workingmums.co.uk speaks to Caroline Bevan, founder of Rugrats and Half Pints about her soft play centre and nursery business and why she is up for a coveted everywoman award.
Caroline Bevan has a picture in her dining room. It says: Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen. The latter is definitely her motto.
Caroline is very much a doer and her entrepreneurship in and dedication to the world of soft play areas and nurseries have seen her shortlisted for the everywoman Mumpreneur award. The nomination happened by chance. Caroline attended a meeting for women in business where her bank manager introduced her to his assistant. Soon after she received an email to say the assistant had nominated her for the award. The very same day she heard she had been shortlisted in four categories of a local Gloucestershire award. Three weeks ago she won best small business in Gloucestershire. Caroline says her friends are making jokes about having to get her autograph because of her success.
It has been a long time coming. Caroline grew up in Dublin in what she describes as a very dysfunctional working class family. Both her parents were deaf mutes and they separated when she was four. The family home was open to any relatives who needed a bed. Several had alcohol and/or mental health problems.
Caroline would come home from school and help her mother make ties and dickie bows to earn extra cash to supplement her benefits. That instilled a strong work ethic in her. “I was so aware that my mum didn’t have much money to spare so I would do anything I could to help,” she says. Caroline says her family’s career aspirations for her were very limited and she didn’t consider herself to have any academic ability until, at 17, a friend recommended she apply to university. She spoke to her school and they suggested going down the social sciences route, considering her ability to work with people with disabilities. She got accepted to University College Dublin and moved to England on graduation, taking up a job in recruitment advertising for a leading market research agency. She stayed in market research for 15 years. In the meantime she got married, but initially her husband was firmly opposed to having children. It took Caroline 10 years to change his mind and she then had two children in quick succession before she turned 40. Her daughter is now 18 and her son 19.
Caroline says she had thought that once she had children she would be happy and fulfilled, but she found early motherhood to be “one of the loneliest times in my existence”. This was made worse by the fact that she had wanted to start a family for so long. She realised that she needed something for her too and that other women must be going through similar emotions. “I am quite a gregarious person and I thought if I am struggling to meet people how is a shy person coping?” she says.
In her effort to find spaces to meet other mums, Caroline went to an open day at a special needs centre. It was the first time she had encountered a sensory room and it blew her away. Her baby hated it, however. A month later he was in hospital with an eye infection and she noticed how he became fascinated with a bubble tube in the middle of the room. She realised that the sensory room, intended for children with particular needs, had been too stimulating for him, but that, in an everyday environment rather than a black-out room, it could have a wide appeal.
That thought was the germ for her business idea. Caroline started touring industrial sites looking to set up a cafe with sensory equipment. But as she did so her idea grew. She realised that parents often had two children – a baby and a toddler – and needed something for both age groups. She decided to design a sensory-based soft play area with different areas for different age groups. Rugrats and Half Pints [https://www.rugratsandhalfpints.com/] was born.
It was not, however, until she was around seven months pregnant with her daughter and had just been made redundant that she got the call from a landlord in Banbury to say that she could have the site of her first soft play area. “I believe in fate,” she says. “It scared the life out of me, but I went for it.”
That meant coming up with the money for a five-year lease through remortgaging her house and getting a business loan as well as going through a very stressful planning application, which was initially rejected. Every planning expert said there was no point in pressing ahead, but Caroline decided to appeal. To do so she compiled a huge dossier of evidence, based on taking photographs of every soft play centre with a 200-mile radius, including transport to them, and doing a survey of parents to ascertain demand. She describes standing outside a shopping centre in Banbury with both children in their pushchair, asking parents their views. The person hearing the appeal, which took a year to go through, said they had never seen such a wealth of information and that planning permission had to be granted. Fortunately, the building was still available to lease.
The Banbury centre – the first sensory soft play centre for babies and toddlers in the area – opened in December 2007 after three months spent planning the layout and doing repairs. Looking back, Caroline [pictured left] says she is shocked that she managed to do so much, but comments that she is very determined and that she believed absolutely in her unique business model. In the months leading up to the appeal, she had become a local councillor and had secured a £180K grant to build two playgrounds in her village.
The first challenge was getting across to parents the concept of soft play for babies, through stimulating their senses. The baby area was designed not just for stimulation, but also for parental interaction. Lots of the activities are close together and parents have to sit in a triangle which means they have to face each other. The aim is to encourage conversation. “I wanted to create opportunities for mums to talk,” says Caroline, recalling her first lonely months as a mum. “For me it is always an amazing feeling when a woman walks in by herself and walks out with a friend.”
There were several challenges along the way, including negotiating patronising attitudes from investors who were shocked Caroline was serious about needing money. She was advised to get rid of her staff and run the whole thing herself, seven days a week 10 hours a day. “It felt like they were just humouring me,” she says.
Other challenges involved staffing and management. Caroline had trusted someone with previous soft play experience to manage the centre, but she felt she was instead running the business down, overhiring staff and overinflating costs. She had to take over and restructure the business in order to start making any money. Her confidence grew as the business grew.
In 2018, Caroline spotted an opportunity to take over a defunct centre in Cirencester. At the time the family finances were low and Caroline had had to take on another full-time role for a while. She put in an offer to work with the owner of the site and within weeks the centre had been gutted, refurbished and opened up.
Then Covid happened and soft play centres closed. It was a good opportunity to rethink the Cirencester site which had two tenants at the front, including a care home. Caroline decided that it made more sense to turn the care home into a nursery as it would have more synergies with the play centre, for instance, children at the nursery could play there if it was raining and could use the sensory equipment. The nursery opened in 2021. Caroline is proud of how she has made it distinctive, with 3D wallpaper and bright colours. “I wanted people to walk through the door and go ‘wow,” she says. Her approach has paid off with the nursery already being rated number one in Cirencester by daynursery.co.uk and number five in Gloucestershire. Meanwhile, she has won Trip Advisor Travellers’ choice for both centres.
Caroline has more plans to expand and maybe to take on an HR expert, given she now has 48 members of staff, and is ploughing a lot of her money back into the business. She says she is cautious about investors taking control of her business when she has built it up on her own strong gut instinct.
Now 56, Caroline says her self esteem has only grown over the last few years. She’s still in the middle of a divorce and is moving house, but she has faced so many challenges over the last few years that she is not phased by them. She is also still full of energy. “I’m very proud of what I have achieved, but I want it to be even better,” she says.
She speaks of two moments which drove home to her the importance of what she is doing and reminded her of her own loneliness as a mum. One was two parents who came in with twins, each parent taking a photo of the other with the children separately. At one point the parents were sitting watching their children in the sensory area and the mum rested her head on the dad’s shoulder. On the way out they thanked Caroline for opening the centre and said it was the first day they had felt like a family because they had been so busy tag teaming with the kids.
The other moment was when a child with cerebral palsy, whose hand was held like a claw next to their body, went into a tunnel that has mirrors and lights in it. The mum cried. Caroline asked if she was okay. It turned out that it was the first time she had seen her child try to open their hand to touch the lights. “It is moments like that that make me feel that what I do is not just about business. It is about changing lives,” says Caroline. “That’s what motivates me.”
*The everywoman Awards take place in London on 6th December.