Episode 167 – Owning and operating a child care business is highly entrepreneurial. In this episode, Tony D’Agostino, CEO and Founder of Inspire Care 360, shares the importance of setting a strong operations foundation in order to build a sustainable business. We talk about the key elements that child care business owners need to pay attention to and why making the investment in developing business savvy on your team is worth it.
- Inspire Care 360 Website
- Why Inspire Care 360 (Video)
- Get The Support You Need To Build Your Child Care Center (Video)
How do you have difficult conversations with parents about paying for their service, to make sure your centers are making the revenue that they’re supposed to make from those families? And having good conversations to keep those relationships going?
Tony, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much, Ron. I really appreciate you having me!
It’s our pleasure, Tony. And we’re delighted to have you. For our listeners we have on the show today Tony D’Agostino. He is the founder and CEO of Inspire! Care 360. I had the pleasure of meeting Tony in person last year and am delighted to have him on the show so we can all share and learn from his wisdom and knowledge in childcare. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Tony. Tell us what you do and how you got into childcare and early-childhood education.
Thanks, Ron. Yeah, I really appreciate it and thank you for having me on your show. So, how I got into this is rather organic. After having a career – about 20 years in both corporate as well as owning and operating my own businesses across the areas of H R and employee engagement and learning and development for adults – I actually acquired early learning and childcare centres in western New York. And I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years.
So, that became the foundation of where I came from and became accustomed to the early learning field. From there I looked back a few years ago and said, “There’s not a tremendous amount of support that is underneath one umbrella to help you with developing that business acumen to support those childcare centres.” And so that’s where we developed the concept of Inspire! Care 360.
And do you still own and operate those centers?
Absolutely, I have four centers across the Monroe County in western New York, the Rochester region of New York and approximately 80 staff members. We have six weeks to twelve years of age and wrap-around programs and summer camps, as well as all the licensing issues and compliance issues that everybody else has in this industry.
Cool. And so you being an owner operator of multiple childcare programs, you know there’s so many difficult challenges in running a childcare program. Why did you decide to focus on the problems that you’re focusing on with Inspire! Care 360?
It’s a great question, Ron. Actually, part of it came through use. Actually, a few years ago I had looked and evaluated, going, “Number one, I have really no purchasing power. I only have four locations that really do not have part of something where I can be buying things at discounts like my competitor’s across the street from the big box providers of large franchises, of corporate childcare or even large not-for-profits.”
I also looked at the fact that having some personal experience with a staff member who left – was disgruntled, decided to go to websites and say some nasty things about some of our staff members – I was, like, “How do we even protect ourselves? How do we handle issues of that nature?”
And then I also looked at, “What is the support around all of getting employees engaged through the entire lifecycle?” And going, “You know what? There’s no one who is really helping with those areas. There is a lot who help with enrollment; there’s a lot who help about how to have teachers teach, how to have directors make those teachers great educators. But there’s not a lot about how to run the operations of the center.” And that was really my background through my previous life before I got into the early learning field. So, I really saw a very distinct need here.
And for the childcare programs that you’re working with, how do they typically get in touch with you? Or how do you get in touch with them? Do they have a specific problem around their operations and they come to you? Or do they sometimes maybe not even know they have a problem? How does that typically happen?
Well, it’s funny that you say that because we actually have referenced the top three items that actually came up in a HiMama survey, if you’re familiar with who those guys are. And the top three issues, one is [that] turnover is massive. It has been massive through the industry for a long time, especially when you have unemployment rates as low as they have been. A lot of people been doing a great job but it’s still a revolving door for many of us because of the transient nature of our business.
Also that [in] operating your business reputation is everything and reputation is critically important. So, what we have really looked at is, “How do you help organizations with what their reputation is to start it, to build it up, to grow it and then protect it?”
And then [the] third one is really the finances of, “Are you really profitable? And how do you stay profitable? A lot of people talk about having new enrollments, more people walking in the front door. But when we really look at a lot of things, when you have a 5 to 7% margin and a lot of people walking in the front door of the school doesn’t mean you’re bringing home a lot of that profit.
And I’m a big believer in putting the oxygen mask on first. If you take care of the business, if the business can be profitable, if it can have a very strong, amazing culture you then can really support your staff, your staff support the children, the parents are happy when you have a very successful, sustainable business.
Cool, and I’m very familiar with HiMama; I’ve heard they’re a great company, in fact!
Yeah, there’s this rumour going around!
So, I’m glad you mentioned that benchmark report! So, yeah, these are certainly big challenges. And you referenced the oxygen mask. The other analogy I’ve heard in other businesses is, like, a leaky bucket, and it doesn’t matter how much water you’re pouring in the top – or, in this case≤ how much enrollment you’re getting – if you’ve got a leaky bucket and the water is coming out of the bottom, you’re not really helping yourself. So, you need to plug those holes first, in terms of fixing your operation. So, that makes a bunch of sense in terms of the focus.
And so, in your experience, then, working with these clients, how does that process typically work? So, how do you help these programs out, in terms of improving on these fronts?
That is a great question. Typically the size and the dynamics of the centers are usually one large center that have about 100 enrollments, up to 20 centers underneath and independent ownership. And the reason we focus on there is not because those centers are struggling always. A lot of them are trying to improve how they operate. And what I mean by that, Ron, is that they are looking to get as effective and efficient as possible about the way that they focus and support their staff so their staff have a great experience.
That comes through an amazing onboarding experience that rapidly gets people onto the same values and on the same page with their organization. It deals with having a handbook; it deals with having a “My Company” personalized orientation, having their all their operational procedures available right out of the gate that give them job age. And so they have the kind of personalized training to get these staff members up and running.
Then there’s professional development that really focuses on excellence: running the business; how to run it from the staff running an organization to your administrators running your organization, even your senior administrators running it; from how to handle customer service to how to handle conflict, all within the care market place. So, anywhere from a childcare to a Montessori to a Reggio to a private school to even a charter school, we focus on that.
And that’s only a tip of the iceberg because we fully support organizations that are, like, “We need H.R. [human resources] expertise. We’ve been calling our attorney or we have an internal H.R. person.” But they don’t have anybody to really go to. We have that backbone for them, both with live support as well as a whole platform.
And then the other side is, “How do we manage and how do we support the growth of our business and our reputation?” And so a lot of organizations do a great job there but they’re, like, “I’d like to be more efficient. I’d like to be more effective. I’d like to make sure that when I put my Google ads in that I get the very biggest bang for the buck. I’m going to make sure that I convert those on my websites. I want to make sure that I have great star ratings out there and I can get my star ratings actually out onto Google or out to Yelp or to Facebook or www.Care.com or Great Schools.
“And I want to make sure that I understand if something isn’t going right, I can solve those things right away. And then if I ever – hopefully never – run into a crisis that I am just one quick phone call away to have that support, that someone would be there to support me so I don’t lose enrollments, lose families, lose our position in the community and I have a partner to help [me] out there.”
So, those are things that affect really well-established, great childcare businesses. It helps out growing childcare. They’re expanding, they’re developing. But it also helps out ones that may be struggling a little bit to go, “I just don’t have the resources.” So, we really try to approach the entire marketplace in that area. Does that make sense, Ron?
Absolutely. And it sounds like one thing that is unique about what you’re doing at Inspire! Care 360 is that instead of sort of, like, a one-off training or learning program, this is, like, an ongoing relationship and conversation between you and the childcare operators. Is that right?
That’s absolutely right. What we’re actually in the process of doing now is creating a “business operations excellence” certification program. And what that means is, for your administrators – which would be your directors, assistant director, your regional executive as well as your teachers – to really get them to have a journey, a journey of how they learn to operate that center and to continue to develop and make that center as profitable as possible and provide the greatest service possible to those families that you have attending.
So, that is an ongoing journey of learning and development. But it also provides all those resources, sort of like a franchise owner may do for a franchisee. But really we’re doing it to, I think, the next, for sure, level-up or two and we do it for significantly less. And that’s why we do it under a membership.
Cool. And what if I’m an operator of a childcare program and I’m thinking to myself, “I wish I had time to work with Inspire! Care 360 on my operations – providing better service, becoming more profitable – but I’m so focused on making sure my kids have a great experience every day and come out learning something new and are having challenges in terms of their own development that’s resulting in improved educational outcomes. How can I possibly spend time on these things?”
That’s a great question. Honestly, with my own centers I think about that half the time, Ron, because we are so busy just managing everything that’s going on in the day. And I almost put it to… you imagine having more time in the day to focus on what really matters instead of getting bogged down in the daily minutia where you’re always fighting the fires. What if you had another way to do some of the business tasks and the things that currently bog your team down? What if you had an extension of your business to support you so you become highly efficient?
Instead of a new staff member coming in to always put them through a one-hour, two-hour orientation with your director, what if they, before they walked in [on] day number one, they already had gone through your comprehensive, personalized orientation course? You no longer have to have your director do that work.
What if you had that experience that, instead of you trying to get a person on the journey to get the mountain your values of spending nine months to twelve months because you just have to stay in ratio and you don’t have time to really invest with them – as much as you want to, as much of a great organization you are – you can work on getting them into the same values, get them to the same principles that you have and doing that right within the first month so you’re on the same page and you’re working much more effective and efficiently, that you could manage their training, you can have quick responsiveness to the things you need and you don’t have to go on and negotiate all separate deals?
We have vetted out our providers that we support our members with, from food suppliers to school supplies to office supplies to even what’s coming up with accounting and even payroll types of solutions, that all have gone through a real strong vetting process and natural negotiations. So, once someone starts working with us, yes, is there some upfront effort? There certainly is. But once you’ve gone through the effort to learn about how to work within our program, we have really streamlined it and we’re giving you back to time. That’s exactly what our value proposition is: giving you that time back and focus on the kids more.
Very cool. And I want to touch quickly on the certification thing you mentioned. That sounds really interesting. How does that work?
So what that is is a program that is in mid-development. And that is a real focus that oftentimes when we talk about our administrators our focus on administrators is really about how to make sure that our staff are coming in on time and how our staff are being scheduled. How are we handling the education and development of the children? When we think about where our administrators and our directors come from they oftentimes come from the world of our staff.
When you look at our compliance requirements throughout the United States most of it is all about early education development. What you don’t see [are] requirements about business development, business acumen, operational excellence of how to operate, how to handle elements of how you handle tours. What is the best way to handle a tour? What is the best way to handle the follow-up? How do you handle those processes? How do you handle accounts receivables? How do you have difficult conversations with parents about paying for their service, to make sure your centers are making the revenue that they’re supposed to make from those families and having good conversations to keep those relationships going?
How to handle and negotiate for, for instance, a director talking to, “You need to bring a painter in. How should I actually bring a contractor in here and do the things that we need to get done?” And that could be other administrators, too, because a lot of centers will have their own administrators to do that. But how to do that effectively and have that education, that business acumen of running a childcare business?
Interesting. And you’re based in New York. Are you servicing childcare programs in the state of New York, or outside of New York, as well?
We have centers throughout the United States, from Arizona to Maine, from Washington State to Florida and everywhere in between. We have… mostly our concentration right now is actually between the Mid-Atlantic area. We have a bunch down there in Florida but we have a couple hundred centers throughout the nation. We average probably owners who have four centers on, average, but we have those who have one and we have those who have up to twenty.
Cool. And if I’m listening to a Podcast and I want to get in touch with you, Tony, or I want to learn more about Inspire! Care 360, where can I go?
Great question. The easiest way to go is going to www.InspireCare360.com. On there you will see a couple items: “Contact Us” is the quickest way to learn about us. You’ll also see “Member Access”, and if someone just checks out the “Member Access” what you will see is you will not have access to it because you’re not a member. But if you were, you would see a portal of all the type of solutions that we have that I just discussed, all visually available to you right there. And that will become your dashboard, almost like your “start page”. So, where you want to go is to www.InspireCare360.com and go to the “Contact Us” page. And we will get there, we’ll get with you and help you learn more about us and see what we can do to be helpful.
Awesome! Tony, thank you so much for all your work in helping childcare programs operate more effectively. And thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!
Thanks, Ron, I really appreciate that opportunity to talk to your audience!