Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Michael Guest is the owner of a business that lets the good times roll. On wheels.
Guest, who calls Battle Creek home, is the owner of Big Ty’m Fun
, a video game truck that people can rent out for just about any type of event or occasion. Some of his more recent events include a wedding reception in Grand Rapids and Battle Creek’s Juneteenth celebration.
His entrance into the entertainment industry was borne out of what he saw as a need.
“I was always trying to find different activities or different things to buy for my nephews and nieces for Christmas,” Guest says. “I ran into a similar concept in Florida online and thought it was a nice idea, but I kind of dismissed it, and a few months later it kind of popped back up on my phone and I started looking at it a little more in-depth. I showed it to my oldest nephew and he said, ‘We need one of those.'”
In August 2016, one year after looking and debating, Guest rolled out the custom-outfitted trailer that contains padded leather benches facing a bank of screens that display the latest and greatest video games, in addition to some old standbys. The trailer can accommodate about 25 at any given time and is set up to give Guest the flexibility to change out the games to meet the demands of his customers.
While many video game trucks are franchise operations, Guest chose to go with a company that didn’t franchise. That company, based in North Carolina, built his trailer from the ground up based on a basic design and his specifications.
At the time, he says, a lot of normal banks really didn’t want to “mess with it” so he got a $105,000 equipment loan through a leasing agent.
“I let my oldest nephew pick out a lot of the stuff. By him being a kid, it makes it a little more kid-friendly. That’s the main reason I started doing it anyway. I don’t have kids of my own and I thought it may be something that I can hand off to my niece and nephews,” Guest says.
“We don’t do enough as far as generational wealth and I want to have something to pass down to my niece and nephews. They’re like my own kids.”
In addition to his business venture, Guest works third-shift at a local automotive manufacturer. There are some days when he goes directly from that fulltime job to events he has through Big Ty’m Fun and vice versa.
“Working third-shift gives me the freedom to move around during the day. My events are pre-scheduled and I know about it in advance so that helps me to plan ahead,” Guest says. “I do work weekends and when that happens I take my game truck to work with me because I’ve had to go straight from an event to work.”
He says having these different jobs is part of his plan to be able to retire by the time he’s 50.
His oldest nephew, Kylon Wilson, works with him at most of the Big Ty’m Fun events. A student at Battle Creek Central, Wilson says the job is a good learning experience that is teaching him about the business world at an early age.
“I’ve learned how to deal with people and money and I’ve learned how to be a hard worker,” Kylon says.
He doesn’t have a formal title and refers to himself as his uncle’s “sidekick”.
In addition to Kylon, Guest’s niece and his father also help out. During a recent Saturday, his dad took charge of inflating large bubble soccer balls and giant hamster balls that kids encase themselves in to play games in a gymnasium area at the Maranatha Church in Battle Creek.
His niece, Guest says, has perfected the art of making snow cones, which he offers along with popcorn and cotton candy.
Guest says weekends are his busiest time. After the Maranatha event, he and Kylon were headed to events in Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor. Because the trailer can be heated and cooled it can be used year 'round.
The cost of a standard two-hour rental during the week is $199 and $249 on the weekends, with an additional travel charge if it’s outside of a 30-mile radius from Battle Creek. But, Guest says, he is always willing to work out a financial plan with customers.
“If it’s something I wouldn’t be comfortable paying, knowing that I still have to buy gifts for my child, I don’t want to have anyone else pay that,” Guest says. “I wanted to make it economically feasible for anybody.
“People are trying to do something for the kids and when you find something unique and different and you really want to give that to a child. I don’t want to see a kid not get what they really want to have if it’s out of your price range. You can’t really build a customer base if you’re not willing to work with people.”
Michael Guest, owner of Big Ty'm Fun asked his nephew to help pick out games to include the youth perspective.
Guest says he had no idea how versatile the trailer could be until he started receiving inquiries about doing birthday parties, high school lock-in parties, and more out-of-the-norm functions such as bachelor parties. A group of parents in Kalamazoo even hired him to provide entertainment for their kids, who were in the care of a babysitter, while they had a “date night”.
“This makes it a lot easier for the parents because the entertainment comes to them so they don’t have to figure out a way to deal with that number of kids and they don’t have any cleanup to worry about,” Guest says.
As a way to connect with younger children who may want an alternative to video games, Guest offers “Movie Nights” where he’ll have four televisions on the same wall playing the same movie which they can watch while snacking on popcorn and fruit snacks.
His ability to give kids what they want has come not only from spending time with his nephews and niece but also from the 10 years he spent working with the Battle Creek Public Schools 21st Century after-school program. During that time, Guest watched the entertainment options shrink for the community’s youngest residents.
Birthday parties are his favorite events to do, especially when parents surprise their kids with the gaming center on wheels. He says the video game trailer offers options beyond the more traditional bounce house or party at a bowling alley. And he has the ability to change out the games.
“A lot of kids have never seen a video game truck. I like seeing the smiles on their faces and how their parents have to drag them out because they refuse to leave,” Guest says.
Although much of his business is referrals and word-of-mouth, Big Ty’m Fun also has been discovered through the Calhoun County Minority-Owned Business Listing, a directory that was developed in 2016 by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., to address economic development, one of its five focus areas.
That directory has grown from 2½ pages to 9½ and is updated twice a year, says Lynn Ward Gray, Battle Creek City Commissioner and member of Delta Sigma Theta.
Ward Gray, who has a leadership role with the Juneteenth Planning Committee, says Guest has brought his videogame trailer to the last three Juneteenth celebrations much to the delight of kids and adults.
The directory that her sorority put together lets people outside and inside of the community know who they could contact depending on what they are looking for. She says there are minority business owners that she didn’t know about and the listings have helped her to find them.
Ward Grat goes on to say that Guest exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit and small business ownership model for moving beyond your circumstances and making a better life for yourself and your families.
Right now, the city and its economic development team are doing very intentional work to reach out to those who want to start a business or grow an existing business, Ward Gray says.“This is the time,” Ward Gray says. “If you’ve ever thought about starting your own business, this is your time and there are a lot of ways for you to get access to support to get what you need to grow and thrive in the city of Battle Creek.”
Within the framework of these supports and resources is a focus on the importance of diversity. Being able to show a depth and breadth of diversity is as important to area residents as it is to those who might want to do business here or move here.
Bubble toys inflated by Guest's father here are also part of the fun offered by Guest's business.
From time to time leadership of various organizations in the community, such as the Urban League and the Chamber of Commerce, are approached by people looking to do business with a minority business owner and the directory has helped to make these connections.
“If you have a certain demographic that you’re trying to reach, this helps you do that,” she says of the directory.
Another benefit is the opportunity to be highlighted at no cost to the businesses included. “Sometimes the marketing capability of some of these businesses is challenging because they don’t have the funds,” Ward Gray says. “These are professional and very experienced businesses and they’re being highlighted all in one place which allows people to support them and see what they can do.”
As with any new business, Guest says it was difficult at first but has snowballed into something he hopes to keep going for his nephews and nieces. He also hopes that he is serving as a role model for other young people in the community.
“I am showing them that you can do something positive and rewarding,” Guest says. “There are not enough positive minority role models and that’s one thing I’m definitely trying to be.”