From the April 1996 issue of Startups



All kidding aside, the numbers look great for children's business owners: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American births have averaged about four million each year since the beginning of the 1990s, and American Demographics estimates the number will continue at this rate through the rest of the decade.

Because the children's business market is a uniquely regenerative one-as kids grow up, younger children take their places-new opportunities within the children's business industry are constantly springing up. This month, we've profiled five unique and thriving business that profitably cater to the development, security and creativity of children.

Children's Furniture



For some, business inspiration dawns after years of research. For others, it grows out of necessity. For Laura Mann, it came in the form of a giraffe.

"When my husband, Christian, and I were visiting his parents, we noticed a small giraffe chair he played with as a child," recalls Mann. "I'll never forget the look on his face when he saw the chair again, and I thought to myself, 'what a great gift idea for someone having a baby.'"

It was with this inspiration that Mann, now 26, started Wood Design, her homebased children's furniture business, in Pasadena, California. She presented her first chair as a baby shower gift in 1991, and by the end of the party, half-a-dozen interested guests asked for Mann's name and phone number. Within two weeks, she received her first four orders.

From there, it was a classic case of word-of-mouth advertising. Happy mothers, doting grandmothers and impressed shower-goers spread the word on Mann's behalf, raving about the young woman who made beautiful chairs for children. Now, her product line has grown to include children's toy chests, high chairs and bureaus. One client even hired her to customize an entire nursery, including a canvas mural to match the personalized furniture.

Mann estimates that the chairs, depending on the level of detail requested, take between four to six hours to complete. She purchases the furniture from an unfinished wood store, then sands, paints, personalizes and lacquers the pieces, selling them to customers for $150 plus shipping charges. At one point, Mann completed up to six chairs a week, but now that she and Christian are expecting their first child, she's slowed down production to prepare her own nest.

"I don't want the quality of my work to suffer because I'm overwhelmed with orders," admits Mann, who'd like her business to remain a one-person operation. But if you have a talent for creating children's furniture and the means to produce on a larger scale (space, materials, assistants, etc.), you can present samples of your work at children's boutiques, craft shows and swap meets. Mann, who also works part-time at a floral design shop, showcases some of her chairs in the store's children's section.

Most craft supply stores sell materials at affordable prices, so your greatest investment will likely be your time, patience and creativity. Personalizing your work is another way to appeal to children's gift purchasers; an item with a new baby' name is always a sweet treat for new parents.

"People love heirlooms. I get inspired thinking of the children looking at the furniture for the first time, having it with them throughout their childhood and then passing it down from one generation to the next," explains Mann. "I try to make each piece different, so they're all special and unique."

Reader Reference Source:

Juvenile Merchandising, a monthly children's merchandising magazine, provides further information about marketing children's products. Annual subscription/$25, single issue/$4. To order, write 2125 Center Ave., #305, Fort Lee, NJ 07024, or call (201) 592-7007. Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1304: Crafts Business. To order, see page 93, or call (800) 421-2300.

Nanny Referral Service



For Jacqueline Foote Clark, college was a great place to learn about business; She first researched a nanny referral service plan while working toward her MBA degree in 1983.

"The demographics and statistics were staggering," explains Foote Clark. "The Department of Labor had predicted a 50 percent increase in working women with children under five years old between 1986 and 1990, and I didn't think the day-care centers would be able to handle it."

Her hunch was accurate; the increase actually exceeded the initial projections, and the number of working moms grew from eight to 13 million in just three years, making child care-and nanny referral-among the most widely needed children's service businesses available.

Unfortunately, at the time, Foote Clark's college professor didn't find the concept "substantial" enough for her degree project, and instead requested a plan for a computer retail store. But, convinced about the demand for child care, impressed by the exploding market opportunity and a mother, herself, looking to go back to work, Foote Clark set aside her MBA plans and started A Choice Nanny referral service from her home in 1983.

Now, with 14 franchise locations reaching from New York to Florida, A Choice Nanny continues to fill a growing market niche. "I saw the trend for child care heading away from personalized service and into an impersonal, mail-order-like nanny operation. But I just didn't see the industry that way," remembers Foote Clark, whose child-care consultants interview both prospective nannies and families to maintain a personalized business approach.

Once extensive reference checks are conducted, qualified nannies receive training in employment etiquette, child development, discipline, safety and emergency procedures and post-placement maintenance program benefits that include a quarterly newsletter, birthday greetings and follow-up calls to monitor progress.

Nanny placement services are built on the reputations of child-care providers, so establishing a secure screening process is vital. A Choice Nanny checks with each nanny candidate's former employers (in both child care and unrelated work), to maintain their personnel quality. Families are often checked, as well, to help assure that nannies will be placed in an acceptable working environment.

Also important is getting word of your business to busy parents needing homebased child care. "On a small scale, we did guerilla marketing," says Foote Clark of her initial advertising efforts, "by placing tear-off strips at grocery stores, attending local chamber of commerce luncheons, marketing door-to-doo_r and visiting schools and maternity stores."

But the nanny referral business is far from kids' play. "People think running this kind of business is a piece of cake," says Foote Clark, "but it takes dedication, hard work and a desire to help the customer. What's more, it takes an understanding that you are a professional and need to charge enough money to make you want to stay in business."

Reader Reference Source:

The International Nanny Association (INA) is an advocacy organization for the in-home child-care industry, serving nannies, nanny placement agency owners, nanny educators and parents who employ in-home child-care providers. The INA publishes a start-up brochure for new agencies, and provides members with access to health insurance, a membership directory and a bimonthly newsletter. The 1996 annual INA conference will be held June 20-23 in Stamford, Connecticut. For membership information, write the INA Membership Services Office at 125 S. Fourth St., #214, Norfolk, N.E. 68701,or call (800) 297-1477

Children's Computer Training



"Children who have little or no experience with technology early in life may have little comfort or facility with it as adults," writes Susan Mitchell, contributing editor of American Demographics. "Unfortunately, the next boomers are divided into "haves" and "have-nots," according to their access to technology and their ability to build important skills early in life."

To help more kids become part of the technological "haves," Steve Gray, owner of Computer Discovery in Lake Oswego, Oregon, runs a computer summer camp for children. "You'd be amazed how fast kids can learn this technology," attests Gray, who started offering children's computer instruction, in addition to his regular adult instruction, in 1993.

During Computer Discovery's eight, one-week summer camp sessions, children are grouped together by level of computer literacy and skill. Less experienced campers concentrate on hand/eye coordination by practicing with the mouse and keyboard, while the more advanced learn software programs and are introduced to various adult computer applications, such as financial spreadsheets, the Internet, e-mail and word processing. Classes last for three hours each day, and cost $115 for the total 15 hours of instruction.

Computer Discovery, located in a retail shopping center ten miles south of Portland, has 18 computers and three instructors during its summer camp sessions. Although Gray does little formal advertising, relying instead on word-of-mouth recommendations from parents and schools, the program has increased in popularity and attendance every year since its inception.

"One of our most difficult problems is getting the kids to leave at noon so we can get ready for the next session," admits Gray. "They usually want to stay longer to work on the computers."

After the success of the summer camp program, parents looking for year-round instruction convinced Gray to start an after-school program as well, which he now offers from 4-6 p.m. each weekday. "Many of our students have exposure to computers either at home or at school, so this helps to reinforce their skills," says Gray. "And for those who don't, this helps to refine them.

"You can become certified in various software programs, but the most important qualification is the ability to work well with children," claims Gray, who hires local college students to lead his classes.

Local schools and community publications are the best places to advertise your services. Be sure to highlight the advantages of being computer-friendly in your ads. With a computer, the know-how, a lot of patience and a string of eager students, you, too, can conduct computer instruction seminars of your own.

Reader Reference Source:

Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1378: Computer Learning Center. To order, call (800) 421-2300.

Opportunities:

Futurekids: national children's computer learning center franchise. Start-up cost: $53.5K-88.5K; (310) 337-7006. The Fourth R: national computer training center franchise. Start-up cost: $23K-54.5K; (800) 821-8653.

Children's Event Planning



Voted one of BSU's Top 10 businesses to start in 1996, children's event planning, a specialized division of the event planning industry, has busy parents jumping for joy. As the number of two-income families continues to rise, children's event planners provide parents the freedom to spend their precious free time celebrating with their children instead of organizing the festivities.

Sheila Gilbert and Sue Marshall have been friends since they were kids and business partners for more than two decades. The pair ran a full-scale catering service until 1993, when they started Party Gamut Productions, a Los Angeles-based special-event planning business.

"Since we started this business, our motto has been that we want our clients to be guests at their own events," says Gilbert, who estimates that 25-30 percent of the parties they coordinate each year are thrown for children.

For these celebrations, Gilbert and Marshall consult with parents about the party's theme, menu and entertainment itinerary, then visit the site to offer ideas and suggestions. Next, they present an itemized proposal of the costs to the client. "We don't like to have any financial surprises," explains Marshall, "so once the plans and fees are approved, we put the whole thing together, producing the party from start to finish."

Some of the activities Party Gamut Productions has arranged for the young guests' entertainment include bead stringing, clowns, face painting and petting zoos. They also handle the party decorations, refreshments and meals, freeing parents to join in on the fun.

If you're interested in starting a children's event planning service, your contact list for caterers, entertainers and decorations will be your most important resource. "In this industry, it can take a while before you can put your finger-1-2-3-on what you need for an event," says Gilbert, who credits the pair's extensive resource list to years of business experience within the same city.

While Party Gamut relies on its years of contacts for references, publicity is crucial for start-ups in this industry; children's boutiques, toy stores, schools and local parenting and community publications are great places to advertise your new service.

Reader Reference Source:

International Special Event Society (ISES) membership benefits include an industry education program and free subscription to ISES's quarterly magazine, Event World. For more information, write ISES at 9202 N. Meridian St., #200, Indianapolis, IN 46260, or call (317) 571-5601. To receive a one- page start-up guide for children's event planning, send a SASE to Special Event Business Advisors at 638 Camino de los Mares, #C240-493, San Clemente, CA 92673.

Children's Transportation



Every morning before school, eight year-old Toby Hildre wakes up at 6 o'clock, gets dressed, eats breakfast and drives with her dad, Scott Hildre, around the local neighborhood. Hildre, president of Kids' Express Inc. in Fargo, North Dakota, is responsible for getting Toby-and eight other children on his morning route-to school safely and on time for their daily instruction.

"I wasn't looking to get into a business, but there seemed to be a real need," says Hildre, a former homebased marketing and sales consultant, of his introduction to the children's transportation industry. "While waiting in the parking lot for my daughter after school one day, I counted 70 different vehicles that came through to do the same with their kids."

Hildre began research for Kids' Express in the fall of 1993, and by May 1994 had incorporated his new business. "I sent anonymous questionnaires to parents to determine the market need," explains Hildre, "and the response turned out to be greater than I expected. So my next step was to look into licensing through the city, state and federal governments."

Kids' Express now operates four 15 passenger vans and maintains one 12 passenger van for emergency backup, each equipped with private two-way radios to enable communication between the central dispatch station and the six regular route drivers. "I tried to keep costs down in the beginning by driving, myself," says Hildre, "but when there was an emergency with another driver, I was in a real bind." Now, aside from his morning route with Toby, Hildre focuses exclusively on the office administration-scheduling routes, coordinating drivers, billing clients, taking sales calls, arranging client contracts-and only occasionally fills in for drivers.

While most regular passengers are preschool, kindergarten and elementary school students, Kids' Express also taxies the occasional junior high and pre-driver's-licensed high school student. Rides cost anywhere from $3-6 each way, depending on the student's annual contract; regular, round-trip fares cost less than infrequent, one-way trips.

"As soon as we started this business and were successful, we started noticing it in other areas," exclaims Hildre, who, seeing an incredible growth potential in the industry, plans to franchise his business and offer consulting for other children's transportation start-ups.

Regulations for transporting children are strict; if you're interested in starting a children's transportation service, contact your state's transportation or utility commission for the particular requirements. Insurance is a must-have in this business; Hildre estimates that his insurance payments, to cover his 5 vans and office equipment, total about $10,000 annually. But considering the precious cargo you'll be delivering, it's money well spent.

Reader Reference Source:

National Child Transport Association (NCTA), a trade organization for private child transportation services, provides educational materials, conferences and a newsletter. For more information, write NCTA at 381 Hidden Valley Dr., Naples, FL 33962, (941) 775-5200.

Opportunities:

Kids Kab International: national children's transportation franchise. Start-up cost: $33.9K-65.69K; (810) 362-8280. Kids on the Go: a national children's transportation business opportunity. Start-up cost: $12.5K-20K; (813) 791-7433.