Why my business is like a ball of plasticine

Hazel Merlino is the founder of Rainbow Factory, a storybook-themed play experience for children based in Leeds. She's also one of our Virgin StartUp ambassadors. Here Hazel talks about the importance of always being open to changing and developing your business offering, and why you should think about your core product as a ball of plasticine...

What do I mean by a ball of plasticine, you may ask? Well... as a startup you always start out with ideals and expectations, and you genuinely think you know how everything is going to run, right? I mean you put all that planning in place. Unfortunately, no - you don’t necessarily know a thing.

A true entrepreneur doesn’t go into business thinking “I’m going to make a quick buck and then sell” - they go into business ready for the challenges that inevitably lie ahead. No business is the same, because no two people running a business are the same. Even if a business has a similar model or product, what works for one won’t necessarily work for the other.

When I started the Rainbow Factory last June I had ideals, I had a business plan that stated X, Y & Z, and I'd put a cash-flow together of guesstimates - but not once did I expect the business to run the way my business plan imagined it would!

However, the core product remains the same, but it has to be shaped differently – this is the  plasticine of your business.

The Rainbow Factory has had to develop, grow, shape, re-shape and, most importantly, adapt. The business today is still the same product, and the same concept. We’ve just continually re-shaped in order to adapt to customer needs to pursue business profitability – and I can’t imagine that will ever change.

It’s so important that you keep the original concept, but it’s even more important that you are willing to re-shape the product in order to meet your customers' demands and to survive. There will never be a time in this fast-moving consumer world whereby we can ever stop still. One must strive for change, for innovation, for uniqueness - never contentment. In my opinion, contentment comes when you sell the business and it is no longer your mission.

It’s no secret that even some of the largest, most well-known and trusted brands remould their product in order to remain in the spotlight, to remain current, and to meet their customers' needs. Take Twix, for example. Every year they change their packaging just very marginally to ensure that when you walk into the shop your subconscious picks up on something different and therefore potentially alter your buying decision - clever! And then look at the packaging for Cadbury – how many times have they changed their focus? First it was all about the milk, and now it’s all about what they mix their chocolate with.

Never sit still with your product; look for ways to remould and reshape to keep your customers. Don’t stick with the “If it’s not broken, then why fix it?” attitude, because someone else will launch the next model up of your business. There is no such thing as consumer loyalty; it's all about needs vs. desire vs. affordability.

You can make simple changes such as updating your logo, improving the website, launching a sideline product, changing the way you speak to your customers online or in-store. Try asking your customers for their opinion and launching a product or service relating to that. We’ve had to make some big decisions around opening times to meet our educational programme demands, and while it frustrated the public, we’re booked out with school trips. In addition, we’re about to launch a new product called the Wonder Box… long story, but it’s relevant, and we’re trying to meet customers' demand and keep our business interesting. We also change the over-arching theme of the factory every month so that customers know every time they come back there is always something new for them to engage with.

But with every change, be willing to have failures – we’ve had many. See them as learning curves, and don’t forget - you can just remould. Whatever you do, make sure you listen to your customers, never expect, always be the first to lean forward, and keep remoulding that plasticine. You could even keep a ball on your desk to keep reminding you. Good luck!

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