The Science of Wow

Creating the Product:

Growing up in South Africa, we’d head to the Easter Show every year. We ate carnival food, went on show rides, saw animal performances, watched woodchopping competitions and listened to live music in pavilions which were connected by cable cars running high above the action. So it’s probably fitting that at FunLab, our latest offering is the Archie Brothers Cirque Electriq. Calling it a circus is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s not exactly like the Easter Show either, but we have hit the nostalgia buttons, recreating the sensory impact of the sideshows of old, generated by a carnival of the new – a circus atmosphere reimagined with the latest digital technology.

To create Archie Brothers we purchased an existing business with some existing infrastructure (amusement machines, rides and prize redemption games) in place. We subsequently looked at it through the FunLab lens. The name had to be as unique as the vision, and we set about creating an original concept which we developed into a new customer journey. We took the name and ideas through a creative process with our graphic designers, architects, brand experts and our creative director, kicking thoughts around until they started to take shape. This team gets involved as we continue to create our unique offerings. We continually ask ourselves what the product is meant to evoke – what’s the story behind it? In the case of Archie Brothers we created a backstory of a travelling circus that had been touring the world for years much like PT Barnum’s travelling circus.

Retail is detail. To create an experience requires layering. Installing the right type of equipment is just not enough. It’s how you stage it, how you deliver it and how you take it to market.

To develop the concept further we commissioned original artwork, created new sideshow animals and integrated them into the overall design. We used modern projection technology to turn a 200 foot wall into a White Night-style visual display with animals jumping out of a ‘crumbling’ wall and video of an elephant balancing on top of the world’s strongest snail. We added in jugglers and stilt-walkers and a food and beverage offering designed to evoke an over-the-top, crazy taste and visual sensation with lots of chocolate, whipped cream, donuts and pythons hanging off the drinks. We added a new set of cocktails and a menu of party food with burgers in red buns. Retail is detail. To create an experience requires layering. Installing the right type of equipment is just not enough. It’s how you stage it, how you deliver it and how you take it to market.

The amusement and redemption games are fashioned on old-style carnival activities that we present in an electronic format. We created an ultra-modern gift store where you can take your prizes as tickets and choose your reward. We put a great deal of time and effort into the merchandise program, styling it to create excitement from winning. We have roadshow cases with travel stickers for Archie Brothers World Tour, through New York, London and Paris. The detail goes down to that level because we know that layering and authenticity make a difference.

A conceptual product like Archie Brothers is not something that you set and forget. We structure the program around morning, afternoon, evening and then late night sessions. Each session has a different feel, with altered lighting and music. We might be targeting mums and bubs in the morning, school kids in the afternoon, corporates in the evening and then 18-35 year-olds who come for a night out. Each of those target markets want a slightly different experience, so we’ve created a chameleon space. In the morning the volume’s not as loud, the music’s more top forty and the lighting’s up, and towards the end of the evening it will be darker and louder with edgy music. We train our managers to walk into spaces and focus on all those different elements. We teach people how to break up the experience, noting what foods our customers are craving, what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing, what they’re feeling. Is the temperature right, does the visual layering work and how are people circulating and moving through the space. The complete customer journey matters.

When customers enter Archie Brothers they’re taken back to a time when they went to a carnival during summer holidays, its visually exciting. We aim to evoke that emotion and those wonderful memories. And when we get all that right, and add in the latest digital technology, we create a place where customers experience not just fun, but immersive interactive fun.

Building the Business

While I’m the founder of FunLab, I certainly don’t do every single thing in the business. The reason we’re successful is because I’ve got a great team of people working with me. We put a lot of time into their development. One of our core values is known as DING – Develop, Invest, Nurture, Grow. Core to our business value is identifying talented individuals and helping them grow professionally and personally through their journey with us. For example, our Chief Development Officer started off as a technician in our first bowling alley in Chapel St in 2002 and today he runs a portfolio of projects worth $20m annually. He’s not in that role because of nepotism, it’s because he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with.

We give people an opportunity to express themselves, grow and be respected. One of the keys to any success I’ve had is to surround myself with the right people then get out of the way and let them make decisions. My strength is perhaps still the creative or innovative side of the business. I don’t micromanage. That would be frustrating for the team. Great people want to be fully informed, in control and in charge. I delegate and collaborate and At Fun-Lab we collaborate a lot. We see excitement, energy, authenticity and passion emerge from direct interaction with each other. Often my job is to make sure that many of our individuals play nicely together, which invariably they do.

We give people an opportunity to express themselves, grow and be respected. One of the keys to any success I’ve had is to surround myself with the right people then get out of the way and let them make decisions.

We also make sure our customer-facing staff are trained, engaged and supported and understand that what they do is probably one of the most challenging parts of the business. The human element is critical. I see other businesses trying to automate almost everything and remove human interaction using artificial intelligence instead of dealing with people. They boost efficiency through automation but often it’s at the expense of their mission. To entertain people and deliver an experience requires a human connection. Obviously efficiency and productivity are important but I think in the long term we’re much better off investing in people and making people part of the experience. This gives us better longevity than a business that’s looking at how it can get by with fewer and fewer people.

Although we’re in the business of fun, we’re also in the business of risk because any time we create a new experience, we’re taking a new risk. When you’re doing something that’s genuinely new there are no reference points. When we created Archie Brothers we knew there were family entertainment centres, but nothing wrapped up and delivered the way Archie Brothers does. Of course we believe that the experience we’ve created is going to resonate with the target market and we do everything we need to do to create the right experience, putting it in the right location and then making sure people hear about it, but it’s never a surefire thing. All the elements need to work and it’s still a risk. We don’t know ahead of time if the concept is going to resonate, if it’s going to hit the number that we’re building the business case on and return on the investment. Then there’s all the regulatory hurdles: zoning, liquor licensing, development applications and leases. It’s quite a complex web to climb through.

It’s fun at FunLab and we do lots of fun things but everyone works very very hard. Our staff come in energised. At 8:00 am almost everyone’s here and at the end of the day I’m usually the first person to leave. We provide breakfast in the morning, beverages through the day, pizza lunches or shared lunches that the team bring in. There’s a sense of community and it’s a space that people are proud to come to so they’re happy to hang out and carry on doing their work without watching the clock. We’re making conscious efforts to grow up as a business, ensuring that our people have a chance to grow. We’re a fifteen-year-old company now. People often view our success as linear but in fact there’s been many ups and downs and times when we’ve had to restructure and lose good people, when things weren’t working out as well as they are today. However we’ve now reached a critical mass. This is something I’m very proud of, for me and for the team.

Michael Schreiber is the founder and CEO of FunLab.