The 6 Biggest Misconceptions I Hear about Starting an Indoor Playground Businesses
Through the years I have gotten hundreds, maybe THOUSANDS of calls, emails, and in-person inquiries from prospective play cafe owners. They generally all start the same, with an innocent, “Hey Michele, I was wondering if I could pick your brain about opening a play cafe in my area?” When I had more time and only one business, I took close to 100 of these calls and meetings.
This was one of the many reasons I created Play Cafe Academy; because I noticed everyone had the same questions, got stuck at the same parts of the opening process, and had the SAME misconceptions about what it’s really like to start an indoor playground business.
Here are the 6 things I hear from nearly EVERY prospective owner, and why each statement is not necessarily true.
1) “Opening this business will mean more time with my children and spouse.”
This statement CAN absolutely be true, but definitely isn’t guaranteed, especially in the first year or two of your business. Starting a business, especially a brick-and-mortar business, is a tremendous amount of work and will require your constant time and attention as the owner. (It’s comparable to having another baby!) While your business can become much more streamlined and more “hands-off” for you a few months down the road, it isn’t a given.
In order to make this true, you must be dedicated to hiring a great team, training them properly and continuously, and perfecting and documenting your systems until your establishment runs like a well-oiled machine. Most businesses never reach this point, and the owners burn-out and fail as a result. Unless you educate yourself properly and set aside time to bring your business to this level, your wish to spend more time with your family will remain a dream and NOT your reality.
2) “All indoor playground owners must be rich. They’re always so crowded!”
I often hear this statement after someone visits us during spring break or on the first rainy day in a month over the summer. The truth is that the indoor playground business is seasonal and cyclical, and you should never assume that the traffic you observed on a specific day is the “norm.”
Even if it is, a high-volume business that serves many customers a day will also experience increased costs. Their labor will naturally be higher, they will run through supplies and paper products faster, and their equipment will need to be replaced more often.
If you want a true picture of what volume you can expect in your business, observe other local play areas during different seasons, at different times of day, and in different kinds of weather. You will begin to see patterns emerge and you’ll be better equipped to anticipate and prepare for the ebbs and flows in your own business.
3) “Indoor Playground X just closed, so there’s a need for a new space in my area!”
If another indoor playground in your area closed, be sure to examine the issues that factored into their closing. The business’s failure may have something to do with the customer base, and not necessarily the business model. For example, is there a big enough customer base in the area? Were their prices too high for the local demographic? Was their space too big and expensive or too small and crowded? Did they fail to update and refurbish their equipment? Were the owners working their full time, depending on the business as their sole source of income?
Be sure to interview as many previous customers as possible, even past employees if you can find any, and try to get a sense of what went wrong and if those problems will follow you into your business. The more information you get, the more likely you will be to overcome these issues.
What I would like you to remember about this misconception is that EVERY business owner works hard, does research, and thinks they have a grand-slam idea when they first get started. It’s easy as another prospective business owner to assume the worst about those before you who have failed, but you must recall they were once in your shoes and filled with vigor and optimism.
4) “I could do ____ better than indoor playground X in my town!”
This statement ties in with the previous misconception. If there is a problem with another indoor playground in your area, you need to examine the cause of that concern. For example, an indoor play area local to me has a kinetic sand table. For YEARS now, people have flooded their social media accounts with complaints that the sand is dirty, sparse, and is in desperate need of a refresh.
As an outsider, it is easy to spot issues, make suggestions, and assume that if you were in the owner’s shoes, you’d fix the issues immediately. However, when I spoke to this particular owner, I discovered that it would cost thousands of dollars to refresh the sand regularly and that they had other improvements that needed to be prioritized, like updating kitchen appliances. Customers have no way of knowing all of the behind-the-scenes workings of a business and how often it will require expensive maintenance and replacements.
This leads many people to assume that the owner is simply out-of-touch and negligent. These same people learn very quickly that not every piece of feedback can be implemented and not every issue can be fixed immediately and these financial decisions can be very difficult and emotional to make for business owners.
5) “I can definitely get this business up and running for less money than that!”
This is the statement I often get in response to telling someone that it cost us about $200,000 to start our indoor playground business. If you find a space that doesn’t require a custom build-out or if the equipment you have your eye on seems like the price is too good to be true, it’s easy to assume you can get an indoor playground up-and-running for a fraction of what we did.
The scary thing is, you CAN. I just want you to approach this the same way you do when you pull your skinny jeans out of the drawer for the first time in a few months. Just because they zip, doesn’t mean they fit. Just because you CAN bootstrap your business and accomplish an opening for under $40,000, doesn’t mean that you should.
I have seen dozens of these inexpensive business models open and close in the same year, usually due to lack of capital, lack of equipment, or poor customer experience. If you try to renovate an old office or house into a profitable indoor playground, you will be met with obstacles and face an uphill battle when it comes to pleasing your customers.
6) “I used to be a teacher/ daycare worker/ nanny so I would be great at this!”
This is seriously the MOST common misconception I hear. While it may seem like a no-brainer that someone who is experienced in working with children would make a fantastic indoor playground owner, this is not necessarily true. Education experience often does NOT translate into business acumen and, unfortunately, most of the businesses I see struggle are opened and operated by teachers.
Yes, these people offer their communities fantastic programs and really thoughtfully chosen equipment, but they are likely a mess behind-the-scenes and have no idea if their business is thriving or failing financially. (This is NOT to say that a teacher cannot successfully operate an indoor playground, because they absolutely can!)
What sets any successful owner apart from an unsuccessful one is that they focus on what they’re great at and ask for help where they lack. I have business experience and training, so I had to hire help when it came to our class curriculum and choosing pieces of equipment.
If you are a teacher and lack business experience, particularly brick-and-mortar business experience, you MUST find a business partner, coach, or consultant who has this experience. The fact of the matter is that business consultants are much more expensive to hire than teachers, which is why most owners forego this cost, to their detriment.
I’ve believed all these misconceptions at one point or another and found out through experience that this business is much more nuanced than it seems. I want to remind you that it IS very possible to open and operate a profitable indoor playground and to do so with joy, free-time, and financial freedom. However, preparation and planning are KEY.
If you had any of these misconceptions before going through this list, I urge you to take a deeper dive and figure out how you can uncover the reality and what that means for your potential business!