Aldershot Soft Play Centre – covering the first rent payment


min read

Aldershot Soft Play Centre – covering the first rent payment

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Whether it’s enduring the blistering heat of a Santa costume to provide a grotto for local children, or pitching in last minute to save a water-logged ‘Summer of Fun’ fair, Paul Widdowson is a man who is truly dedicated to his community.

Based in Aldershot, Hampshire, Paul’s latest venture is a soft play centre. Through hard work and perseverance, he’s created a place where residents can catch up over a cake while kids lose themselves in the ball pit. And while Paul's constantly looking to improve the way he runs his centre, it’s safe to say that his regular customers love what he’s doing, as many of them have been coming since the day he opened.

“It all started with bouncy castles, 25 years ago,” he says. “I was doing it as a way of earning a little extra and was still working full time. It really started to take off, so I took the plunge and quit my job. Then, the shop that provided my balloons for events came on the market and I thought ‘This is my way out of bouncy castles!’ – wrong.”

He found the demand for bouncy castles too much to leave it out of his new business plan, so adapted his business into a balloon and party shop. 13 years later, he’s still running it.

How iwoca helped Paul open Aldershot Play Centre

For Paul, the funds he borrowed from iwoca helped him to:

  • Cover inital rent payments
  • Invest in equipment for his play centre
  • Manage cash flow while his business was in its early stages

“iwoca helped to stave off a shortfall when our first rent payment was due,” says Paul. “I didn’t have enough to pay for everything because the centre was so new. When you’re a small company that isn’t making huge profits it does limit your ability to get funding from various sources. Applying for funding through iwoca was very straightforward.”

Research from UK Finance found that major banks have cut funding to small businesses by £8bn since 2014, leaving many without the capital they need to grow.

By contrast, iwoca has lent over £1 billion to over 50,000 customers and are proud to support business owners across the UK like Paul.

The lightbulb moment

Having helped run events for his local council for over 25 years, Paul had made many friends along the way. These events provide ample opportunity to get involved with the community, and usually involve him dressing up in elaborate fancy dress outfits on relatively short notice.

“I was dressed up as the Christmas mouse to promote the Aldershot Christmas Grotto, absolutely dripping in sweat because the costume was so hot,” he says. “I was talking to the manager of the shopping centre, who happened to be dressed as the sugar plum fairy, and she just said something in passing – ‘The one thing that Aldershot needs is a soft play centre.’ Ching! Lightbulb moment.”

Fast forward three months, after careful planning and negotiations to find the right location, Paul is the proud owner of a much-loved play centre.

“We opened on the 30th of March 2019,” he says. “Since then we’ve made countless improvements – it’s so important to listen to your customers. We’ve put carpet down so the floor isn’t so slippy for the kids, installed a baby change unit downstairs and stock a range of gluten free products in the cafe too. Since we opened, footfall in the shopping centre has gone up and I’m really proud of that.”

Looking forward

Paul is optimistic about the future of his centre, and has big plans to keep improving it.

“We’re now talking about building two sensory rooms [a room specifically designed to stimulate the senses]. There’s a school for children with learning disabilities within five miles so I think it could be really popular. The play centre gives mums a chance to socialise and meet others who are their age. The council is working hard to improve Aldershot and I’m trying really hard to put a bit of oomph back in the town.”


Words by
Dan Howarth
Article updated on:
October 16, 2020

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