Episode 148 – Being a child care business owner comes with its unique set of challenges. In this episode, we interview Sholom Strick, CEO of a franchise of centers under Daycare Team and founder of a scheduling app called HoppingIn. We talk about his experience growing his business and how he maintains culture at his centers in order to stay true to their mission of contributing positively to the community that they serve. He also gives his take on where he sees the market moving with the rise of millennial parents.
I feel like it’s important for us to hold our head up and treat ourselves like a business and feel like we’re entitled to charter tuition that we think is fair, because we are taking care of the most valuable asset. We do have the most valuable mission.
Sholom, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Thank you. Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.
It’s our pleasure. So today on this show we have Sholom Strick. He is the CEO of a chain of Chicago childcare programs. And he’s also the founder of a software program at www.HoppingIn.com. Looking forward to learning more about your experiences in childcare, and founding this company as well. Great to have you on the show, Sholom. Let’s start off learning about how you got into childcare [and] early-childhood education. It’s a little bit of a different story than a lot of our guests.
Yeah, Ron, it is a little bit different. I did not come from a childcare background at all. I actually was doing real estate around 2008. And I started… I had a commercial property on the south side of Chicago, and I had a lot of interest in the commercial property for a childcare center. And I was looking for something to do, a different change to career. And I figured since there was so much interest in childcare [that] maybe there was something for me to learn, and maybe I could use my business background to benefit the community and obviously doing well by doing well for the community.
So I knew the business opportunities for myself and my family, and I decided to partner with one of the tenants who decided they wanted to move in there. So I invested a little bit, a lot of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears. I learned the business and then I kind of expanded to a second location also on the south side of Chicago. And then from there we’ve since grown to about eight centers.
Very cool. And so you said when you initially set out in 2008 to learn more about childcare and set up your own programs, you wanted to use business – or your business background – to benefit the community as well. And now it’s sort of like 10 years down the road. Looking back, do you think you’ve been able to achieve that?
You know, you always hope so. And somebody who wants to grow, and obviously you view yourself through a microscope all the time, which we as owners tend to do, you obviously can be critical of yourself. But the one thing I can say in testament is that we’ve had pretty full centers, we’ve a good enrollment, we’ve had good reviews, we’ve had good feedback. And so I feel like I have been able to do that, definitely.
Yeah, I mean… so you’re in Chicago, we’re here in Toronto. And certainly even simply adding eight childcare centers into the city with good, quality programming would be a huge win for the community here with the demand for childcare services and the lack of programs out there, actually. And your programs also range from providing childcare services to more low-income communities, also up towards private childcare programs, as well. Can you tell us a little bit about your thinking in terms of having that balance?
Yeah, absolutely. Our mission is to create rewarding childcare experiences through loving, learning collaboration. So we feel that across economic spectrums there’s opportunity to provide really high-quality services, and we really are trying to preach to our employees that you can love everyone. You can learn with everyone, that includes the parent body, the students and co-workers, and you can collaborate with everyone. So it’s so much ingrained into our values that we’ve gone ahead and trademarked the slogan, “Love, Learn, Collaborate”. And that’s the message we’re trying to send to our staff and to our community.
And that kind of goes into that professional background. One of the things that I think that a lot of childcare providers listening to the show could benefit from is the fact that you should have a really clear mission. And in the beginning I used to think it with a lot of platitudes and things like that. But if it could really resonate with you and your staff and really can be meaningful and all of the actions that you perform in your centers day-in and day-out are tied to that, so much so that our even our employee reviews are tied to loving, learning and collaborating – our mission – then it could really be meaningful and really mean something.
And it could catapult you out of kind of the day-to-day muck, so to speak. Some of the time, of course, we all get dragged down into daily life. But it could really be that beacon and keep you focused on what you’re there to do. And we as childcare providers have such an important opportunity and an important mission. And it’s easy to get bogged down into daily life in childcare, obviously, because it can be very stressful. But I believe that if you can constantly remind your staff why we’re there and the value that they hold you can really do well for the parents, for each other and for the children.
Yeah, absolutely. And certainly I think as you’ve grown from one center to eight centers, there’s more and more people involved, right? So surely from the beginning you would have direct contact with your teachers every day. But now you have to live that mission through other folks, including your center directors and supervisors and teachers, right? So having that mission becomes that much more important.
And you’re absolutely right: having the having the Why about why we’re going into work every day and why what we do is so important is key. What are other learnings you’ve had over the last 10 years in setting up these eight childcare centers across Chicago?
Again, a lot of a lot of it is actually – I’m glad you asked that – because a lot of it is, I guess… I have no childcare background. I’ve learned everything kind of from the ground up. I come in from a business perspective. And so that was the lens I was viewing everything through. And I want to talk about that a little bit because that’s one of the things that I’ve noticed with a lot of childcare providers out there that they can really improve on and set themselves apart. So I just wanted to share my perspective of it and what can help elevate organizations out there.
And again, it’s just… that mission, that’s number one, is, why are you doing this? Do your employees know why you’re doing this? Is everything connected to that mission? The other thing is just being kind of organized. As childcare providers and educators, most of what I’ve seen is a lot of people do it from the heart. And of course it’s wonderful and everyone has a huge heart. But I feel like sometimes they just don’t value themselves enough. And Kathy Ligon – you may know her, she’s a broker for childcare centres – once said a really interesting thing to me. She said, “You’re taking care of the most valuable assets in people’s lives, and you tend to not treat yourself like that.”
So I feel like it’s important for us to hold our head up and treat ourselves like a business and feel like we’re entitled to charter tuition that we think is fair, because we are taking care of the most valuable asset. We do have the most valuable mission. And from a business perspective I just wanted to talk to all the owners and administrators and staff out there and say it’s okay to have a big heart and also to make sure that the economics of your centers are strong and the operations of your centers are strong.
And it doesn’t have to be that difficult. It just has to be a few steps of organization. Like, some of the things I noticed coming from my business background is just basic tracking. And a lot of these things I’ve also learned along the way – I didn’t know all these things. I’ve learned as I became an owner. Like, just from Kris Murray, for example, I learned the importance of keeping on Friday what’s called a Friday Report, that’s what we call it. It’s just tracking your enrollments, your withdrawals so that you have a constant pulse on your business, your leads, things like that.
Another thing I learned along the way was to just have almost like an operating system, I’m sure you’ve heard of, the Entrepreneurial Operating System, called the EOS, that’s based on the book called Traction [Get A Grip On Your Business], I believe it’s by Gino Wickman. So we’ve adopted that. And I hired a coach, Caroline Jen, who is keeping us on track with our operating system. What that does is, basically it’s just a weekly check-in to make sure you’re on focus, on task. It’s really simple, just writing down your goals for the quarter and checking in with yourself to make sure you’re achieving that.
And then the other big thing is culture. A lot of childcare cultures can be toxic at times. A lot of them can be wonderful, of course. But if your culture is not wonderful, I believe I can really differentiate your childcare. And that’s something that, as of late, as I’ve matured a little more as an owner, I’m starting to pay more attention to and the importance of that. And I believe that it almost outweighs everything.
And then finally one other thing that I feel that owners need to know as business people and owners, obviously, is that labour is obviously our biggest cost and controllable. And it can be up to 50% or more of our expenses. And that’s fine – a lot of us don’t want cut people or tell them to go home early. But it’s that last bit of enrollment that is really important because once your rent is paid, your labour is paid, your electricity is paid, etc., that’s actually where you can make a profit.
So I think a lot of people get stuck in the idea where they’re, like, “Yeah, I’m kind of, like, 80% full or 75% full and I’m just stressed out and I’m just not going anywhere.” And I just want encourage everybody to realize that that last 25% – that last 5%, even – can be the most important, and so not to ignore that. So those are some of the business things that I can speak on.
Yeah, very important messages. And I’m glad you brought those up. The enrollment piece is really interesting, and we do benchmark report every year on the childcare sector and we do look at enrollment levels, and you’re absolutely right. Once you’ve got your expenses paid the enrollment beyond that is where all the difference is. And that’s a good example of the attention to detail in organization that is so important.
And also just touching on the point about holding our heads high and looking at ourselves internally as early-childhood educators in how we behave and act. And the more that we are acting like professionals and the way we run our businesses, in the way that we run our classrooms, the more that everyone externally is going to see childcare and early-childhood education as being as important as what we all know it is. And so the key point being it starts with us.
So some awesome lessons there, Sholom. Thank you for sharing those, super-duper important. I hope people take them to heart because you can learn a lot from those four points. Changing direction a little bit: since starting these childcare centres you’ve also founded www.HoppingIn.com. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Yes. Basically what Hopping In does is, I just previously touched on the point about how important that last 5 or 10 percent of occupancy is. And what I noticed is that a lot of wellness… in this particular culture, millennials are looking for more flexibility than ever. We’re seeing – at least in Chicago – more requests than ever for part-time or even a drop-ins here. And so what I did in my centers was, I decided that, “Why not earn from those empty spots at our childcare centers and sell them to parents who need extra days?” Because there’s so much demand.
Yet also as business owners we do want that consistency, we do want that two- or three-day-a-week set schedule. So for the parents who are two- or three-day-a-week, why not let them look on a calendar and just simply book extra days that they need? And the other benefit is that parents who do pay a flat tuition, they can mark themselves into apps and sell their spots, and the childcare centre can offer them a partial commission. And then the childcare centre can keep the remainder so they can essentially get paid for that same spot while making the parents very happy because they have a chance at getting some of their tuition money back if the spot sells.
So it’s been pretty remarkable. We basically… it markets openings for you. So as soon as, let’s say, there’s people on the wait list, let’s say there’s no spots available, they can tap the waitlist and we’ll start marketing to folks who may have spots that they are going to be absent. And say if you’re going to be absent and other people want your spot, it’s a really powerful way to fill every nook and cranny. And of course if you have just vacancy in general, why not display your availability online and let customers [and] part-timers book those spaces?
Yeah, it’s cool how it’s a win-win-win for the center [and] the parents that can get the additional value if their child can’t attend, and then for parents looking for a spot. So everybody wins, so it’s a great idea. And I know in my experience, too, the challenge usually is anybody working in childcare and early-childhood education knows that this is a problem. But the issue is having a system and a process that doesn’t create a huge administrative burden of taking in children when there’s open spots. And so this sounds like a solution that helps fix that problem.
Yes, absolutely. It’s a self-service calendar that displays the available spots to the parents so they can just book and pay instantly, and the money goes straight to your account. And now we do encourage providers to even charge a little bit more because of the convenience. And it has e-mail alerts that will let your teachers know who’s going to be absent as well as who’s adding days. You can even sell half-days, full days. So it’s a way of catering to modern parents who obviously are very comfortable with this type of technology.
And if you do earn more for your center it’s also a great way to reward staff. Like, for example, we give 10% of our Hopping In profits back to the classrooms each month so teachers can go ahead and buy extra materials that they want.
I love it, I love it. And it again goes back to your philosophy of using your business background to benefit the community. So giving back some of that to the classroom is really a cool concept.
Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s been really cool having you on the show. I think some awesome lessons, again, coming from that business background into childcare, certainly a lot that we can learn from you. If I’m listening to the Podcast and I want to get in touch with you to learn more about your childcare programs or their software, Hopping In, [what] is the best way for me to do that?
To view a list of our centers you can go to our website. Our management company is called Day Care Team, so that’s www.DaycareTeam.com. And of course www.HoppingIn.com is our way of letting clients book extra days without any hassle, so you can earn empty spots in your center. Yeah, so that’s it: DaycareTeam.com and HoppingIn.com.
I do actually get requests for advice a lot because we have a lot of blog article – as I’m sure you guys do – from other owners. And I’m the type of person that just wants to give back and I’m always happy to help and answer questions. So I definitely encourage people to reach out to us.
Awesome. Sholom, thank you so much for devoting your last ten years to childcare and early-childhood education and for giving back to the community by running awesome childcare programs, and also finding innovative solutions to problems that we’re dealing with in the sector. Thanks so much.
I appreciate it, Ron, thank you.