If you’re considering indoor playground or play cafe ownership, then let me be the first to congratulate you! You are likely daydreaming of this process because you are hoping to:
Spend more time with your family
Supplement your income, and
Create a positive and lasting impact in your community
Four years ago, I was in your exact spot. I was at my desk job with my newborn baby at home, feverishly researching the play-cafe business model during my lunch hours, consuming as much information as I could.
Here’s the thing: there’s not much information out there. After spending hours searching for answers and even more hours interviewing current play cafe owners (who rightfully charged a pretty penny for their consulting services) on their experiences, I’ve discovered the 2 reasons for this lack of information.
Fear of Competition
Lack of Success
Once I got a peek behind the scenes of some of the most well-established play cafes in the world, I realized just how unique and difficult this business model is to operate. It looked like a dream from the outside, but what I saw inside of each business were determined parents who worked incredibly long hours and who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their business.
I was shocked. Shocked that everything wasn’t as simple as I had hoped it would be. Shocked that a group of business owners could be so dedicated yet still fall short of their profit goals. Shocked that there was such a fear of competition within the industry. Still, I decided to take the plunge and open Climbing Vines Cafe & Play.
I understand the fears other play cafe owners have when it comes to sharing the behind-the-scenes of their businesses, but now that I’m opening a second location of Climbing Vines, I’m ready to share everything about my path to play cafe ownership with you. I’ve helped dozens of prospective owners implement this process in their own area, and it’s worked each time. Be careful to not skip over any of the steps-- I have also seen owners go down that path and fall short of their goals.
Step 1: Create your Business Plan
Many times business owners, unfortunately, reach out for help after they have already reached the point-of-no-return and closing is looming on the horizon. When I get these calls and subsequently ask to see their business plan so that we can dig in and figure out of their dream is salvageable, I often get the deer-in-headlights stare. Their business plan is either half-done, breezed through like a simple checklist item they couldn’t wait to mark as “done,” or they don’t have one at all. These owners didn’t put in the work BEFORE they made major decisions, like signing a lease, which is required for sustainable and realistic business.
Take your time with this step. For me, it took over six months to complete my research and write the plan that secured over $200k in funding. Lucky for you, I’ve taken that research and my experience and created a free Business Plan Framework to help speed that process up for you. (Download it now!)
Step 2: Choose a Location
When choosing a location for your play cafe, there are several factors to consider.
First, determine how large you envision your space. If your ideal spot is a cozy 2,500 square foot space like mine, you will be looking at spaces very different from someone who is looking to open a 40,000 square foot family entertainment complex. Have a rough idea of the space you envision your business in, so you know what you’re looking for.
Second, you’ll need to consider what your area is like. Are there neighborhoods that are densely populated with young families? Are there any competitors you’d prefer to stay away from? Keep seasonality in mind. If your location is mild most of the year, you may want to consider a play cafe with an outdoor component to increase your traffic during mild months. If your area is either very hot or very cold much of the year, an all-indoor space is likely the way to go.
Third, factor in the price of street-visibility. Many owners feel they need to be on a main road in order to get the word out about their business. However, this is NOT the case. The rent on main roads comes at a high premium. (I know, I’m paying for a premium location now!) This visibility isn’t necessary for a healthy business. You see, parents of small children don’t typically drive by a facility and decide to drop in. They are likely asking friends, browsing social media, or searching on Google for things to do in their area, and plan their trip accordingly. You will want to spend your money getting more visibility online because that is what will improve your traffic and your sales.
Step 3: Get Funding
Now that you have your business plan in place and you've identified 1-3 potential locations for your play cafe, it’s time to put a stake in the ground and get the funding you need to open. The amount you will need to secure will be determined by the factors you came up with in Step 1: Create Your Business Plan.
There are 3 main ways to get funded:
Crowdfunding, like Kickstarter
Bank or Financial Institution
Family or Friends
Each of these methods has pros and cons, which I will break down in another post. Choose one-- or a combination of methods, which I recommend-- that works best for your needs and circumstances.
Once you get funding, it’s time to present your plan to the property owners of your prospective locations (if you plan on leasing, which is most common) and sign your lease! Be sure to consult with a lawyer regarding your lease. (More about that here!) .
Step 4: Plan your Space
Now that your space is chosen and your lease is signed, it’s time to dust off the Pinterest inspiration boards you’ve been neglecting and make some purchases. Custom play structures can take 6-12 weeks to create, so be sure to make any custom purchases early. You will likely need to hire an architect to plan your space based on your town’s building codes. Be sure to choose an architect that specializes in retail and entertainment space. Someone who specializes in office space, for example, won’t be able to help you design a check-in process that will boost your sales and streamline your customer’s experience.
Consider the streams of revenue you outlined in your Step 1 Business Plan. If a large portion of your revenue will come from birthday parties, classes, or drop-off daycare and camps, make sure your space reflects that. You may need to build in private rooms to accommodate those activities.
Be sure to price-compare furniture and play equipment providers, and factor in shipping and tax into your projected costs. Delivery for commercial or large equipment can cost thousands of dollars, so read the fine print before hitting that “buy” button.
Step 5: Get Marketing
You’ll want to start building a community and spreading the word right away about your play cafe. Before the ink is dry on your lease, your website and social media accounts should be active and filled with content.
Building an email list and social following will be the easiest and least expensive ways to ensure you will have a line out the door on opening day and for months to come. Post your information in as many local community Facebook groups (especially parenting groups) to help spread the information like wildfire.
When I was getting ready to open, I offered free play passes in exchange for local moms referring friends to our website, which we tracked through email signups. We also had “street team” members hand out paper coupons and flyers at local events for months leading up to our opening.
By taking these steps, we were able to keep our advertising spend under $300 (most of which was spent on paper flyers and coupons) and still operate at our maximum capacity daily for the first several months after our opening date. To stay current on the latest digital marketing trends and strategies for local businesses, head to our marketing blog!
Step 6: Choose an Opening Date
We were able to bring in hundreds of new customers every day for several months after we opened thanks to our opening date. However, if I could go back and choose a new date, I would. Here in New York, our winter weather begins as early as October and doesn’t subside until April or May. We opened on February 1st of 2016, the tail end of the “indoor play” season. We had planned on opening November 1st, but delays in construction (which are more common than not!) pushed our date. We were thrust into our busy season, leaving little time for adjustments, staff training, or gathering and implementing feedback.
I recommend opening about a month prior to when your areas indoor-play “busy season” is set to start. This way, your staff can ease into their new roles, you can chat casually with customers-- since there won’t ALWAYS be a line out the door-- and you can have the time and space to make any necessary changes before you really begin to fill up. (Trust me, there will be changes!) It also gives your customers a chance to experience your space in a more relaxing atmosphere.
If you have had a “street team” work on building your email list, or if you’ve been running ads, you can try offering a soft-opening week or day to your email list. Offering free-play in exchange for feedback can be a great way to allow your customers to feel like they are a trusted and respected part of your business and your community.
Step 7: Celebrate!
CONGRATULATIONS! You’re ready to open your doors to the public and schedule your ribbon cutting. It may seem like a no-brainer to celebrate your opening, but you’d be surprised how many high-achievers like yourself forget to hit the pause button and bask in their moments of success. Be sure to schedule some time off in your early weeks to have quiet moments at home with your family and reflect on the changes your life is experiencing.
Becoming an entrepreneur can take a toll on your personal relationships. Acknowledging this and making time for the most important people in your life (hint: it’s not your customers!) can have profound long-term effects on both your individual success and your play cafe’s success. After all, they’re the reason you took this journey in the first place.