I spent 2 years doing research, writing my business plan, gathering materials and scouting locations before I opened my commercial center. I thought I was prepared. Experience proved I wasn’t even close. I’ve worked in child care my whole life. I have worked in many different settings – home based, private nanny, foster care, preschool volunteer, and in small and large child care centers. Most of my time, probably about 15 years total, I owned a home based child care program.
For the past five years I have been the owner AND director of a large child care center that I started from the ground up. The two things are drastically different, and I have learned so much along the way. I’d love to share with you a few things I wish I would have known before transiting from home based to a center based business.
1. I wish I would have known not to count myself in the ratio.
As home providers we are all used to wearing many hats and doing it all on our own. I was the caregiver, lesson planner, preschool teacher, infant care taker, lunch prepper, menu planner, paperwork doer, phone answer, tour giver, file organizer, etc!! I thought I could continue doing all of that in a center setting, and it is just not realistic. I knew I would have more “paperwork” duties, but I thought it might be 50% of my time with kids, 50% on paperwork. Boy was I wrong, and my financial projections for staffing costs were off because I thought I would continue to be able to do it all. You WILL be spending 90% of your time doing administrative duties….
My advice is that you will either have to hire yourself a director/administrator OR a teacher/caregiver, depending on where your heart lies. I loved the new challenge of managing and running my center, so I opted to hire more teachers and caregivers, but not planning this properly did hurt my finances a bit because my budget was based on inaccurate assumptions.
2. I wish I would have known how important it was to have an accountant or financial adviser right from the start.
If you cannot afford this, then you cannot afford to open a center. I mistakenly thought that I would be able to manage all of the complex things that go into running the finances of a center because I could handle balancing my own check book and budgeting for my small home based program.
Believe me when I tell you, things become much more complicated and complex when you are an employer. There are labor laws, payroll taxes, workers comp, insurance and other legal expenses to consider. Also, income can come in on irregular schedules. Yes, most parents will stick to your payment policy, but when you have children on subsidies, you have to work with the payment schedules of those government agencies. Other programs that centers work with that provide funding to improve early education will also have their own payment disbursement policies and schedules, so sometimes juggling all of these incoming payments with all of your outgoing expenses can be a challenge.
You also MUST get expert advice and help to make sure all of your tax forms are filed on time. You will have to deal with and report to the IRS, your state, the UIA, and your city or county for local taxes. They all have different forms and different schedules, and it can be quite complicated and overwhelming to a newbie. It was for me. Take my advice and work with a professional right from the start.
The right financial adviser should also be able to provide you with monthly expense reports, and analyze them with you. They can help you plan for lean times or slow seasons, and might be able to point out things where you can tighten up your expenses. And when you feel ready for more growth, they can advise you on steps you need to take to expand!
3. I wish I had known how to manage and motivate staff.
I tend to be a “glass is half full” kind of girl, I always see the best in people and have a really hard time seeing bad stuff until someone points it out. When I first opened my commercial child care center, after having done home daycare for 15 years, I thought I was going to hire all of these wonderful people and we would all be best friends and so happy working together. I totally pictured a “lollipops and slumber parties” type of situation. Then reality hit. I learned that everyone has different ideas, different opinions, different expectations….and then conflicts happen……even SILLY ones like how to arrange nap cots at naptime, or whose turn it was to clean the snack dishes took up tons of my time. While it wasn’t horrible, it certainly wasn’t as easy as I pictured it…..and after a little while I really felt like I was drowning in staff drama and they were taking up more of my time than the kids and the paperwork were. I am telling you, staffing problems can suck your time, and drain the life out of you if you don’t have a good sense of direction and a plan for working through conflicts.
Luckily, I found some AMAZING help and some valuable training and I’ve also LEARNED a lot through experience since then! I’m not saying I was perfect, but I definitely improved. Some things I didn’t even know I needed to know until I was in a certain situation. But seriously, my advice to you, before you move from home care to a center, get some training on working with and motivating your staff because this is going to be a huge part of your job now, and there is a skill to it. Some people have a gift and it comes easy to them, others really need some resources to help them do it well. I needed some resources and a lot of practice!!
You want to have a happy, motivated, and fun culture in your center, and that will BEGIN with YOU!!
4. I wish I had known how to manage my time better
As an owner in a director role sometimes you have to wear 100 hats per day, and it can seem like everything is a crisis because it seems URGENT to you in the moment. Learning not to react to what is coming at you, but planning for things in advance is HUGE. Things like delegating, having communication journals, time blocking, and regular one on one meetings with your team may seem like really simple ideas, but they are HUGE game changers when it comes to accomplishing your vision as opposed to just surviving another day. Having some good time management skills earlier on could have helped me not feel so overwhelmed in the beginning. We also offer a great time management course if you think you could use some help in this area.
5. I wish I had known how hard it would be, BUT HOW MUCH I WOULD LOVE IT!
The sense of pride I felt seeing my dream come to life was amazing. The accomplishment I felt after finally feeling confident in the way I was managing staff and enrolling families was very fulfilling. I was stretched in ways that weren’t comfortable but I felt so much personal and professional growth from the experience of growing my business. I learned so much and I learned I was capable of more than I thought. Starting and growing my own child care center was the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done. Even with all the mistakes I made along the way, I know I’ve made a difference. I’ve recently sold my center, but I am responsible for building the largest childcare center in my small town, and I started with nothing. I didn’t begin counting kids until 2007, but since then I have cared for over 800 children and touched almost as many families. I have had about 125 employees come and go. And now I am able to share my experiences with a super huge audience as part of the Child Care Marketing Solutions team. Those are some pretty cool things to be proud of.