I was 16 years old when my entrepreneurial journey began in 1980. That year, my parents opened an independent early education childcare center called The Learning Experience in Boca Raton, Fla.
I started working there as a janitor, mopping floors, washing chalkboards, and making sure the doors were locked at night. I didn’t recognize it then, but it was a learning experience for me as much as it was for the children enrolled there. My parents were teaching me valuable lessons about accountability and how success is earned through hard work.
After high school and college, I went to Wall Street for a career in investment banking. While I enjoyed success for a few years, something felt missing, and I decided to join my parents’ business in 1986. By then, The Learning Experience was recognized as the largest single-center operating preschool in the southeastern region of the U.S. We had a proven for-profit business model. If we wanted to grow, now was the time.
To start expanding, we acquired a daycare firm, called Tutor Time, to serve as the brand. When we began franchising in 1990, it was one of the first branded childcare franchise companies in America. And, it grew fast.
When I left as CEO of Tutor Time, there were over 200 locations in four countries. I retired for about a year and half. Bored out of my mind, I decided to go back to Wall Street, and soon decided to open my own hedge fund. The new firm was to commence operations the week of 9/11/01, but as we now know, that was not the best time to commence anything.
While seeing the smoke rise the hotel room I was occupying on Sept. 11, I thought more about what I wanted to do in life. A few months later, I decided to return to a familiar industry and re-enter the preschool business.
Back to the beginning
In 2002, I relaunched The Learning Experience with my father and I as co-founders and chairmen.
In the beginning, much of our focus was on building a best-in-class proprietary curriculum that matched the requirements for successful learning achievement for years to come. We started with a flagship location in New Jersey, but after a year, I started thinking bigger and bigger.
With the family onboard, I developed a brand blueprint inspired by some of the most successful brands in industries outside of childcare. We applied McDonald’s simple yet brilliant real estate model of scaling the system. Our attention to detail and customer focus was influenced by Marriott Hotels, and led to a consistent look and feel across all our free-standing centers. We drew from Disney’s sense of brand loyalty to create characters like “Bubbles the Elephant” and colorful playrooms at each center called “Make Believe Boulevard.” We also focused on both owning company units and franchise-owned centers, knowing it would give us an opportunity to franchise, refranchise and repurchase our own units to grow the brand from within.
When the business model was firmly in place in 2004, we had 14 centers and $17 million in revenues and were ready for national expansion. Everything was pointing up – then the recession hit in late 2008.
Having been in this industry a long time – going back to mopping floors in the ’80s – it was not the first economic downturn I’ve seen. When something like that happens, experience and maturity go a long way.
Capable leaders can drive results in the best of times, but I believe that if you’re a true entrepreneur, you find ways to thrive in bad economies. When economies are tough, competition shrinks, lending itself to opportunity for brands that are built for the worst of times.
Thriving in the face of adversity
Instead of downsizing and waiting things out, we pushed the pedal and accelerated growth. We upped my visits to franchise centers and I spoke openly with employees, letting them know we’re going to face some tough times, and while we may lose some customers due to the economy, we will gain others.
We controlled costs and reinvested in technology, like video conferencing for all centers to put a face (and smile) to communications with “corporate.” Our point of sales system was consolidated and repackaged as an app for reporting and feedback with franchisees. We also put in new CRM tools, business intelligent reporting, and centralized all data to a new support center.
Some of the biggest strides we made was in our curriculum. We added interactive smartboards to classrooms, diversified lesson plans with science and foreign languages, and created a first-of-its-kind program on philanthropy in partnership with Make-A-Wish.
When the economy stabilized around 2013, The Learning Experience had over 120 centers. Today, we have over 300 centers open or under development in 22 states, plus an enrollment of more than 23,000 kids from 6 weeks to 6 years of age.
We’re going on 10 straight years of double-digit revenue growth and expect to hit a record of over $250 million in nationwide revenue this year. And we did it all without having to put extra costs on customers or sacrifice our brand.
About the author: Richard Weissman is co-founder, chairman and CEO of The Learning Experience, a national Academy of Early Education franchise serving children ages 6 weeks to 6 years with a unique blend of early childhood learning, enrichment programs and childcare services.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Nicole Fallon.