Learning without Limits
KidWorks At Tioga Town Center founders artist rendering by a gifted student. The resemblance to Cathy is uncanny. Note: LOOK CLOSELY: THIS IS A DRAWING, NOT A PHOTOGRAPH!
We’re a local Gainesville family, and KidWorks At Tioga Town Center is our family business. Back In 1996, our eldest son was three and his younger brother was one. We wanted a “dream” preschool for them, so Cathy could go back to teaching. She spent weeks touring area preschools. No “dream” centers. Plenty of nightmare ones. According to Cathy, they were filthy, the employees and the kids seemed miserable. And they all smelled like pee.
This was the seed of the idea that we should open our own preschool:
Both Cathy and I come from second generation restaurant families, so the idea of opening a business wasn’t entirely foreign to us. A preschool seemed like a good mix of her education in Early Childhood Development, my background in business , and our shared dream to someday, with lots of hard work, dedication, and a little bit of good old-fashioned luck, go completely bankrupt and then get fast-tracked into management at a Waffle House. (Good Food Fast!!).
We opened our first center in 1997, in what was a vacant medical supply showroom and warehouse in Northwest Gainesville. Three months after signing the lease and spending most of our savings remodeling, KidWorks At Tioga Town Center opened its doors. I think we had six children enrolled. And two of them were our own. But we toughed it out.
In the early days the school’s “budget” (I put that in quotes because there really wasn’t one) was the subject of many somewhat tense dinner table conversations. A lot of our key expenses, for payroll, food costs, and curriculum regularly blew through the accepted “industry averages” by quite a bit. I felt we needed to cut expenses and boost enrollment to keep up. I suggested we really rein in payroll and food costs and do some serious advertising. Cathy wasn’t buying it. She suggested that maybe all of the centers that we refused to accept for our own kids, and that led us to create KidWorks At Tioga Town Center in the first place, probably were responsible for those “industry averages”.
“Take whatever you planned on spending for radio and TV ads and let me spend it on keeping the teachers and the kids happy. The enrollment will take care of itself.”
Of course she was immediately proven correct and everything worked out totally fine!
Okay, that didn’t happen.
What actually happened in those early years was that we had to sell our home and downsize by half, liquidate the kid’s Florida Pre Paid College Plans, liquidate all of our investment accounts, and max out our credit cards. I’m pretty sure there was a condo in St. Augustine that evaporated too. I kept my job (and benefits) with an insurance company and managed the school’s books in the evenings. We drew no pay for the first three years, choosing instead to continuously re-invest in the school. Most weekends were spent as a family at the center, cleaning, decorating, making repairs and remodeling. The early years were just a black hole in terms of how much money and time the school absorbed, and the terrifying rate at which it absorbed it.
It was definitely tempting to consider taking state and local subsidies since it would have immediately alleviated a lot of the financial pressure, but it wouldn’t have been consistent with the program we’d envisioned. Slowly and steadily the program evolved and word-of-mouth alone was enough to keep the Millhopper school hopping, exactly as Cathy predicted . Then in 2004 we heard Town Of Tioga was looking for a preschool to anchor their new Town Center retail project. We met with Luis Diaz and Grace Horvath at Dibros, and we knew right away KidWorks At Tioga Town Center was meant to be. They were as committed to building a first class preschool as we were to running one. Here, in a nutshell was our entire proposal:
That’s it. A fancy building? Great. Convenient location? Terrific. An experienced staff with a proven curriculum? Of course. Web cams? Very cool! But none of it means a thing if the owners, directors and teachers don’t connect with the children personally. It’s something that can’t be faked. You either commit to it as the core of your program, or you try to market your way around it.
That discussion and a handshake got the Tioga school designed and built. While the size of the enrollment has grown quite a bit in twenty years, the founding principles are exactly the same.
And, of course, we replaced the kid’s Florida Pre Paid plans. We prefer to think of our own children as unwitting early KidWorks At Tioga Town Center investors, rather than helpless little people whose college savings we plundered to start a business. Because we’re not monsters.
Do you dream of financial independence? Would you like to be your own boss? Well, Subway Sandwich shops are the fastest growing independent franchise opportunity in America! Who doesn’t love a delicious sandwich? Or how about a UPS Store? Those seem very peaceful. I’ve never seen a cardboard box throw up on anyone. Oh! Build-A-Bear! Adorable! Or a Waffle House (America’s Best Place To Work!). Anything but a preschool. Literally anything. You’re going to have to trust us on this.