How to start a Soft Play Centre
Want to dive headfirst into a pit of squashy cubes? HaHa! So do we. Well, splendid news, folks! You can do this entirely without judgement just as soon as you set up your own soft play centre. Imagine how much fun you could have after closing time!
I never thought I’d say this, but soft play centres are hot with entrepreneurs right now. They’re an awesome way to switch up your career path if you’ve had it up to here with whatever it is you’re doing for a living. No more 9 to 5, no more suit and tie, and blow a sweet goodbye kiss to office.
There is ample demand for soft play centres, and with our ridiculous UK weather, these indoor adventure playgrounds are a welcome opportunity for children to dispose of their progeny forever. Just kidding—but you get the idea. They’re a great way for children to get some exercise, muck around together, and generally have a rip-roaring time. This means they’re being intensively googled by aspiring entrepreneurs drawn to the idea of doing very little in the way of ‘desk job stuff’, but still earning money.
Demand, Demand, and Industry Rivalry
If you’ve thought about setting up a mobile or permanent soft play centre, as noted, you’re not alone. Apparently, this is a growing industry in spite of the large initial king’s ransom for equipment and premises. At FindMeAStartup, one of us has even had an interest in getting out there and doing it himself. So after a hearty chuckle at him, we asked ourselves: What are the pros and cons of starting a soft play?
Pros that are brilliant:
* Being your own boss!
* Being surrounded by the joyful laughter of children;
* Set up near a school/busy hotel/large shopping centre/Tesco Extra and you’ll be busy as Bob the Builder!
* Colour and variety—unlike a drab, grey office and the soundtrack of throat-clearing and photocopiers;
* They’re super for getting repeat customers, because who really shops around between soft plays? (Unless you’re in the airport, in which case you’ve got the tourist market cornered anyway).
* Every single person you know, no matter how hard they try to deny it, dreams of hurling themselves into a ball pit. Cloud nine!
Cons that suck:
* You’re looking at a weather-dependent industry – on rainy days, school holidays, or when parents are fighting each other for £70 TVs in boxing day/Black Friday sales, your soft play centre will be packed to the brim. You’ll be raking it in!
* Soft play centres are also capital-intensive – statistics show only 3.49% of the population has a ball pit and squashy slides ready to go. Well, not really, but you can see how equipment involves significant investment;
* Never escaping the sound of screaming children (or kids music);
* It can be a paperwork headache for brand new startups;
* Parents/carers complaining about stuff you don’t/can’t control.
Is it for me?
If you’ve already got a business, chances are opening a soft play centre could be flipping great for your long-term profits. If you’re running a store, it can keep carers and parents browsing and buying for longer. If you’ve got a restaurant, making it family-friendly could be a massively shrewd business move. Everything from pubs and banks to airports, stock exchanges, and prisons are doing it, so why not you!?
OK, I exaggerate. But set up in a strategic area and you could be on to a winner.
Should I franchise or go it solo?
There are pros and cons of each, unsurprisingly. You may find things a boatload easier if you’re interested in being part of a franchise, this generally will involve one yearly fee (usually between £2,300-£2,500) for:
* Soft play equipment that you can set up and move to different events (children’s parties, after school);
* A map of different areas where this can be done;
* One of the companies even gives you ‘hot leads’ for parties. Presumably, you can target these with the tantalising promise of squashy, themed adventure.
If you choose the franchise route, things are much, much simpler. Your learning curve will be less like Mount Everest and more like Netflix in pajamas while the company takes care of stuff like planning permission, compliance, equipment, and insurance.
Example franchises include: Funky Monkeys (England and Ireland) https://funkymonkeys.co/
If you’re under 8 and 4 foot 5, you’re welcome to join this JUNGLE ADVENTURE! As a visitor, not a franchisee, haha. Kids here climb ropes and race zany cars while parents sip lattes, eat Paninis, watch plasma TVs and plan to bring their kids here for their next birthday party.
360 Play (England) https://360play.co.uk/
This excitingly colourful indoor wonderland offers afterschool care, parties (duh), and creative activities like painting. And they do really awesome themed setups including cool ‘going to the shops’ layouts so your kids can imitate you at ASDA.
Kidzplay (England) https://www.kidzplay.co.uk/
Cleverly innovative Kidzplay offer preschool classes and subscription activity boxes. Parents can sign up for something like ‘Create with Charlie’ and get involved in quality time with their little ones at home.
Note: Very smart, low-cost product development—Ansoff would be proud as a peacock.
What will I need to set up? A business plan is your first step. Unlike starting up a market stall, you need to put everything down on paper/Microsoft Word/whatever. Things to consider include:
* Value offering – especially if you’re going for a small business loan;
* Environmental analysis – SWOT;
* Marketing and branding – two different things but often related (target market, competition, etc.);
* Financials (big deal) – expenses, income, and cash flow projections;
* Operations – where will your equipment come from, who’s going to set it up, manage day-to-day stuff, etc?
Choose a nice building where kiddies will want to hang out, and where their parents won’t be worried to leave them! You’ll have an idea of how much you can spend from your business plan.
If you’re opening up dedicated premises for your soft play, it will be considered ‘planning class D2’ (planning class 11 in Scotland). Accordingly, you’ll need to fill out a planning application form, that you can get from your local council. But don’t hand in your notice just yet—this can take MANY MOONS (months) because it involves getting thumbs ups from nearby businesses, council people, and other associations.
Tip: Some people reported having to re-apply for planning a couple of times, so make sure your plans are realistically flexible. In the biz we call this contingency planning, which sounds boring as flip, but who wants to be stuck paying rent with no planning permission?
Safe equipment, inspections, and maintenance The Association of Play Industries (API) has a list of suppliers who will design, manufacture, and install indoor or outdoor soft play equipment. Everything from surfaces and toys to slides and those little tunnels we all wish we weren’t too old to play in. A key advantage of going with an established manufacturer is guaranteed compliance with Register of Play Inspectors International (RPII) and/or Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) standards. Both organisations are responsible for inspecting, accrediting, and certifying kid’s play areas.
How much will I make?
Your initial investment could be anywhere between £100,000 and £240,000 according to our research.
After this, key outgoing expenses will be:
* Rent – a fixed cost, but dependent on the size of your centre. Some entrepreneurs reported up to £81k annually, but I presume these are veritable Taj Mahals;
* Utilities – up to £15k annually unless you’ve nabbed all-inclusive premises; and
With average hourly charge per child varying between £3 and £6, you’ll need several years to recover your initial layout. But after this, you could potentially be looking at £60 an hour on regular rainy days, and something like £9 a kid per party.
Can I scale up?
Yes. Soft play centres are in demand, but you’ll need to continue being strategic about footfall and competition. You can even save yourself some time and just tweak your original business plan.
Acronyms you’ll want to know:
FEPE – Fully Enclosed Play Equipment
RPII – Register of Play Inspectors international
RoSPA – Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents