06 Jan Open a role play centre – Our story!
We recently re-opened the original Tots Town design folder full of scribbles, notes, and magazine articles. Looking back, it dawned on us just how much we had doodled and scribbled the thoughts that popped in our head (it turns out we used to doodle A LOT in the time that we spent planning it). It’s easy to look back with rose tinted glasses on the past, so we thought we would celebrate old memories by answering a few personal questions aspiring role play venue owners often ask us when we meet for the first time.
How has opening a role play centre changed your life?
The previous routine: At 6.20am we started the daily cycle of breakfast, early nursery drop-offs, and long drives to work at a school and an office. It’s was a Mon-Fri routine with the family re-uniting for dinner at 6pm and then invariably work continued either on laptops or with one of us back in the office. Saturday was a shopping day, while Sunday was gardening and getting ready for work on Monday.
After opening a play venue: 7am and it’s family breakfast time, followed by the school run. When we first opened, one of us was in work 8.30 – 6pm while the other person did office admin and designed future settings. Those hours might seem long, but it was important to spent time building a great reputation with customers, and learning everything about the business. For most role play venues owners, once they know your business really well, they can expect to take on staff to free up some days. Of course, there is always the evening mix of Brownies, Gymnastic etc, which takes place while the other business owner finishes off any office work or site maintenance. 6pm is still a family dinner followed by the occasional social media response and perhaps a bit of accounting.
The leisure industry is a 7 day a week commitment. In our previous work, we always expected Saturdays to be free-time, but we now have to be ready to cover staff sickness at short notice. This means that weekdays tend to be much more flexible to allow shopping or attending our children’s school events. Overall, the working hours are the same, but as your own boss you have much control over when you work and what you do. We took the view a fixed site venue would work better for our family, this then gives you income seven days a week and saves you working out of a van!
What was the Inspiration behind Tots Town?
Careers were successful, children heathy and loved……but the inescapable truth was that it wasn’t a lifestyle we wanted to be leading for another 10 years.
Our first daughter regularly enjoyed emptying the kitchen cupboard of food and making a supermarket or shop. So when a friend mentioned about a soft play venue that had its own play supermarket, we dashed off to experience it. It was big and shiny, in a large industrial unit, crammed full of people with no spare tables and a 10 minute queue just to order food. It had a role play area, 2 soft play zones, a costume and toy shop and 4 staff permanently checking in people through the door. They must have been raking in the money we thought, yet, it was overcrowded, messy, with cheap plastic toys and the noise of it all was unbelievable. On the face of it, the play venue looked very successful yet we didn’t want to go back! We sat in the car, looked at each other and said how much better we could do what they had done. If life was a cartoon, the lightbulb would have appeared.
Someone once said, “A dream without a plan is just a wish”. So we stopped dreaming and wrote a plan. And to kick it off we designed a brand image, not just a logo cobbled together from clipart but a professionally designed brand look. Because a great logo and associated branding is powerful and if it was easy to design a brand image then the world wouldn’t need brand and logo designers.
As for that very first play venue….we never did go back, and maybe we weren’t the only ones who felt that way….. Some years later, they announced very suddenly that it was closing. Just because a business looks big and busy, it doesn’t mean it’s a successful business. How many big name brands have you see close down recently? It’s the well run, efficient, high quality businesses that survive.
Was it harder than you thought?
If you wrote a list of the things you need to do to start a business , then by the time you are actually ready to open that list will have tripled in size! I don’t think we had a day off in the first 12 weeks and it was only when we started employing staff (after knowing everything single thing about our business) that we started to get a break. Looking back, the learning curve was really steep but because we had spent a year planning for this and committed ourselves 100% to the project, we had already done so much of the hard and risky stuff beforehand. When we got the keys to the building, all that was left was turning the plan into activity.
When we look back, it’s still hard to believe everything we did (to be honest we also look back at some of the things we did when we first opened and it looks amateurish now – we’ve learnt so much since then). We live in a world of 4g instant communication, Amazon delivering in 24 hrs, instant on-demand entertainment, and food supply chains seemingly unaffected by the seasons or weather. All these things we see as a consumer mean we have been tricked into thinking running a business is easy, yet whatever the workplace you are currently in, you know that behind the scenes there is normally an immense amount of effort taking place that is anything but easy. Tots Town is in many ways like a stage show. On stage everything looks rehearsed and purposeful, but behind the scenes the team are working harder to identify problems before they occur and handle them. EU rules on Credit/Debit card authentication changing; unplanned roadworks closing access roads, updating staff on latest cyber security processes, checking new role play setting designs against UK safety rules, answering emails from customers at 11pm at night whose child is sick and want’s a birthday party date change for that weekend! Running your own business is fantastic because you call the shots, you take the credit but ultimately the responsibility (and risk) stops with you. Yes its hard. Yes we love it! Walking into our own play venue makes all the hard work completely worth it, especially when it is full of families making their own memories.
by Ian and Lindsay