Polliwogs started in 2009 with zero advertising, just like most businesses. The big difference was, he did no advertising as he built his business all the way to his millionth customer. In this interview, we will reveal how he scale up and built Polliwogs into a business that everyone would recognize today.
Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of The SME Show. Here, I would introduce proven entrepreneurs around Asia and reverse-engineer with their help their strategies and tactics. In this interview, I spoke with
What many people don't know is that this company only started in 2009. With zero advertising they have grown to more than a million customers within Singapore and have already expanded into the franchise model. So in this interview of The SME Show, we dive deep into finding out how
Marcus: Hi everyone! Welcome back to the SME show today with yet another guest, His name is Hariman. He is the Managing Director and founder of Polliwogs, the ever popular children recreational centre with locations across Singapore. It’s a place where a lot of parents would choose to put their kids for a short time.
Over the years, Polliwogs have grown by leaps and bounds. From 2009 to this year 2016, they have gathered over a million customers. I think today we would want to talk about how he has grown in the business from ground zero to where it is today with multiple centres. With that, thank you for doing the show Hariman and welcome.
Marcus: Ok, so Hariman maybe you can share very briefly with the audience on your professional background and also how you came to start the very first Polliwog Center which was at the East Coast Park.
Hariman: Well, before this I worked in various banks, both local and foreign. The life changing incident occurred when I got married and had kids. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but just didn't find the right business at that point in time. That was until I had kids, which brought a lot of joy.
The line of thought flowed from doing something meaningful and bringing joy to many people, parents and kids. That was how the concept of Polliwogs came about. We knew that parents were stressed at times, not knowing what to do with their children at some parts of the day.
At the same time, they needed a break, but they also needed time to spend with the kids as well. So, the idea of having a place where parents could relax and bond with the children at the same time came about.
Marcus: I see. So that was the idea, but I think for a lot of people who want to be entrepreneurs and they would see there’s a lot of barriers of entries. But you, on the other hand, were different. You were sharing the story when you were at the OCBC cycling event and you happened to see this empty plot of land. Can you describe that moment that changes your professional career?
Hariman: We are not the first in the market. So, I have some idea about this and wanting to do what other competitors was then doing, but much better. We stumble upon this site because there was an OCBC cycling event that year. So, one of those days that we went cycling around East Coast Park, we saw an empty void deck which was the original Singapore tennis centre. It was a void deck with pillars and no walls. I thought to myself that this would be a perfect place for the parents to chill and relax. We could build stuff inside for the children to have fun too.
There was a small telephone number stuck on the wall and I just called. That’s how it went.
Marcus: After that call, the whole idea of starting children recreational centre was already there, was it?
Hariman: Yeah, right after we negotiated and try to find out more things about how to do this business. About a month after that incident where we spotted the site, I then quit my job.
Marcus: If you don't mind me asking, how much capital investment did you put into the business and what was it used for?
It's more about investing in the brand of our image because I realized that it is very important. When we started off, it was never about one shot. It was about the brand that we were trying to build. A vision of empowering and being a part of every kid’s life. So, the brand itself is important, therefore, we spend a lot to make sure that we get it right.
Marcus: But hold on a second, you invested half a million and the first couple of years it was negative. Now, to a lot of entrepreneurs they will think that if they have already invested that amount of capital and not seeing their returns, they would have turnaround before it got worst.
But you on the other end, saw a vision that could be accomplished with Polliwogs. Can you describe that whole experience? I’m sure it wasn’t easy.
Hariman: It wasn’t easy trying to convince relatives and friends to give me money. I guess at that point of time, things were not looking very rosy. I reanalyze the whole vision, whether It is still something that I still want and it is actually achievable.
I came to a conclusion that it's worth the time as well as the investment.
Hariman: Because just by being there for the first few months, the demands are increasing, the numbers although still negative but are improving. The little tweaks that we do, customers love them and give us good positive feedback.
Marcus: Any examples?
Marcus: Let me interject you for a second. You also mentioned when you were still working in a day job, you were looking at other competitors recreational centre. You had certain ideas of what could be done better. Tell me what were the opportunity that you saw?
Hariman: When I visited my competitors before we started, few things that we noticed is, it’s fun for the kids but the parents are really bored. As a parent, you want to have a good time too.
So, we decided that our layout has to be child-friendly as well as parent-friendly with good ambience, coffee, tea and amenities. We pay equal attention to their parents as well as for the kids.
Secondly, the standard of hygiene and safety is not there. That’s the primary concern of parents, hence we put special emphasis on this.
Over the years, we continue to improve on this. It never stops at the front. It’s also about creating memories, because childhood is only once and so we train our staff in a way customers will remember us.
Marcus: How did you do that?
Hariman: Basically, we build a culture around it. We are not perfect yet, but we are moving in the direction where we believe that we are serving the family in Singapore and therefore, from a management standpoint, we treat our staff as family and we want them to treat each other as a family.
So, the kind of values and things that we do within the Polliwogs is revolving around the family values.
Marcus: Ok, very cool. Going back to my original question where you saw the light at the end of the tunnel because the numbers while negative were improving, compliment letters were coming in and people travelling all the way from Tuas to East Coast is a very strong testament.
Hariman: Especially in East Coast Park, there’s no MRT and little bus service.
Marcus: Now fast-forward that, I think while starting up a business, especially children recreational centre you rely a lot on branding. So, branding meaning like getting the awareness out for Polliwogs.
How do you go about accomplishing that because it was a fairly known brand. Tell me about the whole experience.
Hariman: When we first started, people even have a problem in pronouncing Polliwogs name because it’s a fairly long name. Initially, it was purely built on reputation, word of mouth and initial reach out to drop mails from Singpost.
How we do most of the marketing in the initial stages, is really through partnerships and
We also did a tie-up with credit card companies. What really brought us up to the next level of awareness was the tie-up with DBS. At that time, they were re-launching a new card face for the everyday card.
So, when that happens, we gave them a deal and it goes out with their mailers to all their POSB everyday card holders. In overnight, we have long queues lining up at our centre like a bee line. From there, the viral effects of word-of-mouth took over and get better.
Marcus: Wow, you did something very right.
Hariman: Yes, although we did give a good deal, but it’s worth the while.
Marcus: So, that was one of the key moments which helped to push the brand from a fairly known to very known. What other things did you do to push the brand?
Hariman: Increasingly we are going more into social media and I think it’s an area that has great potential. We are going also more into the strategic partnership, with some banks and organisations that share similar values.
Marcus: Over the years, Polliwogs also have grown into a few departments I would say. If anyone walks to the Polliwogs centre, you would see there is your traditional theme park and also areas for the parents.
The first two was fairly started right from the onset when you started Polliwogs, but along the way you also started new departments and so on. Could you briefly share with me how did the whole idea came about?
Hariman: Sure. From the start, the focus has always been the branding and sticking to the vision of engaging the kids and being part of their life. When we started, it’s always about the recreational aspect which is the play areas and the event that goes with it but we go on a step further.
For example, birthday parties are not just an event for us. It’s about creating memories. So, we do a lot of things that’s personalised to the customer, child, parents, and to the guest. That creates memories. We also launched a live theatre production. This is to promote our branding even further to go beyond our physical centre.
And for the live theatre production, we do that yearly. We will sell the tickets through Sistic. Surprisingly, we get a good response from it.
Marcus: That’s like a breakeven because a lot of times this is like investing to the branding. It’s less so much of a cost, but more of like a real investment.
Hariman: It gives the brand a new dimension in a sense that now the brand is also represented by our characters. And that gives a lot of depth in terms of personalities of the brand and what we represent. As well as reaching out to a much wider audience because we go to schools, various places, childcare centre, exhibitions, and we were invited to the national day event too. We bring excitement to the crowd.
Marcus: What would you say were some of your bigger mistakes that you’ve met along the way with Polliwogs and how did you recover from all these mistakes?
Hariman: I think in any business, there are mistakes along the way. Maybe the earlier mistakes were probably not building the internal culture fast and early. We were so busy with settling the operations in the initial stages, that we did not pay more attention to building the culture faster.
Because of that, the first few hires were not very good. A lot of time and effort was wasted. We do get some good people, but not a whole bunch of it. We are now better.
Marcus: What was your hiring formula?
Hariman: Now we are very much more particular about what the candidate believe in themselves. So, things like the kind of culture that they would want to work in, whether they are an individual player or can they work as a team or in our case we call them all family members.
Marcus: So you use the term family members?
Marcus: So, the words play a very big part?
Hariman: Yes, we even have a chart in our centre and we call it the family tree. We have everybody names there. So, it’s kind of cool and we are still building on it. Some people subscribe to it and some don’t. We then know who are the ones that we really want.
Marcus: Culture is something that is very important because a lot of SME owners would look at the culture and say it’s important, but it’s never urgent when it comes to culture building.
If you are a business owner, you are the owner of that sports team. Imagine if you are running a soccer or basketball team, you rely on this people to perform individually as well as a team. And for them to work together as a team, you need that culture, that strong bonding for everything to work well.
I can have one or two good players, but if everybody is not working well together, everything falls apart. And when I reflected on my business, that’s true because I spend a lot of time trying to fix individual problems rather than focusing on the business.
Once you get the culture sorted out, then you as the owner and entrepreneur, you can focus on the bigger picture and see where to bring the team next to.
Marcus: Culture being is like the call thing that you have to fix. How do you go about doing that? Because it’s good now that we know the culture is important but fixing, creating a culture is a whole different scenario together.
Hariman: It takes a lot of effort to design the culture. For us, we kicked off by bringing everybody together in the town hall, we go for retreat and in one of this retreat, we re-emphasize our vision and mission and surprisingly it’s quite common throughout the organization that nobody really knows what you’re doing.
Marcus: Nobody knows what the company is going towards.
Hariman: As in they know you are a business, but they don’t know what you stand for. Therefore, everybody just treats it like a job.There’s no meaning to it. And if somebody in the workplace is unhappy, they will complain and it will become a whole big problem.
Marcus: That’s where you mentioned the need to fix all the individual problem.
Hariman: Yes. So, we kicked off during one of the management meetings to standardize, clarify and simplify the mission and vision. We came together as a family now and we all decided that we want a family as our culture together.
Then we define what a family is. Words like being trustworthy, honest to each other, being understanding everybody strengths and weaknesses but also not neglecting that even within a family, there will be conflict.
But if you are within the family, other family members will try to resolve together with you and move on. So, the whole idea of the family is actually very strong. We still need practice in this area, but it is something that we are moving towards and I think we are getting better at it.
The Polliwogs family is with our staff as well as with our customer. So, now we are trying to extend that to our customers and treat them as a family.
Marcus: I see. That make a lot of sense because your customer will feel like they are part of the family culture. This benefit extends way beyond the business transaction.
Marcus: Ok. Very cool. In 2009 Polliwogs, there was a lot of growth, fixing the culture and more, but in 2014, something interesting happened, the franchise model. There are many ways of expanding a business where they could open a new outlet by yourself or joint venture. But you picked the franchise model. Tell me briefly about that?
Hariman: I picked the franchise model because I think in the retail sector, franchising is one of the more popular options for entrepreneurs to expand. The reason is simple. It's relatively less risk financially for the entrepreneur and you actually leverage on your IP to expand your brand. And if you do it well, you can go big.
There’s a lot of models that we can learn from. So, that’s why we chose to franchise. It’s also chance upon when we went through the whole franchise management and operation system module by IPOS (Intellectual Property of Singapore).
We came up with our SOP manuals and training guides. It is something that is worth looking into especially if you are in a retail centre.
Marcus: There are also many ways of structuring a franchise. What was the structure that you had for Polliwogs?
Hariman: Essentially in a franchise, you license out your brand for a number of years and usually you get a fee for that. With that, training and ongoing support are provided and essentially with selling on a franchise, you leverage on the franchisor overheads for things like marketing, HR, various policies branding, website emails and everything. You just need to concentrate on your own operations.
Marcus: Sure. That's very easy and straightforward for them as well.
Hariman: Yes, as well as R&D, the Research and Development. The franchisee does not have to do anything. That’s the responsibility of the franchisor. Of course on a monthly basis, there’s also a royalty fee that is paid to the franchisor and that’s to cover all these expenses also known as a collective effort.
Marcus: Now, for the closing questions that I would like to know, what’s next for Polliwogs?
Hariman: Polliwogs is on a mode to expand for product and regional coverage. So, we are looking into replicating this model in ASEAN region as well as expanding our service offerings from kids about 10 years old to teen and early youth segment because we have a lot of followers and these kids are becoming teenagers. So, there’s a lot of request and demands. we are looking very much into that.
Marcus: Cool, so that's it. Thank you very much for doing this interview, Hariman
Hariman: No problem.