The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0081

Kids Incorporated

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Endless Zoom meetings, being cut off from friends, the widespread cancellation of summer fun, ricocheting between boredom and anxiety—kids have it pretty rough! And it’s no picnic for their parents, either. In this episode, businesses built on offering in-person enrichment for children talk about how they’re adapting to reach families and staying resilient.


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:03] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all-in-one toolkit for working remotely. Remote work is especially challenging when stuff’s spread out across emails, file services, task managers, spreadsheets, chats and meetings. Things get lost, you don’t know where to look for stuff, and people put the right information in the wrong place. But when it’s all together in Basecamp, you’ll see where everything is, understand what everyone’s working on and know exactly where to put the next thing everyone needs to know about. Check it out for yourself at Basecamp.com.

Nancy: [00:00:34] We try not to talk over a crying baby. It’s okay. If they’re crying, they’re crying, right? We’re not trying to stop anybody and we take our time.

Wailin: [00:00:46] Nancy Mork is the Chicago-based director of the Fussy Baby Network. It’s a grant-funded program run out of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early childhood development. The Fussy Baby Network operates a free phone service that they call a warmline, not a hotline to help families whose infants seem to be crying a lot or having trouble sleeping.

Nancy: [00:01:08] We’re there during this really tough time when they have this baby who is different than their friend’s baby. It’s crying a lot. It’s unsettled. Baby doesn’t sleep like their friend’s babies sleep, or like the books say they should sleep and parents end up feeling so defeated and like failures by the time they call us. We spend upwards of two, sometimes three hours with a family. Our hope is to really tap into the parents’ own intuition and their own sense of who their baby is.

Wailin: [00:01:47] And until recently, Nancy and her team of infant specialists were doing home visits. Those visits were priced on a sliding scale, from $0 up to $40. When shelter-in-place started in Illinois and elsewhere, the Fussy Baby Network switched its in-person consultations to virtual house calls and waived all fees.

Nancy: [00:02:06] This has been such a hard time for families who were expecting maybe a parent to come in and help them with this new baby, and that didn’t happen. The childcare plans, all of that, is out the window. So we have Zoom visits that are available, and it’s really meant to be for any parent who’s just, this has just been tough and they’re needing somebody to listen and be there and hear how hard this has been. We’re trying to be as creative as we can and reach out in ways that we never in a million years imagined we would be doing.

[00:02:44] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:02:46] Hello, and welcome to Rework, a podcast about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:02:53] And I’m Shaun Hildner. We’ve been doing stories about how small businesses are adapting to the pandemic and today’s episode is about companies that cater to families and children.

Wailin: [00:03:01] Life has changed for pretty much everyone and some of these changes have been especially difficult on households with kids. I’m an adult who feels more like a fussy baby these days. Wanting to eat all the time. Sleeping poorly and bursting into tears at the slightest provocation.

Shaun: [00:03:17] When this all started, it was hard to imagine that schools would be closed for the rest of the academic year. That visits with grandparents and regular caregivers would be off-limits. That even playgrounds and public parks would be roped off. And it’s not just parents that feel this pressure. Brick and mortar businesses that serve those families are trying to figure out how to survive and how to help customers who need more help than ever these days.

[00:03:40] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shannon: [00:03:45] My name is Shannon Merenstein. I’m the founder and creative director of Hatch Art Studio, and I’m also the author of a book called Collage Workshop for Kids.

Wailin: [00:03:57] Hatch Art Studio has a storefront in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania that offers classes and open studio time for children. Shannon opened the brick-and-mortar location in 2016, the day after her oldest child turned 1.

Shannon: [00:04:11] We kind of quickly honed in on younger children, 18 months to five years or so, because we found that those were the families who were still home during the day, during the week, and really interested in finding ways to meet up with each other and provide really exciting, messy fun art programming to their children without having to do it at home.

[00:04:36] You know, we always remind families who inevitably try to help with cleanup that it’s on us, and their child can explore with their whole body if they want to and not to worry about that at all.

[00:04:50] I’ve been really proud of our growth year over year, and right before this happened, we were in the process of looking to purchase a building for our space and make a permanent home and sort of shift our focus slightly toward a more formal experience where we were hoping to continue to offer our classes, but also open a creative preschool program as well.

Wailin: [00:05:16] Shannon had exciting plans for her company. Not wild, out-sized dreams fueled by venture capital investment, but achievable ones that fit the kind of business she wanted to build.

[00:05:27] This was also the case with Omowalle Casselle. In 2015, he co-founded Digital Adventures, a company that teaches kids as young as kindergarten how to code and build things with technology. He’d had a taste of the stereotypical start-up life in a previous job and wanted to run his business differently.

Omowalle: [00:05:44] When we thought about investment and we thought about how do you really want to build a company that’s going to be enduring. The investment, I think, is interesting but it kind of forces you to be on a certain path and we didn’t really think that we had to, almost get on that go-go-go, growth-growth-growth. There’s a lot of rush to perform and rush to get things right and we wanted to basically run this company forever, we kind of traded off that growth-growth-growth for, let’s be methodical, let’s be systematic, let’s be thoughtful.

[00:06:18] We had decided to bootstrap. I think it forces us, it constrains us, it’s go to be profitable, it’s got to be focused on getting customers in the door, it’s got to be sustainable.

Wailin: [00:06:26] Is your company profitable?

Omowalle: [00:06:29] We were. We were.

Wailin: [00:06:33] Digital Adventures has three studios in the Chicago area and in normal times, had a few hundred kids taking classes very week.

Omowalle: [00:06:40] The in-person is kind of the foundation of everything that we’ve always done. We wanted to make sure that when kids came in that there is an instructor that was guiding them through the project. We wanted to make sure that they saw other peers who were interested and excited about this and when a kid gets stuck, you really want an instructor to kind of come and look over your shoulder and say, hey, maybe you should look at this. So the in person thing was something that we always prioritized and then we have a showcase event that’s at the end of the season where students can kind of come together, show off their projects. It’s the biggest event of every quarterly period, and so we were in the final stages of planning for that which was going to occur on March 15th. We made the decision to suspend the showcase for sure on March 15th, and we actually suspended our classes that same week, even before the order came out to shut down schools and to shutter non-essential businesses.

Wailin: [00:07:36] The shut-down in Illinois also coincided with spring break for many schools in the area which meant Omowalle couldn’t run the in-person programs he had planned for that period.

Omowalle: [00:07:46] We refunded everyone that registered for the spring break camp. We sent them a note and said, we’re sorry, we’re not going to be able to run the camp this week, we’re suspending operations at our studios. We had started to have the inkling of an idea around let’s switch over to an online program, so we just kind of put a little teaser in there to say, hey, we’re looking at online options and we’ll follow up.

Wailin: [00:08:08] In Pittsburgh, Shannon Merenstein had to close her business to the public, meaning no more kids’ art classes or drop-in studio time. As the only person left manning the physical space, she started packaging materials she already had on hand at the store.

Shannon: [00:08:23] We really ramped up production on some of our kits that we had been prototyping this year anyway. So it comes with plasticine and wax string which are great for modeling. It comes with materials for collage, loose parts for just building and playing. Small sketchbook. Open-ended kit that families could use over and over again, versus a sort of like, one-off craft kit where you make a thing and it’s done. We sold out of those really quickly and it’s actually been really fun just brainstorming new kits to send home with our local families and we’ve started shipping, also.

[00:09:05] I’ve sort of been using it like a challenge for myself to create fun kits for families and using the things that we already have in the studio, and ordering as minimally as I can. I mean, everything just is happening as fast as I can make it happen. Turning over the website to be less focused around the in person classes that we have and more focused on our retail offerings and the kits that we’re making and links to a couple of video classes that I’ve done.

[00:09:37] On Saturdays I’ve been doing a local pick-up on our yellow bench, which is outside of the studio and seeing how excited their kids are to come pick up their supplies. That gives me a lot of hope.

Wailin: [00:09:49] Coming up with an alternative means of revenue as quickly as possible was also a priority for Omowalle at Digital Adventures who had just refunded all of his deposits for spring break camps and knew more outflows were coming.

Omowalle: [00:10:01] How do you save a business that has depended on physical retail spaces since 2015? And we’re a small team, and so we’ve made commitments to our team members in terms of compensation, we’ve still got rent due at three locations. We’ve still got utilities, so, for us, it’s pretty important that we honor our commitments because we know that we’re going to come out of this on the other side and we don’t want landlords upset at us, we don’t want team members upset at us. What we wanted to try to figure out is, is there something that we can do, leveraging our strengths and what people have told us that they’ve appreciated about us over the years? What we pretty quickly came to is why can’t we figure out a way to livestream out curriculum with our real instructors? Can we get a group of students into a virtual room and have them still interact and still engaging. We’re going to have to make sure that it’s life-like. We didn’t want to do video, we wanted to make sure that that human element and that interaction was still there.

[00:10:57] So we figure out a way to remain true to the things that we think have been special about our in-studio experience and translate that into an online version.

Wailin: [00:11:05] Omowalle and his team came up with the basic version of an online learning system and had his kids try it out before opening it up to customers.

Omowalle: [00:11:14] Our instructors, they had to get used to an all-new platform, so we’re using a livestreaming or the video conferencing through Zoom, and so you almost become this maestro or mission controller where you’re managing participants, you’re managing the people raising their hands. You’re controlling volume, you’re trying to share a screen, you’re having students share screens and so, we were able to get something out there, and my partner always says, nothing ever survives the first interaction with a customer. And so we’re iterating constantly, right?

Wailin: [00:11:47] Today, Digital Adventures is running live classes every weekday and there’s so much demand that they’re looking to add weekend classes and hire more instructors. Subscriptions range from $25 to $105 a week. They switched from monthly to weekly pricing to offer flexibility to families whose finances might be in flux.

[00:12:07] Omowalle is feeling grateful that Digital Adventures’ small size and bootstrap structure has given the company flexibility, too.

Omowalle: [00:12:14] If we were at five or ten locations at this point, I think that the change would have been a lot harder. The hurdle to overcome in terms of rent, compensation, and utilities, it might have been too great. But because we have a small enough hurdle to overcome each month, I think we are able to continue building and continue meeting the needs of customers. I think that we’ll be able to maintain the commitments that we were able to have in the brick and mortar operation, so that’s very satisfying to us.

Wailin: [00:12:44] Hatch Art Studio is in a different situation than Digital Adventures. Their in-person classes get messy and they require materials. They’re also geared toward younger kids who need more supervision. This is all challenging to translate to a virtual environment.

Shannon: [00:12:59] My main focus since we began is writing this weekly guide with my friend Bar Rucci, and she runs a pretty popular children’s art blog called Art Bar Blog. So we’ve been writing a weekly guide for families who are learning at home. We provide families with a five-day schedule, really, that begins with a special morning ritual together, easy to pull off art activity, a play activity that’s connected to the art-making. And then an afternoon ritual to kind of round out the day. This week, kids are going to be doing a flower pounding activity where you dye fabric using just flowers you find around the neighborhood.

[00:13:47] Really trying to focus on things you can get in your backyard if you have one or around the block and things that you already have in your home. So yeah, very basic, simple materials. But it’s fun to open people’s eyes to how much you can accomplish with just really simple materials and processes.

[00:14:07] The first three weeks we offered the guide for free. Weeks four through six, so far, we’ve asked people to contribute $5 for the guide.

Wailin: [00:14:18] The guides and the packaged art kits are helping Shannon and her business muddle through for now, too. Although $5 for a weekly guide is nowhere near the revenue she was bringing in before. Plus, she’s competing against a huge array of free art resources already available online. The summer presents another big test for survival.

Shannon: [00:14:37] I think a lot of our families, both locally and the families that I’m connected to on social media, want to see us and want to see what Hatch is producing. I think they find value in the ideas that we’re offering and I just try to strike a balance between offering lots of suggestions and ideas for free and then also trying to stay afloat during this time.

[00:15:05] And we are taking in 80-95% less than we typically would. I had been sort of hoping and wishing that summer would be as normal as possible but I kind of feel like it might not be so, and I had been really worried early on that if we couldn’t offer a physical camp that we might not even exist anymore after the summer. Offering that many refunds would definitely make us have to shut our doors permanently. So, something that I did last week, I emailed all of our families who are already currently registered for camps, and a lot of those camps were already full. I emailed families and just asked if anyone would be open to hearing some ideas that I had about camp, and kind of giving me some feedback about it. I just feel that it’s so important to stay connected to the people who make your business possible.

[00:16:05] I think I did 50 phone calls last week with my kids and their kids. One thing that we’re considering doing is packing up all of our local families’ art supplies, creating a guide for the week, and then meeting with the children in the morning and potentially in the afternoon, also, to sort of introduce the project for the day and check in and try to build community, and just have that social component. And try to offer them the projects in a way that children will be able to do them independently. As independently as possible.

Wailin: [00:16:41] Being creative, resourceful, and invested in a process, not just an end result, are values that we try to teach children. They’re good reminders for adults, too.

Shannon: [00:16:51] Even if they’re not communicating to us directly that they’re feeling moved by this experience, I think that young children will tell us in many different ways about how they’re feeling. Especially process art, which is just art that focuses on the experience and less on sort of final product. I think that process art for young children can be so powerful as an expressive outlet. It just feels good. It feels good to get messy and paint. It feels good to squish Play-Doh, and it feels good to splash around in water. I think that for families who are grappling with staying at home with their children for so long, the sensitivity to how kids might be feeling about it, might wear off a little bit, because it can be really hard to be trapped at home.

[00:17:48] Art can be a way to connect with your child, it can be a way to open up new conversations that might be hard to have, and I think that it’s just a really good way for children to bond with their parents and caregivers.

Nancy: [00:18:02] I think babies are incredible. We often don’t give them enough credit for how amazing they are. They pick up so much from us on some level. It’s not to add pressure to any parents, right? We can’t help how we’re feeling. But I would imagine the babies are picking up something. They can pick up how we’re doing, essentially, and how we’re feeling. I think on some level they have an idea that maybe this isn’t the world they were expecting to come into, you know.

[00:18:40] I know that there’s some worried and stressed parents out there, and I want them to know, essentially, we’re here, and that this is hard. It really is.

Omowalle: [00:18:53] Something for me that’s been super, super essential is that my youngest, so I have a seven-year-old, because I’ve been working from home a lot more, or with them being there, normally they’re at school. So, he actually made a Dad Visit schedule, where he basically, he comes in like every 30-40 minutes on a schedule and gives me a hug and a kiss and then he goes right back out. So I think that maintaining that emotional contact with the family, I think, is super super important. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself. It’s easy to kind of say, oh, you know, I can’t believe this is happening, even though it’s totally outside of everyone’s control. But, I can kind of figure out how to come out on the other side of things much stronger, just based on, like, how you lead through a difficult time.

Shannon: [00:19:37] Recently, I shared a project idea from the guide on Instagram and a mom sent a picture. She said, my kids were not into this project at all, but I was, and I ended up painting all of this bark that I found outside with watercolors. And it was so inspiring to me, and so I started actually just doing a little paint doodles in my own sketchbook again, which I haven’t done for probably a decade. But that has been a really nice way to unwind, even for like ten minutes. I just tell myself, I’m only going to paint for as much paint as I have on this little palette, and then once it’s gone, then the painting is over for the day. And that has been really nice and my kids have sort of watched me do that, also and asked to join in, which is great, too.

[00:20:30] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:20:35] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:20:40] You can find the Fussy Baby Network on Facebook at Facebook.com/FussyBabyNetwork. Their warmline is at 888-431-BABY. Digital Adventures is at DigitalAdventures.com, where you can check out their schedule of online classes for kindergarten through eighth grade. Hatch Art Studio is at HatchPGH.com, and you can find links to their weekly guide and other art ideas for kids on their Instagram, which is at @HatchArtStudio.

[00:21:11] Shannon’s book is called Collage Workshop for Kids and it’s a collaboration with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. You know, Eric Carle, The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar?

Shaun: [00:21:19] I do. Of course.

Wailin: [00:21:21] yeah.

Shaun: [00:21:21] Love that book.

Wailin: [00:21:22] Classic. You can find Collage Workshop for Kids on Bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores, or all up your local indie and ask them if they have the book in stock. We’ll put these links in the show notes for this episode, which you can find at rework.fm.

Shaun: [00:21:37] If you want to call our warmline with a message or question, we’re at (708) 628-7850. And, you can always find us on Twitter at @reworkpodcast.

[00:21:48] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is the all-in-one toolkit for working remotely. You may be wondering how you’ll quickly transition your team to remote work. People are stressed. Work feels scattered. Projects are slipping, and it’s tough to see and manage everything. With Basecamp, everything will be organized in one place, your team will be working together even though they’re physically apart. You’ll be on top of things and a sense of calm will set in.

[00:22:13] Check it out for yourself at Basecamp.com.

[00:22:17] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:22:34] There’s literally yellow caution tape around the playgrounds in Oak Park.

Shaun: [00:22:38] Oh no.

Wailin: [00:22:39] It’s really depressing.

Shaun: [00:22:41] That’s so sad.

Wailin: [00:22:42] It’s so sad. Well, it’s like, they just had to do it because when they just issued a guideline being like, don’t do to the park, guess what?

Shaun: [00:22:49] Of course people went.

Wailin: [00:22:51] It was chock-full of people and kids who were touching all the equipment, you know what I mean?

Shaun: [00:22:55] People are idiots, Wailin.