How to Validate your Indoor Playground Business Concept
So you want to open an indoor playground business. Or, maybe you just have a pinterest board called “play cafe inspo”, or “business ideas”. Wherever you are in your journey, I’d venture to guess that you’ve pictured what life might be like if you actually moved forward with your plan and chased your dream.
However, you’re also probably overwhelmed with the idea of getting started and you’re probably nervous about not getting the funding you need, not getting the support you want from family and friends, and about opening your doors and having NO ONE come through them.
I get it-- it’s scary. I’ve been there.
But the BEST place to start is to go through an established framework to validate your business concept. Validating your idea and deciding if the business model you hope to run can be profitable in your area will help give you clarity on whether or not you should move forward, whenever the time is right for you personally and financially.
It can help you to FINALLY stop wondering “what if?” so you can move onto “when”. OR, if you decide that your “dream” indoor playground would NOT be successful in your area, you can progress into, “what’s next”.
Either way, you’ll be looking at a much clearer picture.
Plus, if you SKIP this validation process, you run the very real risk of opening a business that is doomed from day-1 for failure (but more about that later).
I don’t want that for you, and I hope you don’t want that for yourself!
So, let’s walk through the validation process I take all of my clients who would like to open a brick-and-mortar business through:
Step 1) Refining your Business Idea
Even though an indoor playground is a specific type of business, these types of facilities can come in MANY shapes and sizes. Before we begin the validation process, it’s important to refine your vision of the “perfect” space. While no final decisions need to be made at this point, it is important to at least have a general idea of the type of facility you’d like to open and how you plan to serve the community. For example, do you envision a 20,000 square foot warehouse-type space with a lot of large climbing structures and gross-motor activities, perfect for children up to 12 years of age? Or do you picture a space more like my business, Climbing Vines Cafe & Play, which caters mainly to babies and toddlers and is more imaginative in nature?
If you’re not sure- here are a few questions to ask yourself that will give you a great jump-start.
1) What size team do you envision?
If the idea of managing 20+ employees is nauseating to you, a very large facility with a full restaurant and cafe might not be for you. Of course, as an owner, you can always hire a supervisor to handle the day-to-day tasks and manage the other team members. However, due to the nature of this business, a lot will still likely fall on your shoulders. And unfortunately, that includes the stresses of a larger team.
You will need to schedule, examine payroll hours, account for seasonality and your party/ event schedule, and also likely deal with employee turnover and training as well. Not to mention any issues that arise (and they will)!
This is not meant to dissuade you from having a larger space or a larger team, it’s simply meant to be honest and provide you with the very real truth that “bigger is not always better”. Yes, you will likely make more in revenue with a larger facility because you can accommodate more guests, but you will also have higher overhead, have more to be done at any given time, and will have more at risk should you decide to close or go in another direction.
More money, more problems, right? Right.
2) How risk-averse are you?
Speaking of risk, how tolerant of risk are you? If you are very risk-averse (like me), then you may want to closely consider the scale of your space. Again, while more space can equal more guests, that does not always necessarily equate to more profits.
Having an honest conversation with your spouse and any other stakeholders will be helpful here. The larger your facility, the higher your buildout costs will be, and the higher your monthly expenses will be. That means you’ll have to use more savings, take out bigger loans, or answer to more investors.
Some people thrive in this environment and some, like me, are more risk-averse and are much happier operating in a smaller-scale environment with lower overhead and lower risk. I had a young baby when we opened and knew we wanted more children (now we have 2!) so I knew that in this season of life, a smaller space made better sense for my family.
Maybe, a few years down the road, I will have a bigger appetite for risk. Maybe you already do! This is a deeply personal decision.
3) What are your strengths?
The last question to ask yourself in this step is, what are your strengths? Are you a brilliant business person? Are you a former educator who wants to teach classes and have special events? Are you creative and want to provide your community with a more open-ended space with different kinds of activities? Understanding what you’re good at (and enjoy!) is a great place to start when you’re determining how you’d like to serve your community. Because even if you plan on being a more hands-off owner, you’ll still be involved and you still want to love what you do!
Step 2) Completing Competitive Analysis
Now that you’ve begun to hone in on the type of facility you’d be best fitting to open, you can start looking around your area and what is already out there.
Too often I see business owners do this step FIRST and open a business JUST to fill a “need” they see. However, this often leads to the business being misaligned with the strengths and goals of the business owner, which can be a recipe for burn-out, unhappiness, and struggle.
When you’re looking at your local competitors, be sure to not be too laser-focused on indoor playgrounds and similar facilities. You’ll need to look at any place families are spending their time and money. After all, every family has a limited amount of disposable income, and you need to make sure you can command a small piece of that pie and that your services fit into the local landscape.
Recreation centers, free libraries, amusement parks, and more are all things to take into consideration here.
Make a list of all the places local families are spending their time and their hard-earned money. This is also a perfect time to make a list of what they offer, what they lack, and how long they’ve been open.
In my “Validate your Business Idea Workshop” I give participants a full workbook to closely examine competition, but a few things to look at are when examining competition:
Social media reviews
Deal sites (groupon, etc.) for any coupons for local competitors
Advertisements, Facebook ads, commercials, or radio spots
Take note of which businesses are already out there and if any are similar to what you envision.
Even if there ARE similar businesses, don’t feel like you can’t move forward. It’s likely your area has MANY more families than any one (or even ten!) facilities can serve and there are enough possibilities for differentiation to make it possible for multiple similar facilities to coexist happily and thrive.
Step 3) Finding your Niche through Market Research
On the topic of differentiation, you’ll want to refine your vision for your business even more sharply now that you’ve done your competitive analysis.
Did you notice any trends from your analysis? Are there any services that are particularly lacking?
For example, before I opened Climbing Vines Cafe & Play’s first location, there were no “premium” options for birthday parties (for 1, 2, and 3-year-olds) that also included play.
The only options that existed at the time were lodges and recreation centers. Therefore, I identified that there was a big “gap” in the market if anyone wanted to have a private party for a baby or toddler and didn’t want to DIY the whole affair (which they would have to with a lodge or a rec center).
I also noticed that there were not a lot of options for indoor play for that age group. There were one or two current options, but they had been open many years and I knew I could offer something fresh and different.
For example, a similar facility to ours (not so similar in size but rather in the clients we serve) exists about 30 minutes from us. They opened just before we did but I noticed 2 of the highlights of their facility were a large indoor water table and a large playground-like climbing structure.
I knew that in order to really stand out, we would have to offer something different. So instead of adding a smaller water table (our space is much more intimate) and trying to compete with theirs, we let that be “their thing”-- and that’s OK! I love that a family can go to their facility on a Monday and ours on a Tuesday and have enjoyable yet completely different experiences each day. We even often go there for a change of scenery
The important takeaway here is to try and find a way to stand out and offer something fresh and different for your community. What do the similar facilities offer already? What do people love about them the most? Where are they currently lacking? What do they get the most complaints about?
Draw on the information you learned in step 2 to really find your “niche” and what YOUR business should focus on.
Step 4) Identifying your Ideal Customers
Now that you know what you'll offer- it's time to determine WHO needs (and more importantly- will PAY for) your products and services.
I will stick with the example of Climbing Vines Cafe and Play here. To remind you, when I did my market research and competitive analysis, I identified that private parties for babies and toddlers were a need in our community and I sought to fill it.
However, not everyone wants, needs, or can afford a fancy private party for their little one.
I sent surveys, held focus groups, and started a closed-facebook group for local parents all to understand more about who DID want, need, and was willing to pay for this service and experience.
I walk through the exact steps to execute this process in my 5-day workshop but the main thing I suggest is to have real conversations with people in your community.
Online surveys and Facebook groups are great and can provide you with valuable feedback, but nothing can compare to having an in-person, small focus group.
You can listen in on conversations between participants, hear them bounce ideas off each other, and see their body language and really understand their tone as they speak.
It’s not only important to ask them what they want, but also what they DON’T want or need in a service you plan on offering.
I highly recommend recording these sessions, because while their responses will prove invaluable in your validation process, you will also find their words and phrases to be EXTREMELY important when you go to craft your offers and position your marketing if you do decide to open your business.
Since there could be a YEAR or more between your first focus group and your opening day, having a recording you can watch over and over again will be helpful so you’re not relying on your memory alone (because, if you’re a parent like me, you KNOW that’s not a good idea)!
Step 5) Perfecting your Concept & Moving Forward
In the final step of your validation process, you’ll need to try and fit all of the puzzle pieces that we came up within steps 1-4 and see if they fit. It might be a beautiful masterpiece and at the end of the process, you might feel aligned and excited. BUT, on the flip side, you could feel discouraged and like your concept was NOT, in fact, validated. And that’s OK. Things can always be tweaked, concepts can be altered, and you can go back and start again at step 1 with a fresh perspective.
Clarity comes from taking action.
And it’s much better to go through a thorough validation process and decide to walk away or change an idea than it would be to go ahead with opening a business that fails, simply because proper research was not done beforehand.
Unfortunately, this happens SO often and it breaks my heart.
That’s why I’ve come up with my own, 5-day “Validate your Business Idea” workshop just for people who are looking to not only take a much deeper dive into the validation process (because I will be honest, we barely scratched the surface here) and would also like personalized support along the way.
If you’re interested in having me walk YOU through this entire process (which I’ve now done with over 500+ entrepreneurs!) so you can have complete clarity at the end of the five days (and know exactly how to proceed with your business) then just click here.
My passion is helping entrepreneurs open businesses that are not only going to be profitable, but are also going to bring JOY and freedom to their life (and not drain them from it).
Not sure who I am?
Hi- I'm Michele Caruana! And I'm glad you asked.
While I don't have ALL the answers-- I do have 5 years of hands-on experience and tough lessons under my belt, and I am passionate about helping others AVOID the same mistakes myself and SO many other business owner's make.
Even though I have a Master's Degree in Economics and Years of Business and Marketing experience, it took me YEARS to "crack the code" and turn my Indoor Playground from an expensive hobby into a business--
And I want to get YOU there in less time and with much less stress. I'm ready to share all my secrets with YOU!
So click here to get ALL the details and join my workshop-- it all begins October 7!