Locations: Shoreditch and Farringdon in London, with a Chicago launch planned
Case study focus: Recruiting and managing charismatic, larger than life characters to enhance the customer experience
Ping pong bar and eatery Bounce opened its flagship venue in Farringdon to trendy young things in 2012. Hosting games for Elle Macpherson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey, the concept quickly took off and a Shoreditch venue was launched in 2015, bringing the number of ping pong tables across the two bars to 28. The company – founded by Adam Breeden, co-founder of Flight Club and former CEO and co-founder of All Star Lanes and entrepreneur Dov Penzik – has now expanded overseas with a Chicago launch scheduled for June.
“When you walk in there’s just this atmosphere you can chew on.” So says Ollie Raison, culture engineer at Bounce. Raison is no stranger to creating such atmospheres. Six or so years ago and his days, or rather nights, were filled with overseeing pop-up venture the Wiff Waff Brothers; an often chaotic, always high-energy and boozy ping pong tournament and DJ night.
Raison wasted no time getting in touch with Breedon and Penzik when he heard they were launching, and in no time he was part of the team.
The conundrum was how to translate the much smaller scale Wiff Waff Brothers model over a bigger space without diluting the buzz. Raison’s solution was appointing games gurus – employees tasked (for a small extra fee from those booking) with ensuring that the occasion really takes off.
The next challenge was how to source the right kinds of entertainingly quirky individuals. And how to manage such an exuberant, larger than life bunch.
Raison at first went down the route of recruiting aspiring actors. But he found budding thespians too preoccupied with performing and focusing the attention on themselves. He found comedians, and those actors sitting more towards the comedic acting end of the the spectrum, a much better option.
The formula for finding the perfect games guru isn’t quite as simple as this though, reports Raison. The right person might also be a music producer, ex-magazine editor or someone studying an MA in musicology, as has proved the case at Bounce’s London venues.
The interview process is all-important in sourcing quirky, charismatic talent, says Raison. “I need to see how they react to the unexpected, conversationally,” he says, explaining that this usually involves him seeing if they’re happy talking much more informally than might be usual in an interview scenario. “If they shut up shop then they’re not going to be ok in front of 20 people, or with a particularly lairy guy, or a PA who’s anxious because she’s had to book for a whole company. They need to be the group’s friend.”
Retaining the kinds of rare gems with such a knack and passion is about understanding that other performing commitments come first, says Raison. “I would never ask anyone to miss an audition for us,” he says, explaining that gurus can sign up to as many shifts as they want. A roster of 24 gurus is retained by the company, being careful to always give at least a couple of shifts over any given period to those that want them.
Ensuring the gurus’ success is also about creating a good team dynamic, for which Whatsapp groups are great for building energy and enthusiasm around the role. Most crucial, however, is that not all team members exactly fit Raison’s guru criteria of eccentric, centre of attention-craving individuals. Some are highly valuable because they “smooth out the edges of the group”, particularly where eccentricity strays into temperamental behaviour.
“They’re a positive force in the group,” he says. “They answer the Whatsapp messages in seconds and that starts everyone else off. If people are complaining about slightly ridiculous things they smooth those issues out.”
The team dynamic has been so successful that Raison is transferring the recruitment and management lessons learnt in London straight to the States. He has paired up with comedy improvisation school Second City to recruit high-energy types.
He’s also translated the approach to Bounce’s roster of DJs, treating them not as lone-wolf artists but as a team of people who need to creatively feed off each other (through again team Whatsapp groups for example).
Raison feels there are lessons to be learnt from Bounce’s approach for anyone considering the dynamic of their teams and the customer experience. Harnessing this kind of employee energy is most beneficial within service and hospitality settings. “I think this sort of person can be essential,” says Raison. “If you think about when you go into a bar they might be very good at making drinks and very friendly, but if you have that one person who’s just a bit quirky that brings everyone up.”
HR professionals not in hospitality should still perhaps consider the advantages of being more fearless when it comes to employing more unpredictable, mavericks, says Raison. “The benefits outweigh the occasional discipline areas,” he says, adding: “Those sorts of people don’t get valued enough, they get told to keep it down. But you’re doing your company a disservice. People that are full of energy really help others to work better.”