Well, from owning one.
For ten years I was in the childcare industry, first as an employee and then as a center owner. And let me tell you, I learned lessons in that decade that not even a Harvard MBA could have taught.
It started as a side job. I was a broke college student who needed an afternoon job. Jeanne was the owner of a local after school center. She stopped me one day after church and asked if I had ever thought of working with kids. I said absolutely not. She, being a seasoned small business owner, knew how to ignore the word no, and convinced me to come down one afternoon and spend some time with the children, just to see if the work interested me.
It did. It just suited me. Of course, the fact that I could wear shorts and flip-flops to work every day had a certain appeal to 20-year-old-college-student Kevin. I went to visit the center one afternoon, played soccer with the kids, served their juice and cookie snacks, and stayed for the next ten years of my life.
Over the first five years I finished college and got married. And as happens, I found myself needing not just a job, but a career. So, I went to Jeanne and told her I had to move on; this had been a wonderful experience and had served great purpose in this stage of my life, but I could not make a living for my family as an afterschool daycare worker. She listened patiently and then asked me if I thought I could make a living as an afterschool daycare owner.
She had started the business twenty years before and turned it into a profitable enterprise, no mean feat in daycare world. She was ready to retire, but didn’t want to see the center close. Families had come to depend on Jeanne’s; children for whom she had cared were now grown and bringing their little ones to their parents’ favorite afterschool hangout. She also didn’t want to hand the place off to just anyone. She needed someone who knew not only the mechanics of running this type of business, but also understood and felt the spirit of the place she had worked so powerfully to create. Was I interested?
Actually, yes, and for some time. Over the previous year or so, as I was watching the kids or cutting the grass, or even cleaning the toilets, I found myself imagining what it would be like to own a childcare center. What would it look like? What would I name it? How would I make my mark on the industry?
Lesson 1: You’re are an owner or you are not
Which brings me to the first lesson I learned about business from owning a daycare, and it is this: You are either a business owner or you are not. How many of you, on the job, daydream about owning the business for which you work? Do you see yourself running the show, making the tough decisions, taking the risks and boldly steering your ship of commerce on to the seas of profitability?
That is a little dramatic, but only a little. People who are business owners, or will be business owners, do have those thoughts. I have those thoughts, and if you have never had them or what I am saying sounds ridiculous or foreign, I am here to tell you that you are not an owner. This is one of those things you feel in your gut, and if you don’t, you don’t.
To survive as a business owner, you must not only be good at your chosen profession, you must really dig doing business, and they are not the same thing. There are multitudes of skilled engineers and craftspeople and restaurant servers and mechanics who love their work, are good at it, and earn satisfying livings but never think of starting their own firm or restaurant or shop. They come to work, do their work well, and go home.
Owners are not that way. I didn’t just want to work at a daycare; I wanted my name on the sign.
Lesson 2: Know your stuff
Another core tenet of business success I learned at that little center is you better know your stuff. As you can imagine (and for good reason) childcare centers are highly regulated by the government. Every year, I had three health inspections, two state licensing inspections, and two fire inspections. So, at least every other month I had someone with the authority to close my center checking me out. On top of that, at least once yearly the state of Florida would change some of the statutes governing childcare facilities, and I had to know them.
That was just on the government side. I also had parents to consider. I was responsible for the care and safety of the most important people in my customers’ lives, and they were not messing around. If I wanted to succeed, I had to be competent, responsible, and trustworthy. I had to know my stuff. And if you want to excel in your field as an owner, you had better as well.
Lesson 3: Be transparent with customers
A third (but certainly not the last) business lesson I took from my time in daycare is to be transparent with your customers. Nothing kills their confidence in your abilities than for them to feel like you are hiding something. When a new family came to my center they got a full tour, my personal phone numbers, and as much information as I could give them. I wanted them to know exactly what to expect from my service. If they wanted to sit in at the center for an afternoon, they were more than welcome. Anything I could do to make them feel comfortable. And besides, kids are notorious blabbers. If there was something hinky going on at my center, parents would know about it post haste.
My early experiences as a business owner were valuable for many, many reasons. I had successes, failures, surprises and embarrassments. But most of all I learned. I learned that owning a business was for me, and if it is for you, I hope these lessons help.
Do you think you have what it takes? Have any questions about starting a business? Just ask!