7 Things I did the First Year of Owning My Indoor Playground Business that I DON’T Do Now
As I have grown and matured as a business owner, one of the most important things I have learned is what to spend my time and energy on, and what I am better off delegating. Michael Hyatt, in many of his books and programs, continuously refers to “the desire zone” when it comes to designing your ideal days and weeks. Operating within your desire zone simply means you are spending the bulk of your time doing what you both love AND are good at.
For me, a great example of something I was doing that was OUTSIDE of my desire zone was payroll and bookkeeping. I neither enjoyed these tasks nor did them efficiently. Hiring a bookkeeper and accountant was expensive, which is why I held off on making the hire for so long, but once I did offload those tasks, the benefit I brought to my business and the additional sales I generated as a result made it well worth the investment.
Over the last four years, I have also learned to recognize when I am spending my energy on tasks that not only are outside my desire zone, but that do not serve my business or my customers at all, like checking in daily on competition, for example.
Overall, I am still growing and maturing each day, and learning how to protect and divvy up my time and energy, but here are 7 things I did in the early years of my business that I do NOT do now.
1) Stalk the Weather
Climbing Vines Cafe and Play first opened to the public in February of 2016. Here in Upstate New York, we typically don’t begin experiencing “outdoor” weather until May, so at first, we were slammed for open-play. We spent 3 full months in a state of “at-capacity”. However, when May rolled around, we began to realize how seasonal open-play business could be, and our bottom line certainly felt it.
I vividly remember waking up each morning and checking the weather, and pretty much knowing what we would be able to do it sales that day, depending solely on that forecast. And if you have ever operated a business based on these tumultuous forecasts, you know exactly why I do not recommend it.
Because of our size and guest capacity, I knew we could not remain sustainable as a business if we put all of our efforts into open-play, and began focusing more on keeping our birthday calendar booked, which led to a major increase in profits.
We also incorporated other revenue streams into our “nicer-weather” months, like drop-off day camps and events guests must pre-register in advance for, so we are able to lock-in our revenue regardless of the weather. This took some time and research into what type of programs our community needed, but after 3 years of implementation, we can finally sail through our “slow” open-play season without stalking the weather forecast every single day.
2) Work Every Party/ Event/ Class
Since we chose birthday parties as our priority focus shortly after opening, I knew that delivering an incredible birthday party experience for every single guest would be critically important to the success of our indoor playground business.
It was for this reason that I worked every single birthday party for months after we opened, as many as 6 per weekend.
While this was difficult for my family (and for me-- I was in the first trimester of my second pregnancy at the time and was exhausted), I knew that during the first few months of our business our party packages, offerings, pricing, and execution would need constant tweaks and adjustments until we got everything exactly right.
Once we gathered tons of customer feedback, implemented many changes, and worked out all of the kinks in our offerings, I was finally able to step back a bit and train my staff to execute the parties just as well as I could have.
This took a great deal of training and documentation of our processes (complete with photos and video of proper party execution) but all of the work I had done during those first few months was well worth it.
And the same goes for all of our classes and events as well. Once I was able to experience how the events, classes, and parties we host flowed myself, I was able to establish our standard operating procedures (and communicate those effectively to our guests) and in turn train any staff member to stand in and fill that role just as well as I had.
I am now able to relax most weekends and spend time with my family, knowing that our clients are still being served at the highest level by our amazing team. I will still work parties and events on occasion, but only when I want to and am able to, and only when my family’s schedule allows for it.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how our party schedule was completely booked for the first 3 months we were open, click here where I share some of my marketing secrets!
3) Worry about Competition
For a year or so after we opened, I could barely go one day without checking the websites and social media accounts of my local competitors. And outside of that, I was also constantly looking over my shoulder, hoping and praying that no one would “copy” my business idea and steal all of my success and all of my customers.
After two direct “copy-cats” opened within the first few years, it turns out that I was right about one thing. I was correct in thinking that when someone finds success doing something, others will quickly recognize that and attempt to emulate it as best they can, to unlock that same success for themselves.
However, I was wrong in thinking that these “copy cats” would have an impact on my own business.
Both businesses I am referring to, instead of creating their own original concept and “distinguishing” factors, copied ours almost exactly. As a result, one closed within a year, and the other is also showing signs of a struggle. This is simply because these facilities made the common mistake of failing to stand out against their competition, which I discuss in more detail here.
Now, not only do I NOT check on my competition more than maybe once monthly (yes, I still do check that we are serving our community based on the gaps in service they currently face!), but I also do not blink when a new indoor playground announces it’s local opening. This is because we place so much of a priority on serving our customers the absolute BEST they can be served, which has proven very difficult for any “copy-cat” to reverse-engineer.
We simply work hard every single day at staying true to our values and priorities, keeping our space clean and in tip-top shape, and continue serving our clients and fostering the relationships we have with them as best we can. We have not yet been impacted by the increasing number of indoor playgrounds in our area, and have actually grown with each new competitor.
What I love most about competition is that it pushes me to be the best I can and to make sure my business is the best it can be for my customers as well. Friendly competition encourages innovation and constant improvement at our facility!
4) Freak Out if Someone Quits
As any business that employs mainly part-time team members, we do see a bit of employee turnover, and much more when we first opened.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “employees join a company and quit a boss”? Well, that was essentially true for Climbing Vines Cafe and Play while we were getting started. When we opened our doors, I was pregnant with a 12-month old toddler at home as well, and had recently left a cushy full-time corporate job.
While I felt business was a strong suit of mine, having gone on to achieve a Master’s degree in Economics, I was in no way prepared to manage a team or to develop efficient processes. After all, in business school, we learned a LOT of theory. Everything assumed “perfect conditions”. However, in a real brick-and-mortar business, there is friction. Appliances break, humans make errors, and customers can be unpredictable.
I have grown a LOT over the years as a leader, but mostly I have learned to try and make my team members lives as easy as possible through proper training, documenting processes, and being receptive to feedback.
As Paul Maskill shared in his recent interview with me, if an employee does something “wrong”, it is rarely solely their “fault”. More often than not, it’s instead a breakdown in a process or a miscommunication stemming from a manager failing to communicate a task properly. Once I realized this, I began taking more responsibility, and my employees became happier and more productive as a result.
While our employee retention rate is higher than ever, we do still see some turnover.
However, when someone does choose to pursue other employment, it’s not a catastrophe as it would have been in the past. Now that we have our processes clearly documented, complete with photos and video, it is much easier and quicker to train new employees. While I still oversee the training process, I do not have to be the one to personally train each new hire, which was a huge source of stress for me at the start of my business.
My best advice is to fine-tune your standard operating procedures and then document them as clearly as possible and give your employees access to this documentation and review it with them regularly. Be sure to communicate job responsibilities and expectations clearly and empower each employee to bring you feedback to continually improve the way the business runs.
5) Get Upset if We Got Negative Feedback
First, I am not perfect, in this area especially. I have made some major mistakes in dealing with online reviews and criticism that still haunt me to this day. My temper is HOT (like, think of the SUN) and I often take reviews very personally because I care so deeply about my business and think of it as an extension of myself.
It was easy to feel defeated when someone had something negative to say, especially in the beginning, because all of the opening stress was fresh and I was still learning about my strengths and weaknesses as a business owner, and when I should ask for help.
As I discuss in detail here, I try to delegate as much customer service when I can. Not because I don’t LOVE serving my customers, but because other staff members are less emotionally invested and can be more objective (and therefore more EFFECTIVE) in handling issues that arise. Questions and complaints can really drain me emotionally, and when I am feeling drained, I am not left with energy or passionate to innovate and continue to improve.
It would be unfair to the customers who know and love us to give up and quit or stop innovating just because of a few negative reviews. I keep pushing on for THEM, and remember that the people who “bite” the hardest online are often dealing with wounds themselves.
My advice for this this topic is to be kind above all else, and your ideal customers will continue finding you. Let it roll off your back as much as you can, and remember that what someone else has to say about you says MUCH more about THEM and less about YOU or your business (no, not every complaint against your business is a personal attack against you)!.
6) Do All The Things
While there are still things I continue to do weekly in my business, relinquishing some control and empowering my team members to handle more and more tasks has lead to major growth in my business. When I am able to move things like placing orders, paying bills, answering the phone, and cleaning off of my plate, I am free to dream up new classes and programs, or create new free content for this blog or my Youtube channel.
While this was difficult, it all comes back again to documentation and training. For over a year I truly believed that I was saving time and money by doing every task in my business myself. I was constantly BUSY but never moved the needle in sales or felt “caught up”. Once I realized that I can train people, through proper systems, documentation, and training, to do tasks just as well as I could do them, a new world of opportunity presented itself.
When I am not behind the counter, I am available (both physically and mentally) to grow my business in other, more impactful, ways. As the visionary of my indoor playground, I love protecting my energy to worry about the “big stuff”, like the direction of our cafe, menu changes, renovations, promotions, and more.
If I still did ALL THE THINGS in my business, I would surely not be able to implement improvements and develop strategic partnerships that serve my customers nearly as much as I am able to now.
7) Free Consults
I no longer do free (or even paid!) one-on-one consultations.
I get several, “can I pick your brain?” calls and emails every single day, and decline them all. I instead suggest that they save time (and money!!) and learn from my free blog content OR invest in my Play Cafe Academy program.
Well, if I said yes to ALL of these, I would have no time to serve my current Play Cafe Academy students, entrepreneurs who have already invested in making a change in their family’s lives (so, I know they are serious)! I would also have no time to support my team members, create new free content, or serve the priorities in my own business.
In the past, I did do several free AND paid consultations. However, I noticed that everybody had the same questions. They were struggling in the same areas and I was giving them the same answers.
So, I took a step back and I said, "I do not wanna see another one of these businesses open and close, but I don't have the time to walk each person through the process and they don't have the money to pay me $2,400 for 12 hours of consulting at $200 an hour to walk them through the process..." What I did instead, was create Play Cafe Academy, hosts about 12 hours of information at a fraction of the price.
My students are able to achieve success in LESS time and for LESS money as a result, which I am so proud of!
You can read more about why I created Play Cafe Academy here.
All in all, I have grown immensely as a business owner, wife, and mother throughout this journey. I say “no” now more than ever, and have more help than ever (because I finally learned to ask for it!) and am also happier than ever.
While I would not go back and change much about the very difficult first two years of my business because of the valuable lessons I learned, I would not trade the time and financial freedom I have right now for anything.