For Gene Sausse, bouncy houses are serious business. He says his New Orleans party station for children, BooKoo Bounce, is expected to exceed $700,000 in annual revenue this year and has an annual growth average of 4 percent. "We've enjoyed a positive cash flow since the first year of operations," he boasts, and "78 percent of our revenue comes from the birthday parties."
Not bad for inflatable toys.
So how did Sausse turn children's parties into a business -- an idea so good it won the Enrich Your Pitch contest at Inc.'s GrowCo conference last year? Here's how it happened.
It all started when Hurricane Katrina devastated the entrepreneur's hometown. Sausse had lost his job as the vice president and general manager of a local tourism channel TV station, and was in the process of joining a garbage collection company as director of sales. That's when he started going to children's birthday parties with his 3-year-old daughter, Sylvie.
Sausse found the party venues to be lacking. "They were often entirely based on the children and there was not much considertion for the grown-ups or their comfort," he says, noting the scarce seating, dirty bathrooms, and lack of climate control (this is Louisiana, after all).
Parties hosted at home weren't fun for parents, either. "The pre-party planning, the work, and expenses involved was something that I knew every parent wasn't looking forward to," he says. "Safety was a part of it, too."
The Big Idea
With help from his wife, who's a media planner, and his sister who opened her own indoor inflatable playground, Sausse came up with the concept for BooKoo Bounce in 2008. Five-and-a-half years later, he's the proud owner of a 9,000 square foot facility that aims to take the guesswork out of party planning and offers just about everything a kid--and parent--could want. Kids get to knock themselves out in a bouncy playground and fill up on pizza, ice cream, and birthday cake, all for just a few hundred dollars.
Parents, on the other hand, get to relax. The rooms are modern, the bathrooms are spotless, and "the layout is built to maintain that private party atmosphere--you don't have to worry about some other party's uncle bouncing on the inflatable ride with your child," says Sausse.
What really helped BooKoo Bounce succeed is its focus on parents. If a Saints game is on, two big screen high-definition TVs let parents keep up with the score. There is also adequate seating and the chairs are comfortable.
"We're really looking for those things that people mentioned were lacking in other places," Sausse says. "[Parents] are able to enjoy the birthday experience with their child, rather than work it. We wanted to make it easy, kind of like a turnkey birthday party for the parents."
Getting off the Ground
Launching BooKoo bounce wasn't easy for Sausse. He was turned down by two banks for a loan before a third bank finally came through. At the same time, he had to take out a second mortage to afford his newly renovated home.
Then there was the issue of New Orleans. When BooKoo Bounce opened in September 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina, the city was still "reeling and deep in recovery mode," says Sausse. "Citywide evacuations for Hurricanes Ike and Gustav forced cancellations of all the parties during our opening week."
But despite his lack of experience, Sausse found a way to connect with his customers by putting them first. "We follow up, we send handwritten thank you cards, and I sign them," says Sausse. "And to be honest, New Orleans is just one of those towns where people talk. Having my network of friends has really helped."
Sausse also says he responds to customer feedback. "We've changed and altered things because of feedback and recommendations," he says, noting he ditched the carbonated sodas when customers complained they were unhealthy. "We're not the cheapest place--never wanted to be--but we did want to be seen as the best value, and fortunately, we've been able to achieve that."
One other thing Sausse is proud he got right with his first entrepreneurial venture: the name of the business. It's a spin on the French word beaucoup, meaning plenty. "It's just so cute" to hear kids say it, he says. "[My wife and I] went through so many names that just weren't clicking and we started to think of our local terminology and what grown-ups would know, and what signifies our service while expressing the size of the facility. I've had parents tell me beaucoup is one of the first words their child said."
Later this year, Sausse plans to open a second location about 40 miles north of New Orleans near the Northshore and work on duplicating the friendly company culture. If he can do that, he says he'll know whether his business has franchise potential and open other locations after that.