Captain Fantastic has been named the “UK’s best children’s entertainment company” by FreeIndex and has won awards from What’s on for Kids and Junior Magazine. With nearly 1000 online 5 star reviews, and clients such as Hugh Grant, Nickelodeon and the BBC enjoying their own Captain Fantastic parties, 2020 looked exciting. However, when coronavirus crisis hit the UK, children’s parties don’t lend themselves to social distancing and, therefore, were understandably one of the first things to go, leaving Captain Fantastic and their team with no other option than to adapt their business model quickly.

I sat down with company owner Tommy Balaam (well, I joined him on a Zoom call), to gain some insight on how recent events have impacted him and his business.

The Story

What did the beginning of the year look like for Captain Fantastic?

We started the year extremely positively, with January 2020 being our best January to date. We’d booked more parties than we had in previous years and we celebrated the successes of our franchises. I think we were similar to many people in thinking that ‘2020 would be our year’, then March happened and poked a sharp hole in our party balloon of optimism.

Did you notice anything significant in the lead up to the lockdown in March?

After such a leap jump into the new decade, we were understandably confused when February was suddenly so quiet. At this point we weren’t sure whether or not it was directly related to the virus; all we knew was that our usually steady conversion rate had dropped. We were still receiving enquiries, but very few people were willing to book. Our entertainers started questioning their lack of parties and a sense of uncertainty began to kick in.

What was your approach to adapting your standard policy around cancelling and postponing parties?

When the scale of the coronavirus pandemic started to surface we had a ridiculous amount of people cancelling their parties, resulting in us giving back around 30 thousand pounds – this was a massive hit both financially and mentally. We tried our best to get people to postpone by offering to send a free Captain Fantastic book and doll in the post. Upon receiving these gifts, we asked the parents to take photos and share them on social media.

We did, however, honour our cancellation policy for those who wished to cancel, because we knew the importance of prioritising our reputation during these unprecedented times. We understood that relaxing our policies would curb any potential backlash in the form of negative reviews. By doing this, we were able to keep the loyalty and trust of our customers. Many of those who couldn’t go ahead with their original party plans, especially those who were happy with their free book and doll, went on to book an online party with us once they had been introduced.

When did you realise you had a real problem?

When that 30 grand left our bank account! In all seriousness though, the real indicator was Italy going into lockdown in the second week of March.

I won’t pretend that our first response wasn’t driven by panic, as much as I’d love to say that our now smoothly running online parties were our first call to action. We managed our finances by drastically reducing the working hours of our staff. Although this measure was sustainable in the short term, we knew we would need a much more creative solution if we wanted the company to survive in the long term.

How did you manage staff and payment?

We had 7 PAYE employees with nothing to do. Our sales team had nobody to sell to and our administrative team had no bookings to take. At this point we had too much money going out and not enough coming in, so we followed procedure and furloughed our staff. This allowed us to cut costs whilst also ensuring that they were treated fairly.

We called a meeting with everyone altogether about the necessity of cutting hours and made it clear that if they had any solutions then we’d be happy to hear them. Ricky Fox (my business partner) and I then talked to everyone individually, so they’d feel free to voice their opinions and concerns openly. The hardest moment throughout this whole process was asking our incredibly hard-working staff (who we would absolutely hate to lose) to look for other jobs; we had to prepare for the worst and unfortunately, there were tears.

Did you fear that the company might go bust?

I didn’t think it would come to that, but there were times I thought I might have to completely restart and build up the company from scratch on my own again.

So what did you do?

We had two options, we could either wishfully think the problem away, or we could adapt – luckily, we went with the latter. It didn’t take us long to realise that whether this pandemic ended up lasting several weeks, or even several months, if we were the first to act, we would (hopefully) prosper.

What was your first “million-dollar” idea?

At this point it was more like, what’s our first “any amount of dollar” idea. When you go from 200 parties a month to zero, you need to grab any potential solution by the reins and ride it through the storm.

We had a strong feeling that we’d be able to use digital solutions to deliver our parties effectively online, so we rang up parents we knew and asked if we could trial it with their children for free. We made a wonderful discovery – online parties worked! Digital transformation was a possibility! We recorded the Zoom calls and made a promotional video knowing that we had a product to sell. However, there was still a lot of uncertainty surrounding what would be happening with isolation. In the week preceding lockdown nobody knew for sure whether it was going to happen, and if it did – how would we promote our virtual parties when all our promotional venues would be shut?

And how did you?

Well, we thought outside the box a little. When coming up against the problem of nurseries and schools shutting down, we realised that toddler groups would be shutting too, and parents who attended these groups would likely be grateful for some kind of virtual substitution. Charging for online toddler groups wasn’t an option – we only had 3 thousand likes on Facebook, there were better-known entertainment companies out there and, at this point, we hadn’t demonstrated any value.

What did you do to demonstrate value?

We realised that timing would be key. If we were the first to provide a solution to the absence of baby and toddler groups, we would be more likely to gain a loyal social media following. This, in turn, would allow us to promote our online parties. We capitalised on this by posting on every social media mum’s group we could find, asking people to share. With very little planning, a lot of improvisation and a sprinkle of bravery, we went live on March 18th at 10 am (doing this at prime time was extremely important) and ran our first free Facebook live toddler session. During the live itself, we had up to 12 thousand viewers (quadruple the amount of likes we had on our Facebook page at that time), which escalated to 50 thousand views within a few hours of it finishing.

Currently, the market is incredibly saturated, with lots of entertainment companies offering free live sessions having carried out their own digital transformation. However, the competition isn’t really affecting us currently as we’ve managed to hold onto our viewers. We’ve built quite a loyal “fan base” as a result of this live, with many people now knowing our name and not feeling the need to look elsewhere…and that’s why you go first!

I’m guessing things skyrocketed after that?

Yup – that was the best launch our Captain Fantastic spaceship could have wished for! Our following took just under a week to overtake our two major competitors (who had previously been 15 thousand likes ahead of us) and another two weeks to be 30 thousand likes clear of any competition. Within that first week, we gained 20 thousand followers, which doubled the week after. A little over a month ago we had around 3 thousand Facebook followers; we’re now up to over 60 thousand Facebook followers and it’s still growing!

So it was really a case of ‘go hard or go home’?

Exactly, and we went hard… we also went home (but only because this was enforced by the government). Rather than resting on our laurels, we planned our next move. We came up with the idea of a 24-hour live party, which we knew needed to happen quickly as it would have been impossible to do during lockdown. We have a WhatsApp group with our entertainers (we now have about 10 more WhatsApp groups, but I won’t go into that as that’s another blog in itself), and we asked if people would be up for planning an hour’s worth of material to perform at this event. Ricky and I were overwhelmed by the support and enthusiasm everyone showed, as well as their willingness to help the company out even though they knew the unlikelihood of being paid. Everyone performed their material from the main office, working around the clock (literally) without breaking the stream. This was hugely important in terms of PR. It got us into The Evening Standard, Junior Magazine and most significantly – it got us a live interview on Sky News!

What was the knock-on effect of this party and all the associated press?

Because of the outreach from our toddler and 24-hour lives, we were able to book 90 online parties within the first week of introducing them, which (at the time of writing) has accelerated to 20 online bookings per day.

Was it difficult to translate the parties you were used to doing in-person into an online version you could deliver via Zoom?

While children’s parties don’t initially scream remote working, it was actually a lot easier than we thought, especially for our toddler and captain interactive magic shows, which are aimed at kids aged 1-7. Of course, it wasn’t perfect at first, we had to familiarise ourselves with the different features of Zoom and figure out what worked best in terms of sound, visuals and party numbers in order to deliver that perfect customer experience. I think the most important thing was that we just did it; we didn’t wait until we’d ironed out all the creases. We weren’t afraid to learn as we went and our clients were incredibly grateful, regardless of how ‘perfect’ it was at first. In fact, the text messages we still receive after our online parties are even more glowing than ever; this is mainly because we have been able to provide something the parents didn’t think was possible – a birthday party during lockdown.

What were the challenges you faced when adapting your parties to an online medium?

The biggest challenge really was adapting our disco parties, which are mainly aimed at children aged 7-11. Obviously the main attractions with a disco are the music and lights. The magic that we use in the parties aimed at younger children doesn’t really engage children who are 8 and older, so we had to come up with a whole new party. After throwing the question out to our entertainers via one of our many (manyyy) WhatsApp groups, they put their creative minds together and out of that our ‘Challenge Party’ was born.

What does a ‘Challenge Party’ entail?

Well, the clue is in the name really. The entertainer, ‘ The Games Master ’ if you will, leads a series of challenges with the group. There’s a little bit of magic at the beginning whilst introducing the concept of the dares, and it’s incredibly interactive and engaging – the parents and grandparents often join the fun too. There’s not a lot out there for this age group at the moment, so these parties are proving incredibly popular.

The toddler and 24-hour lives were one-off events. What else have you been doing to promote your online parties to your new Facebook following?

Potential customers need to love and trust you before they spend money buying your product. Although we’d demonstrated value through these inaugural Facebook lives, we knew we would need to keep this up if we wanted to build a strong relationship of trust with new clients.

We, therefore, came up with the idea of “Captain TV”. The idea originated as a series of educational Facebook lives that would encourage kids, who were now unable to attend school, to continue learning in a way that was engaging and fun. We drew on the expertise of our entertainers, some of whom were teachers and held impressive university degrees, whilst others made known their culinary, fitness and performing arts skills.

We were able to put together a 30 hour week, providing relief for parents who were faced with the challenge of homeschooling their children for the first time.

Has ‘Captain TV’ proved to be popular with your viewers?

More than we ever imagined! Within a week of us running our timetable, we had a reach over 3 million people, which has been accompanied by an outpouring of thank you messages through our Facebook inbox. One mum sent in a picture of her toddler who had learnt to wave in one of our toddler classes, we’ve had pieces of homework sent in from children who couldn’t wait to work on the tasks set from our educational lives, and we’ve had numerous comments from mums remarking on how we’ve helped them to establish a sense of routine and familiarity with their little ones.

We love creating this content and, even more than this, we love receiving pictures and videos of children enjoying themselves whilst participating in our sessions and singing along to our songs. Of course, we wanted to keep the business afloat, which is how the idea of our Facebook lives began. But the messages of love remarking on our ‘wholesome content’ is what spurs us on to keep spreading more fun, joy and happiness.

The Lessons We Learnt

How were you able to keep yourself and your staff positive amidst the potential of everyone losing their jobs?

Even though the ship was sinking, as the owner of the company I knew I needed to appear as if I was in control. Whilst transparency and honesty are important, I couldn’t get caught up in, or show our staff, any real panic during the crisis. I had to stay level headed in order to demonstrate to everyone that it was safe to jump onboard. If you’re willing to work harder than everyone else, people will follow; it’s important to lead by example.

As far as our entertainers were concerned, rather than demanding fixed loyalty we were honest about the lack of work and encouraged them to find other sources of income whilst we tried to come up with a solution. At the same time, we were willing to go the extra mile to keep some form of work coming in. Involving our entertainers in the creative process was a crucial part of our success and something we will definitely hold onto when work-life returns to normal.

I realised that coming up with all the ideas wasn’t something I had to do alone. Sure, the final decision would come down to the company owners, but having a creative pot to choose from was essential. Everyone who works for us is used to going out to different locations each weekend and working alone whilst doing their job. Apart from the WhatsApp groups, there’s not much interaction between us and them, and them with one another. After we’ve trained them we don’t get to see them perform and we rely on the feedback from reviews and messages. However, creating all this online content has done wonders for the ‘ team spirit’ of the company.

It’s always lovely reading the glowing 5 star reviews our entertainers receive, but being able to watch them in all their glory whilst performing online (a difficult feat when you’re not receiving the instant feedback from the children in the room), has made Ricky and I incredibly proud.

What’s been the most important factor in being able to adapt to the challenges you’ve faced?

We were willing to take risks – we thought, let’s jump in at the deep end first and we’ll learn to swim once we’re in. If we’d waited until we’d reached Olympic level before taking the plunge, we never would have achieved this success. Having said that, there are challenges we’re still facing. Our “Captain TV” timetable is completely free for the viewers, and yet, we have recently begun paying our entertainers a small contribution for their time and effort. Naturally, questions of ‘how sustainable is this?’ and ‘how can we monetise this?’ have started to arise. Currently, we’re very much depending upon this publicity benefiting us in the future.

We have already been contacted by an extremely notable record label about turning our popular toddler songs into an album, and we have ideas for a kids TV show in the works. Nevertheless, the main goal of any business is to make money. At the moment, however, the priority isn’t as much about making money as it is about survival. We’ve been gathering oxygen so that we can stay underwater longer than anyone else and emerge bigger and better than ever (I apologise for the stream of water analogies (whoops!) but only partially because I’m really enjoying them). The challenge we’re still facing is – how do we use all of our current successes and turn our survival into profit during the lockdown, rather than simply waiting to reap the rewards once this all comes to an end?

Have you had much luck coming up with a solution to this?

Luckily, Ricky and I love performing. Our actor training at drama school is what led us to children’s parties in the first place. Due to this, we had a lot of ‘passion projects’ in the works prior to Covid-19.

We’d made numerous sketches, animated stories, music videos and YouTube clips, which we were able to release as our online following grew. Some may call this a lucky coincidence, and they may be right. In my (humble) opinion though, it was down to continuous hard work and innovation over the years and trying out any idea we had when we had it, even if we were unsure at the time how it could positively impact us.

If anything, it’s reaffirmed my belief in doing the things you’re passionate about, especially if it goes towards building your brand. These passion projects may not have led to any direct financial gain, but if you’re able to create content that invites people in – allowing them the opportunity to fall in love with what your company can offer – they are much more likely to book you for events that can lead to financial gain, which has been the case with our Captain TV and pre-recorded passion projects leading to online party bookings.

How has your day-to-day life changed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak?

For me, it’s been demanding. My partner is a key worker and we have two-year-old twins (who, as lovely as they are, can be challenging at the best of times). I’ve become my own little daddy daycare centre most days, which has limited my work hours to evenings only. Whilst some (although admittedly, not all) non-key workers are slowing down and taking this time to spend time with loved ones, people who are adapting are speeding up, meaning that their schedules are even busier than they previously were. We’re working harder than ever to innovate and continually be the first one to come up with the latest new idea.

Do you think that being forced to adapt and move to an online platform will benefit your company in the long run?

We certainly hope so! It’s worth mentioning that a few years ago we began franchising the company. We have 7 franchise owners who are successfully running Captain Fantastic parties in different locations across the country. Owing to the rapid growth of the company, we’ve had two more people buy franchises in the last month. Our goal is to go nationwide and create a Captain Fantastic children’s TV show. We’re one step closer to this now because we know we’ll have an audience since people all around the country trust and like us as their party entertainers. With the huge following, we’ve managed to accumulate, it’s likely that we’ll have many more people interested in buying franchises of our company.

To take a slight tangent, most millionaires talk about the moment they ‘lost it all’ being a defining factor in their journey to riches; when you have nothing to lose you take bigger risks. Not that we’re millionaires (yet!), but this situation forced us out of our comfort zone and pushed our creativity further than we thought possible. When the going gets tough it’s tempting to retreat, but it’s at this point that you need to lean in even further. We’ve seen our competitors emulating our timetables and parties, with similar prices, content and timings. It’s been important for us to view this as a positive rather than a negative – we’re trendsetters!

The competition increasing is also what spurred us on to create our challenge parties for kids aged 7-11, as nobody else seemed to be doing this. Using the competition to push us harder, rather than letting it defeat or overwhelm us, has also been a key factor in our success. When life gives you lemons, grab the salt and have a tequila. Whilst you’re necking the tequila shot have a think about all the other things you could be doing with the lemons – learning to juggle could have been one of them. My point is (not just that Ricky, whose joke I stole, is hilarious), but that thinking outside the box and being innovative will help you in the long run.

What advice would you give to other businesses that aren’t like yours, who are also looking to adapt?

In these particular circumstances, I’d urge people to think about what they can offer online that they can charge money for. Alongside this, what can you do for free that demonstrates value without giving away the product? Think about who the market leaders are, and what they aren’t doing that you could be doing.

Luckily, Captain Fantastic is a perfectly sized organisation to be agile. If you’re too big then all your decisions have to go through a board of directors, meaning there are too many people to move quickly. If you’re too small you’ll feel the burden of doing everything on your own; you won’t have the option of delegating and you’ll burn out. We have a small team, with administrative staff to take bookings and push sales, whilst we felt able to turn to our 40 entertainers for creative input. Big companies have a tendency to get too comfortable, but in times of scarcity, small and medium-sized companies gain the upper-hand; if they can harness their ability to jump over competitors who had previously been in the lead, they can prosper.

What do you wish you’d implemented earlier, now you know it’s been successful?

Definitely the online toddler group. This is something we’ll be doing everything within our power to keep – whether this will be free or at a heavily reduced price is yet to be decided. We’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of joy and happiness it’s brought to parents and their little ones. People are able to join in whenever and wherever, and from a business perspective, it allows us to demonstrate innovation and value to a large group of people. From the messages we’ve received, it’s been brought to our attention that many children who have autism, or are sick, or have parents who are simply unable to afford the costs of regular toddler classes, are often excluded from these sessions.

The inclusive aspect of our classes is something we truly value as a company. It’s hard to say whether or not we’d have introduced the online parties, even though they have been hugely successful. I think they would have been a hard sell had there not been such a demand for them. However, now that people know they work we might see if we can keep them in the future – it’s a good option for people in other countries, for people who have friends and family they’d like to invite all around the world and for people who might struggle to afford the price of a ‘live’ party.

I also wished we’d reached out to our entertainers for ideas sooner. We’ve put so much trust and faith in them in recent months, and they’ve exceeded our expectations. They’ve come up with ideas, written blogs (such as this) and even helped us design our entirely new Challenge Party!

What lessons have you learnt?

Testing times bring out the best and worst in people – if you’re running a business, it’s up to you to make sure it brings out the best, leading by example. I was surprised at how quickly I was able to knuckle down, put the blinkers on and work until ‘it’ worked.

Unfortunately, you can’t please everyone and some difficult personal sacrifices had to be made.

Since moving online we’ve taken bookings in Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, to name a few countries. Before the pandemic we were happy with making ourselves nationally known, now we have international aspirations and the sky’s the limit!

Do you have any inspirational final comments you’d like to give to the people reading?

Work hard, work smart and draw on the expertise of the people around you. Returning to my much-enjoyed water analogies from earlier, I’d say it’s important to remember that you have support, you are not an island – but if you do fall in the water, just keep swimming.

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