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Marla Poytinger is a dancer, holds a bachelor’s degree in arts administration and received an MBA. She left her job in 2012 to start Splash Studio: a painting bar in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Four years later, she’s getting ready to double the size of her business with the launch of Nine Below, an indoor “Maker’s Mini-Golf Tavern” on the city’s East side. Poytinger, who easily combines right-brain (creative) with left-brain (more logical) thinking, says taking the leap and expanding a business takes careful planning and attention to detail, systems and processes.

“I always had the entrepreneurial bug to start something from nothing,” she says, adding that when she lived in Florida she had a chance to own a business, but did not feel ready to take on the rigors of running her own place. Poytinger decided to pursue an MBA instead, which gave her the skills, knowledge and confidence to launch Splash.

“Splash started with a love of art (me) and beer (my husband),” Poytinger says.

Before launching Splash, Poytinger held administrative roles at the Overture Center in Madison and Bel Canto Chorus. She left Bel Canto in 2013 to focus all her energy on Splash. Poytinger’s husband, a supply chain logistics professional, left his full-time job a year later to join her. She focuses on finances, while her husband tends to the technical side of the business, including the website and managing data.

Poytinger’s newest venture, Nine Below, features 18 customizable mini-golf holes that give customers a chance to “forge their own course” during a two-hour round. When the course is complete, guests play a full 9-hole course that includes the hole they create plus the eight holes designed by the other teams in their round. The venue also has a VIP clubhouse and a large bar featuring specialty craft cocktails and a wide selection of beer and wine.

Marla and David. Photo courtesy Andy Stenz Photography
Marla and David. Photo courtesy Andy Stenz Photography

After guiding Splash through an expansion that doubled its size in 2013 and now taking on Nine Below, Poytinger shares her advice for others looking to expand.

  • Develop a strong team and delegate. Poytinger credits her 25 engaged, enthusiastic employees – or “bar-tists” as she calls them – for Splash’s success. Dedicated employees and her ability to put a great team together allowed Poytinger to take a step back from the business two years ago when her son was born. That gave her the confidence to do the same as she focuses on launching Nine Below.

“You need to remove yourself from doing everything. Promote, delegate to the team and let go,” she says, adding the birth of her son was a good way for her to begin the transition. “You need a team you can trust and a team that can think.”

  • Communication is everything. Poytinger says it’s important to keep communication open between not only the owner and manager, but also employees. It’s important for owners to listen to employees, so the company holds daily “shift meetings” for all employees and weekly, five-hour leadership team meetings.

“We have a creative, collaborative and supportive team environment loaded with positive energy and loyalty,” Poytinger says.

  • Standardize and automate processes. Poytinger said it is important to review everything and with two sites and two operations, excellent computer systems and tools that integrate are essential.
  • Be prepared. To Poytinger, that means “having your ducks in a row” and having good partners, such as a bank you can rely on. She used SBA financing through Park Bank for her start-up and received round two funding to get Nine Below off the ground. “Getting financing can be complicated and requires additional paperwork, but if you have a banker who is there when you need help and insight to work through the system, it’s definitely a process that can be navigated,” she says.

As for Poytinger, she has no plans to stop after Nine Below opens. She envisions a network of unique, creative interactive bars that build on each other’s success.

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Splash Studio, located at 184 N. Broadway, Milwaukee, offers three-hour experiences with local artists, during which adults can drink, paint, and have a creative night out. In addition to being a trendy downtown locale, the studio is a resource for artists in the community.

Nine Below, 1905 E. North Ave., Milwaukee, is the world’s first Maker’s Golf Tavern. Offering innovative, build-your-own mini-golf experiences, Nine Below is great for couples, friends, private events, and corporate team building activities.

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