Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Our future...

Since its inception, ShareAndComparePlay.com has introduced transparency, collaboration and child-focussed design to the Indoor Play Market; we believe that these values provide the best way of the revolutionising the market for operators, children and families.

The information our community and we have provided has transformed the industry, standing as the only independent source of information when previously the reliance was on play suppliers who sold equipment to survive.

In this, we feel tremendous satisfaction and thank everyone that has contributed to forums, attended our seminars and advertised their services.

Each review matters, each star rating provides insight into the quality of suppliers and each bit of information shared halves the challenges and doubles the potential rewards.

Unfortunately, in such small and niche markets, doubters remain, harbouring significant power and influence; those that seek competition rather than collaboration, those that resolutely put self interest before progress, perhaps not realising that in the end, the alternative to progress is decay.

And so to the evolution of our solution, these are just a few of the changes that we will soon be making with the sole aim of building on our core values and better serving both the market and the debate:

· We will be removing website advertising for soft play suppliers, the tables determining the best suppliers will remain

· We are re-designing our well reviewed and popular seminars and making them available for purchase digitally

· We will be introducing a new consultancy service regarding business plans (the only source of independent advice for business plans in the market)

· We plan to use our unique information set to introduce a new service reviewing Indoor Play Suppliers, an independent design review and comparison service to ensure you achieve value for money when choosing a play supplier

We hope that you are as excited as we are about these enhanced services; we believe they will provide inspiration, information and innovation in our beloved market that needs it so much.

These changes will occur in the next few weeks, please let us know if you have any thoughts or feedback.

ShareAndComparePlay.com is the Indoor Play Supplier Comparison Website that Saves Play Operators £10,000s. The only source of independent reviews on every Supplier to the Play Industry, ShareAndComparePlay.com works to revolutionise the Play Experience for Children and to enable Businesses to profitably understand and meet the future needs of Families.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Antithesis of Transparency

I was in the process of posting about transparency when I noticed a Tweet about an “Exclusive Supplier Scheme,” the antithesis of transparency and its benefits.

In days gone by, professional buyers would sit in ivory towers and in would parade a bunch of professional salespeople whose job it was to become the preferred or exclusive supplier (I understand this to an extent when a partnership approach is needed between companies to enable investment, this is not often the case in markets, especially in indoor play).

Perhaps those days aren’t as distant as I would like, however, the majority of exclusive contracts lead to the following:

· Lack of innovation – Why innovate when you are guaranteed to have no competition for two years? This kind of old world deal is the best way to kill a market, stifle innovation and discourage new suppliers into the ecosystem.

· Poor customer value – I pay £250 p/a for my current account, partly because it allegedly delivers great deals on Home and Car Insurance, better rates on foreign exchange etc. However, the problem is it doesn’t because whenever I comparison shop, I see that I can get far better deals elsewhere on virtually everything.

The same happens with exclusive supplier schemes. Promises are made up front (perhaps with the best of intentions) but Economies of Scale rarely materialise and the supplier has to claw back some of the initial outlay and so value diminishes for the end user.

· Opaque practices – There seems to be something dark about the nature of exclusive supplier deals, as though people sit in an unlit room and decide who to approve because they know better than the market. In a transparent world, at least the criteria of how the decision was reached would be published, as would a report to show why each supplier was determined to offer best value; is it available? Furthermore, if suppliers can pay to gain exclusivity, this should be made absolutely clear as it clearly compromises any perceived independence.

The alternative seems pretty simple and a lot more attractive to me.

Competition increases innovation. Competition increases value. Information and access (transparency) facilitate more effective competition / markets.

The Internet and Social Media enable alternative and more effective methods of achieving best value (e.g. Groupon), encouraging innovation (e.g. innocentive) and better serving the customer (e.g get satisfaction); why do associations instead often insist upon ivory towers, committees and autocracy?

With regard to soft play suppliers, “the PPA recommends using a member of the respective association, as this guarantees the necessary standards are reached.”

Simply not true.

There are some good suppliers that are members of the API (a body that is linked to the PPA) and some not so good. However, there are also some good suppliers who choose for very valid reasons to not participate in a scheme that is achieved virtually nothing for Indoor Play.

The same goes for the PPA; they represent a tiny fraction of play operators, there are some good play centres that are members but there are a lot more that are not. To pretend that membership implies sole conformity to desirable “standards” in either case is at best, misleading.

We started our website because we believe that all companies start equal and the market decides who flourishes, you are now aware of the alternative.

ShareAndComparePlay.com is the Indoor Play Supplier Comparison Website that Saves Play Operators £10,000s. The only source of independent reviews on every Supplier to the Play Industry, ShareAndComparePlay.com works to revolutionise the Play Experience for Children and to enable Businesses to profitably understand and meet the future needs of Families.

How To Compare Soft Play Suppliers / Transparency Guidelines

Transparency is a tricky concept to grasp for traditional companies, they like the internet but don’t “get” that they cannot control it; they seem oblivious to the way it fundamentally changes the game.

Regardless, what baffles is their failure to understand that transparency isn’t going anywhere anytime soon; check out this report if you are one of those companies still cowering and hoping it will go away.

Unfortunately for some, transparency equals accountability, the collapse of traditional and inefficient hierarchies, the old boy’s network. In time, it makes it more difficult for suppliers to keep quiet about the customers that they do not want you to know about and instead direct you to the satisfied few.

I am often asked which Soft Play Equipment supplier to use; our current modus operandi means we aren’t able to answer that question; however, my advice is always the same:

Visit our Compare Soft Play Equipment supplier page, review all of the suppliers (everyone is listed for free) and corroborate expert reviews with those of users who have shared their experience to inform future buyers.

Contact three or four suppliers and see who gets back to you, be aware of how they make you feel, how knowledgeable they are etc…( If you are interested in learning how to choose a soft play equipment supplier, please use our guide; this blog is about how to use our review system.)

I was checking out of a hotel recently when on reception, I noticed a pile of business cards. They were supplied by tripadvisor and asked:

How was your visit?
When you get home, please share your opinion of us.
Thank you for your candid comments.

How refreshing, an organisation that understands that consumers value transparency and associate with companies that are willing and able to engage.

Transfer that same philosophy to play and here a few tips to help you evaluate whether suppliers are clinging to the past, hiding and hoping you won’t notice or simply too arrogant to give their customers a voice:

Number of reviews: Evidence suggests that people write reviews when they feel passionately (either positively or negatively) about a product or service. If a company has no reviews in over two years, ask yourself (and them) why.

Quality of review: Currently, only the star rating determines the placement of an organisation on our comparison chart. Use the star rating but more importantly, read the reviews, make a note of positives and negatives and measure the supplier accordingly.

Date of review: Most Soft Play Suppliers will install at least ten play systems per year; if they have no reviews in the last six months, again, it’s time to ask why? Silence should equal suspicion.

Transparency policy: When you speak to the soft play supplier, ask them what their policy is on transparency; if and how they encourage reviews (e.g. does EVERY invoice issued say similar to the note at the hotel, please share your opinion about us on ShareAndComparePlay.com?)

Transparency badge: When you visit a supplier’s website, see if you can see this badge. If this badge is displayed prominently (i.e. on the homepage) then it shows that supplier is willing to let you review their performance and measure them against other suppliers.

Often, your gut will tell you when you have found the right supplier; for me, a company that embraces transparency, regardless of revealing its blemishes is preferable to one that hides behind PR departments, market ignorance, arrogance or hierarchy.

One of the few companies that get away with being “opaque” is Apple. It may be hypocritical to say that I do buy off them; unfortunately, no soft play supplier is Apple.

ShareAndComparePlay.com is the Indoor Play Supplier Comparison Website that Saves Play Operators £10,000s. The only source of independent reviews on every Supplier to the Play Industry, ShareAndComparePlay.com works to revolutionise the Play Experience for Children and to enable Businesses to profitably understand and meet the future needs of Families.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Child Centred Design – A “Good Boy or Girl”

“A “good little boy or girl” may not be a healthy or happy boy or girl!”

Carl Rogers

Although simple, these may be the most important words I have read in many years of learning about psychology, studying wellbeing and travelling the world to explore Eastern and Western philosophy regarding self development.

I don’t think it is any great secret that most Psychology refers back to childhood; the way we play, the way we learn and our interpretations of experiences and events help to create the people we become, determining how we see the world and how we live.

This is not a philosophical discussion and so I will keep this brief.

If you are a designer of soft play equipment or you manage or own a soft play centre (or if you are a parent), please take a moment to read this.

My (brief) take is as follows:

· Our role as players in the soft play industry is to provide play experiences that help children to experiment and play safely, without judgement or being told they are “good” (because the opposite of this is “bad”); play centres are not there to obtain conformity

· Our aim should be no less than to create an environment where Children are able to foster a “positive self regard”

How do we do this?

· Become the venue where almost anything goes; ethos, “all you cannot do at home.” Make a mess, be noisy, draw on the walls, run around, throw things, break stuff, paint outside of the lines, laze about….whatever!

· Limit the number of rules that you have written on the wall (for my taste, there are far too many rules and posters on the walls of play centres). Instead, during the design process, design your service with children in mind, use subtle but intelligent service and product design to encourage freedom of expression but limit dangerous or detrimental behaviour (e.g. bullying)

· Include images of children playing and positive messages on the design of the walls, on membership cards and menus; subtly remind people that this is a PLAY centre and that this is the time of their lives (I accept that you and they won’t always feel that!!)

· Train staff to interact and engage with children, to encourage and support (but not too much, part of the play and learn process is to fall down and try again)

· Design Soft Play Equipment to be challenging but not too difficult; ideally, you want to create a play experience where the skill and confidence of the child is approximately consistent with the capability of the child

· Provide flexible and varied play experiences, the more personal the better

· Design play experiences to engage the heart, the heart, the soul; inspire use and exploration of all senses in as varied way as possible

· More often than not, adults will get in the way of children playing either because they just don’t get it or they are embarrassed. Allow and encourage interaction but lower the level of anxiety for adult and child by letting go of the idea that this mess is occurring in your living room!

· Try to not set standards for play or achieving (the potential resulting “conditional” sense of worth is just not worth the possible upside); I love the idea that play should be “activity without purpose” or in adult terms, the activity is the purpose.

Think like when building a sandcastle knowing that the sea will soon come along and wash it away; enough pleasure is derived from the activity itself that the inevitable destruction still makes it worth doing

In summary, it’s pretty simple.

Provide the space, set the stage, limit rules and encourage freedom to create, to express, to fall and learn but in a safe and friendly environment. We call this process, "Child-Centred Design."

ShareAndComparePlay.com is the Indoor Play Supplier Comparison Website that Saves Play Operators £10,000s. The only source of independent reviews on every Supplier to the Play Industry, ShareAndComparePlay.com works to revolutionise the Play Experience for Children and to enable Businesses to profitably understand and meet the future needs of Families.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Top 10 reasons why Indoor Play Centres Fail

Last year, I received complaints from suppliers of Soft Play Equipment after an industry figure posted the following comments on Twitter:

“Sad day, another new playcentre has gone! A fantastic dream, in the hands of a liquidator. Sad news! Once again, sold by a certain manufacturer knowing they were building another a few miles down the road! I want their heads on a plate!!!”

“Please don't think about starting a playcentre without talking to the xxx first, certain manufacturers will give you incorrect advice!”

After these comments were once again referred to in a recent conversation, I started thinking about why it had upset so many people (is it the emotion, the tarring of all play suppliers or the use of the situation to try and build business / credibility for this organisation?) and perhaps more importantly, how inaccurate the comments are in identifying the reasons why play centres fail (do you blame a kitchen supplier when a restaurant ceases trading)?

It is without doubt tragic and sad to see Entrepreneurs suffer financial and emotional hardship, I say this from personal experience of starting several companies. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that businesses of all sizes and in all markets occasionally fail; the rate of failure for play centres is actually lower than for other businesses.

In reality, you could argue that the indoor play market has not suffered enough creative destruction, that as an industry, we haven't failed enough, learnt from and innovated upon the lessons of the past enabling a thousand flowers to bloom, the business model has not evolved to become more resilient and offer better value to the end customer; perhaps this is partly because it is all too easy to blame play suppliers (and others) for our failings.

So here it is, based on over fifteen years in the market, my top ten reasons why Indoor Play Centres fail:

1. Poor Management and / or Leadership
2. Ill-informed Business Plan / Business Model
3. Failure to achieve sales targets / over reliance on traditional sources of income
4. Lack of Experience
5. Lack of Cash / Finance and / or incorrectly structured debt
6. Loss of interest / passion by the owners
7. Location / too much competition
8. Overspending at the start of the project
9. Limited value in the offering / nothing unique to differentiate one play centre from another
10. Bad luck or timing

If your Soft Play Equipment collapses (that should never ever happen), the supplier goes out of business with your deposit or they just don’t show up, they would then make my list of top twenty reasons but other than that, sorry, they are not to blame.

I will begin to post details of how you can mitigate the risk of the above; after all, the entire industry should want every play centre to be a success.

PS. Choosing a Soft Play Supplier is an important part of your start-up process, this guide (How to Choose a Soft Play Equipment Supplier) will help you select the right supplier for you. Of all the criteria you use to make your choice, I suggest you don’t worry about whether they supplied a local play centre (indeed, to many it is seen as sign of a good supplier).

Emotion may mean that you want to stop them from supplying anyone else locally, that just doesn’t make sense. The play equipment will be a component of your success (or otherwise,) it simply won’t be the determining factor; you should want your supplier to be successful as well so that they can innovate and help you grow.

ShareAndComparePlay.com is the Indoor Play Supplier Comparison Website that Saves Play Operators £10,000s. The only source of independent reviews on every Supplier to the Play Industry, ShareAndComparePlay.com works to revolutionise the Play Experience for Children and to enable Businesses to profitably understand and meet the future needs of Families.

Monday, 17 January 2011

What Play can learn from (Bikram) Yoga...

I am a Yoga devotee, or more accurately, I was until a prolapsed disc meant “Downward Facing Dog’s” were replaced by MRI’s; my Yoga days were numbered unless I fancied risking the Surgeon’s knife.

However, a few months ago I rolled out my mat to try Bikram Yoga (aka Hot Yoga) after reading it could help serious back issues.

Although my personal fitness may not be of interest, the “business model” of Bikram should be; it makes for an interesting case study for the indoor play industry and anyone designing a scalable business model.

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, the UK market for “teachers / classes” is very fragmented and “studios” include gyms and school halls; although a large market, it was predominantly a “cottage industry,” a larger version of the indoor play market.

In contrast, Bikram Yoga is a multi-million dollar global business and it is interesting to reflect how this has been achieved, here is a brief summary:

  • Bikram is an entire “business system” that delivers a consistent and reliable experience; it has been described as the McDonald’s of Yoga, in the context of scalability, this is a great compliment.

In contrast, most indoor play centres are not system based and the only Design that occurs involves the Soft Play Equipment. As a consequence, play centres are mostly operated by passionate and hard-working Entrepreneurs who work in the business, customers typically don’t see any difference between each centre and the perceived value is low. Simply, this has proven difficult to scale which in turn limits investment, recognition and innovation.

  • The Bikram Yoga practice (a ninety minute series of postures and breathing practices done in the same order every time in a room heated to 110F) is designed to deliver exceptional health benefits in a safe and challenging manner; their marketing strategies encourage you to trial the service, they are so confident that once you try, enough people feel the benefit and want to continue

Imagine a play centre capable of improving the health and happiness of children and adults; how much would you pay to use it? We know that play is critically important to Child (and Adult) Wellbeing and yet I have never seen an Indoor Play Experience / System designed to achieve desirable and holistic outcomes for which Parents (or Government) will pay a premium.

  • The “process” of Bikram Yoga has been patented, thus forming a “barrier to entry” and providing income from intellectual property in the form of Franchising, Books etc…

With many Towns having several play centres and Barriers to starting a play Centre relatively low, the market represents an open goal for Entrepreneurs able to develop valuable concepts and accompanying Business Models. Now is a great time to invest in unique (think protectable) Brands, Concepts, Systems, Technology and Relationships that provide compelling reasons to visit.

  • Bikram has introduced Yoga to new markets

In the last six months, I have introduced Bikram to friends and friends of friends that would never have previously considered yoga, it has now replaced their gym schedule and they drive hours out of their way to attend.

Think, what new markets can you cater for in a unique way? Children with special needs? Children between 10 and 14 years old? Schools needing Play Space or classes? Children wanting to get fit? Child Wellbeing rather than just Play?

  • Payment in advance means not only is each business cash rich but the pricing strategy is designed to motivate specific behaviour before credits expire. The expiration of credit is a little annoying but it means I go more often, increasing the likelihood that I will feel the benefits and continue attending

Ryanair, Easyjet, Health Clubs, Insurance, Amazon, Google et al…each demonstrates how we can use pricing strategies to create / manage demand, generate cash and establish alternative revenue streams. Think carefully about your pricing strategy; not solely in terms of how much you should charge but how you want it to influence behaviour and help achieve your business objectives

  • Real estate is precious, “sweat the asset”

It is perhaps apt to talk of sweating the asset but each studio is located in expensive areas for real estate, there are black dots on the floor to indicate where you can place your mat, thus maximising revenue per square foot. I am not sure if soft play operators think about maximising revenue per sq/ft but this is a good reminder of how every inch of space matters, you are paying for it, after all.

Here are a few steps to consider when designing your business model:

1. Develop unique added-value concepts and experiences that deliver exceptional benefits (protect your ideas if possible / valuable enough)

2. Design a Business System (everything from the IT System to hosting a party) that delivers consistent results and an opportunity to scale (i.e. design one centre as though you are going to build a 1000)

3. Allocate at least 10% of your project value to design services; engage a design firm that is capable of exploring your entire concept and creating a business system rather than just “designing” your soft play equipment

4. Implement, test and share knowledge rapidly to increase sales, reduce costs and most importantly, keep customers happy.

Please let me know your thoughts or any stories in play where people are doing the above.

ShareAndComparePlay.com is the Indoor Play Supplier Comparison Website that Saves Play Operators £10,000s. The only source of independent reviews on every Supplier to the Play Industry, ShareAndComparePlay.com works to revolutionise the Play Experience for Children and to enable Businesses to profitably understand and meet the future needs of Families.

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