiser, basically focusing on sales, marketing and operations. They found that there was a gap in the entertainment industry, where options were limited to mom-and-pop balloon animals and "moon bounce" type operations or you-have-to-bring-the-party-to-us places like Dave & Buster's. To compete, they launched Games2U in 2007.
They spent a year developing a mobile unit where kids could play multiple videogame systems like Xbox or Wii simultaneously, ultimately settling on Mercedes Sprinter vans like the ones used by FedEx, and a few trailers pulled behind pickup trucks. Each unit contains a veritable arcade, except kids can play together, and nobody need worry about running out of quarters. The "rolling billboards" attracted the interest of party-planning-fatigued parents right away, which was by design. Stuart cops to an early marketing trick -- the "slow patrol" through school drop-off and pick-up zones. "We'd get cell phone calls from moms saying, 'I'm right behind you!'" he says with a laugh.
The first Games 2U franchises were up-and-running by 2008, in part because of the "business in a box" model. Startup costs run around $150,000, which includes a vehicle and a territory, and it's easy for franchisees to get rolling because of the built-in operational simplicity. The Games2U home office handles logistics such as scheduling, credit cards, training videos, prices and year-to-year updates, and the data-driven reports can be mined down to show what schools are bringing in the most orders. The Games2U systems are designed to give a party a two-hour jolt before moving onto the next one, so there are multiple billings over a busy weekend, but it doesn't require more than a few contract employees.
Franchisee Mike Moody, 49, Games2U's top revenue producer, was intrigued by the idea when he first heard about it, but had concerns about how much creative leeway he would have. Self-employed all his life, Moody had a background in both entertainment, producing the 1997 Brendan Fraser film Still Breathing, and in large-scale event planning, having put together numerous extravaganzas for the automotive industry. "Due to my years throwing parties and events, I was sold on the concept, but I wanted to feel like the mavericks and rabble-rousers could do what they do and we'd grow and evolve together," he says. He felt secure enough to plunk down roughly $500,000 for three San Antonio territories, and comfortable enough to build his own "Texas Big Rig" from scratch. The massive trailer o' fun can accommodate 54 folks at once, older kids on Halo, young'uns on Mario Kart, while the parents take in the Longhorns game or Inception. Moody says he's doing more than 100-plus events in the busy months and that $10,000 per isn't an unreasonable gross.
As a franchiser, Games2U takes a 6 percent monthly royalty, and the Pikoff brothers see enormous growth potential, both geographically and financially. There are currently 140 territories in 28 states, but Games2U is expected to expand to 200 territories in the next year, give or take (including into Australia and Canada). Stuart says sales have been up between 40 to 75 percent at existing franchises due to a partying field with much more potential than the ones that used to rely on dropping clothespins in mason jars or pinning tails on a donkeys.
"The corporate gigs are more lucrative, and the marketplace is bigger," David says. Birthday parties make up roughly three-quarters of the bookings, but the corporate outings bring in roughly half the money. Parties for, say, 30 kids typically run around $400 for two hours, whereas a corporate function for 1,000 people can easily run six hours and cost $3,000. Events such as high school senior days, corporate parties and picnics (Moody brought his rig to a USAA picnic for 12,000), fundraisers, tailgates, or any other place where adults need whimsy is right in the company's wheelhouse. At a handful of the Texas-based Whataburger restaurants, Games2U set up shop in the parking lot just to draw in customers on slow Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Moody convinced a Staples manager to let him organize an after-hours in-store game of laser tag as a team-building exercise.
It's inaccurate to say there's a kid inside all of us -- some adults are just grouchy -- but it's a cliché with merit when it comes to Games2U. The home office includes a 2,500-square-foot "fun factory" where engineers come up with sublimely ridiculous things like 5-foot fiberglass noses that blow green foam boogers out of their nostrils. It's also where the new 4-D movie theaters were created, so kids can watch short animations that not only pop out at them, but also deliver thrills like water sprays and moving chairs.
The company's hometown bumper sticker motto is "Keep Austin Weird" and the Pikoff brothers are certainly doing their part. Building a business is hard. Building a business where 7-foot child-operated robots and human hamster balls are central to the company's viability and longevity may be harder, but who can tell when a bunch of kids are yelling and screaming in glee as the birthday honoree fires off the candy cannon, wrapping up another Games2U fiesta in a hail of sweetness?
The Pikoff brothers don't recommend Jawbreakers.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 1/18/11.