Erie man’s business inflates
Owner says fun is hard work
Turns out fun can be hard work, especially if you’re the guy in charge of the bounce houses.
Ask Daniel Thompson.
He’s done construction work, roofing and built custom wooden shipping crates for years as the owner of Thompson Crates on West 12th Street.
Thompson, a 47-year-old Girard resident, said he wasn’t looking for an easy path when he got into the business of renting bounce houses and other inflatables and games for carnivals and other events.
What he was looking for was a hedge against the volatile world of manufacturing.
“I wanted a second company that had nothing to do with heavy industry,” he said. “I wanted something that was safe from that.”
Thompson seems to have found what he was looking for.
Three years after starting the business with 13 inflatables, Crazy Monkey has grown to a business with more than 80 inflatables and other rides, including water slides, dunk tanks, climbing walls and a trackless train. That’s to say nothing of seven delivery trucks, two trailers and 15 employees who are struggling at the moment to keep up with the workload.
“At times we are in as many as 25 locations at once from New York State to down near Pittsburgh,” he said. A recent Thursday morning found Cillian Wood, one of his Thompson’s delivery drivers, dropping off two bounce houses to the gymnasium at St. Jude Parish Center on Lowell Avenue.
Thompson was there to help, but he had a delivery to make as well. He was dropping off his daughters, Emme, 7, and Macie, 4, who attend the summer day camp, which was holding an end-of-summer bash.
Christina Voorhis, director of the summer camp, said she wanted to end the summer on a high note for summer campers, who range from 2 years old to sixth grade.
She appeared to have booked the right attraction. Children eating breakfast in the room next door could be seen peeking around the corner into the gymnasium where Wood and Thompson were inflating bounce houses, setting up safety signs and laying crash pads outside the air-filled monuments to childhood fun.
“Kids like bounce houses,” she said.
There are critics, of course, and safety concerns.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which analyzed U.S. hospital records, reports that bounce house injuries rose from 5,311 in 2003 to 17,377 in 2013.
Thompson, whose bounce houses and rides have to be inspected by the state of Pennsylvania, said most of those injuries are the result of not properly staking or weighing down inflatables to make sure they don’t float away or roll over.
Most of those injuries could have been prevented, he said.
“That’s why we got into this,” he said. “We wanted to do it the right way.”
That means either staying with the ride personally or going over a checklist with an adult who agrees to supervise it safely.
At first glance, bounce-house assembly seems like a simple enough job. Once an inflatable, maybe a castle or a tiger has been taken out of the bag and unfolded, an electric blower fills it with air in about a minute.
The bigger challenge is folding and unfolding the inflatable, which often weigh 275 pounds or more.
Last week, they had to be lugged up several stairs along with four eighty-pound weights that are used to anchor any bounce house that can’t be staked into the ground.
Thompson didn’t expect much of an issue from the day campers at St. Jude, but a recent visit to Discover Presque Isle left him with lots of cleaning to do.
“There is nothing easy about any of this,” Thompson said as he dragged a moving dolly loaded with ballast weights up a short flight of stairs.
So how does a guy with a background in construction find himself setting up bounce houses and other rides at festivals, backyard parties and corporate events?
Thompson said he had rented inflatables before and thought it could be done better. He made it his goal to start calling companies that were national leaders in the business.
“I called some of the best in the business and some of them called me back,” he said. “I got some great advice.”
Thompson, who has spent more than $300,000 on new inflatables, got a big break during his second year in business, but he didn’t realize it at the time.
Thompson said he rather reluctantly bought out the equipment and business of his biggest competitor, boosting his business from 30 to 80 rides.
“The company I bought had a lot more customers than I expected,” he said. “It turned us into the largest in the region. We got a great customer list. The business has definitely blown up.”
Thompson, who started the business with his wife Lexa, said the name Crazy Monkey was his idea and meant to be a carefree reminder of childhood.
“You just think of kids jumping around and going crazy,” he said. “I had people working on the logo for me. We wanted it to be fun and colorful.”
Thompson said he’s achieved the diversity he wanted at a time when manufacturing seems to be slowing down. He’s even grown the business far faster than he might have expected.
What’s more, his daughters are big fans of his work and happy to help out when he sets up a bounce house up in the backyard to dry out.
But the business is evidence, he said, that most things are more difficult than they appear.
“This is not an easy business,” he said. “It’s extremely long hours, but I do enjoy bringing fun to people. That part of it is nice.”