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Having a vision for child care business success

Having a vision for child care business success

July 26, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #2 "Having a vision for child care business success ”.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi I'm Ron Spreeuwenberg Co-Founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education. Today I speak with Julie Berkus the founder of Child Care Business Success.

Julie is all about vision – having a vision and executing on it to create positive, productive and profitable child care businesses. She’s been in the industry for over 17 years and has some really sensible strategies for improving the quality of child care programs with her approaches for child care business success. There's some great content in our second episode of the preschool podcast. So let's jump into it. Today we've got Julie Bartkus with us. And let's just start off Julie by telling us a little bit more about who you are and how you got into the business of consulting with childcare programs.

Julie BARTKUS: Sure Ron, thank you for having me here. So I've been in the industry for over 17 years and I've got a little story that goes behind how I got into this industry. But I did work as a child care teacher in many different classrooms many many moons ago. And then I ventured out into my own business and I had a lot of life experiences that led me to discover how important that motivation was and what caused workplace gossip.

So I started going into child care programs, talking about communication about the gossip, about really how to have a motivated staff which is a crucial element in having a successful child care or a business. As we continue that journey in the child care industry, one component was really missing is that we really have to tie it in, self-motivation, how successful our entire business is because it's such an important piece of our model. So now we have this whole child care business success model that we look at and can evaluate child care businesses or child care programs and help our owners really make quantum leaps with where they're going with their efforts to get to the level that they want to get to.

SPREEUWENBERG: So let me just touch on that point a little bit. I see on your web site for example, you do talk a lot about motivating and retaining staff. Why did you ultimately decide that that is such an important piece for child care programs.

BARTKUS: Well I really believe that the staff that you'd have in place really contributes to at least 95 percent of your child care business success. I mean imagine your childcare program running with our staff in place. Let alone good staff let alone incredibly motivated staff. So when we look at all the different places that staff have the opportunity to touch within your business model they really impact your marketing they impact your self-motivation levels and they impact everybody else on the team. So it's really an incredible dynamic to get right, so that you have a whole motivated staff to support your big bold vision. Because oftentimes, Ron, we look at oh, we're low enrollment so let's now look at marketing. Let's market market market market. And what I find is that if we take strategy, we add more strategy we just have some real deep transformation happen within our program to understand why are things are happening that are going on within our program and then we add some great strategy to that. We get results in record time whether it's filling enrollment or transforming our workplace culture boosting our profits. Does that answer?

SPREEUWENBERG: It does and it's a very interesting topic that seems to be coming up very regularly as a theme in our podcast episodes, is empowering staff, motivating staff, it is just so so important and it's such an important area. The question is then, you know you touched on a lot of it, which is they are 95 percent of the success, they touch on so many points, they are the face of your business but how do you do it. That's maybe the big question that people have.

BARTKUS: Well you know, that's where we've been studying. So you I first started in this industry we would go into child care programs and I would interview every single level of staff from the bus driver to the cook to the owners to say what motivates you and what drains your motivation. So there's a very important comprehensive element that we've got our hands around to really help ease to sustain long lasting motivation in your child care program. So when you ask the question "well how do you do it" one of the things that I challenge people to think about is why aren't your staff motivated.

So think about these people who you hire and they're excited to come into work or at least if you're hiring right from the start they're excited to come into work. Right, they can't wait for their first day but then after the second day, third day, week, it's like who is this person who I hired and why aren't they excited or enthusiastic anymore. So there's a gap of what's happening in those first few days of employment or the first few weeks the first few months that really does motivate staff. So when we look at what will motivate them we have to understand first of all what's draining their motivation because if they come in excited, what's happening in the workplace that is taking that element away from that person who we hired to. Does that make sense?

SPREEUWENBERG: Makes it makes a lot of sense.

BARTKUS: That's really what we do, as we're able to quickly see what are those key motivators so that our leaders and our owners can have this concrete plan of action of what they need to do more of or differently and a lot of times where we're going wrong is that we're treating it as what I called a symptom, where we're just putting on Band-Aids. Something's happening in the workplace or gossip or people are tardy or there's absenteeism. And you just put a Band-Aid over it. Let's bring in doughnuts on a Friday or let's buy everybody nice gifts, and those things do not sustain long lasting motivation. So it takes a deeper dig a deeper dive to say what is really the component that's going to switch this around for us.

SPREEUWENBERG: And if I can just touch on the point of empowerment as it relates to that. I just want to get your thoughts about that because a couple of the conversations that I've had with people that I find to be quite interesting is where they've had a lot of success in transforming their culture is by giving more opportunities to their staff to own and to be accountable for whatever it is, small or large. Basically giving them opportunities to show their own leadership and show their strengths and their skills and experience and education in their role. Is that something you touch on in your programs as well.

BARTKUS: Yeah absolutely we have a five step plan of action for managing, motivating, and retaining great staff. But in addition it's incorporated into our holistic business model that we teach. Within these five steps is a component of challenging your team, it is really important to give them ownership and to help them feel empowered, but in order to get them to that point, that would be like step number three in our five step plan of action and all the steps are cumulative there are a couple of other things really critical that we have to do first. One of them is really possessing a strong positive belief in our team and that would be step number one in our five step plan of action.

But it's more than just giving it lip service. What I call a smile on a stick you know where we pump ourselves up and we feel positive about everybody today. It's about where we genuinely and authentically feel positive and feel excited about the people who do work for us. But a lot of times we're tolerating things and we don't get to that authentic and genuine place. So then the leader has to really step back and say OK what is it that I need to do more of or differently so I can get myself to the place where I really possess a strong positive belief. So we could just jump ahead to say let's challenge our team let's empower them. But there's a whole kind of back story that has to go along with that to support it so that that does sustain motivation when you put those efforts into place.

SPREEUWENBERG: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. So one of your other pieces that you seem to be very focused on is having a big bold vision that.

BARTKUS: We call it a big bold dreamy vision.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah and I think that's great as well. And it's really great to hear that a lot of the things that you're focusing on are also things that we've noticed as HiMama just anecdotally in the childcare programs that we work with. The ones that seem to be really successful are doing a lot of the things that you're talking about. And why is a big bold dreamy vision an important part of that puzzle.

BARTKUS: Yeah. So we have our top child care business success model which I reference and the vision is really the core piece of the model. I illustrate the childcare business success models really like a series of independent rings and the vision is the center or ring or the center component. And if you pull that vision out everything else collapses because all those other pieces are dependent upon that centerpiece being really strong. So the pieces that are around the vision include your mindset and your people and your process for them and eventually your profits. But if you pull that out the whole thing just kind of collapses. So your vision is really what gives you as the childcare owner or director strength and we've all heard the famous biblical quote right where an absence of vision your people will? Have you heard this one?

SPREEUWENBERG: Leave, exit, I don't know.

BARTKUS: With absence of a vision, your people perish. Yes. So when there's not a big bold dreamy vision not only you know is your motivation, and your enthusiasm for the business for your baby that you created, does it crumble, but also everybody else crumbles, and I often ask our leaders especially our owners you know where you're leading your team too, and a lot of times we start our childcare businesses our child care program with this incredible enthusiasm for what we're going to bring to life. And we have this incredible why in place, we think about the children of our children who didn't have the care and we brought this program to life so that no kids would ever you know, not have a really good place to help nurture and empower them.

But then as life goes on we get kind of swayed by you know negative reviews, negative comments, parents make negative comments, staff make negative comments, sure we can start swaying. And before you know it our vision starts getting really depleted and it crumbles and we forget about it. And if we're not leading by a vision what we're leading by is stress. So often the vision becomes just to make it through the daily stress and we lose sight of what this big bold dream the vision is which pulls us back to a place of authenticity and a place of genuine functioning so that everything else can flow from that, including our marketing including our communication including the culture we want to create. So what I see happening a lot, is that we really build the whole business model backwards instead of doing it really from the foundational element of that big bold dream the vision.

SPREEUWENBERG: Now this makes a lot of sense to me. I'm going to play the devil's advocate and I'm let's say I'm a child care owner, director, administrator. I say "Julie that all sounds great but I think my child care program runs just fine. We've been doing it for 20 years. Why. Why is business success so important for my organization. We seem to be doing just fine."

BARTKUS: Well you do, everyone is going to have their own personal thermometer, so to speak. So if you have an owner of everything's great, I don't need to make any changes you know then that's fine. But most people internally even if they don't say it externally know that there's another place that they want to grow to and life is just like business just like our child care program. Things are always in a constant state of change. We're either growing or we're waiting time. So if we have somebody who says, oh my program's great it, stayed the same for five years. It's not because that vision is either getting smaller or it's getting bigger. So you have to ask yourself personally, you know are you really on this end of lets say, you know how you do anything is how you do everything because especially as a business owner or even as a director it's like things just don't impact one area of your life.

It's really all-consuming or your business does overlap into your personal life. So you have to look at what am I tolerating, what we’re resisting doing. And a lot of times we say that we're OK everything's fine because it's something that has great resistance over us needing to do. And it might be getting out to the community it might be whatever it might be but there are some things that we're resisting doing which makes us go to that place of oh you know everything's fine and we're happy. But most of the time that's not really the case. There's something else internally going on that you're just not really recognizing. And we have clients you know, most of our clients have been in the industry well sometimes five years, but one gentleman who's coming out to our conference has been in the industry for 50 years now.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wow. So you know I know you know we deal with that at HiMama as well but I think especially with the younger generation today they're looking for more than just a job where they get a paycheck or they like want to work in a place where they feel like they have friends and it's a place where they enjoy being and they are excited to go to work every day. And I think more and more early childhood educators are looking for that type of environment. They deserve that. I think as well.

BARTKUS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And people look to go and to be part of something bigger than themselves. And some people can take a hold and become a leader you know with that kind of guidance and other people are really great followers. But everybody, in all teams that I work with, want to be part of something bigger they're going to have play some kind of peace. It's just a matter of how big are we going to create it as a leader in the industry and how are we going to inspire folks to be part of it.

And even if you're part of a very negative or very gossipy team and I go into these environments all the time, we ask people how many of you wanna feel more positive and productive coming into work. Even the most negative person will you know raise their hand and say yes, yes, I do. It is the challenge they just don't know how to get there by themselves. And that goes back to that vision being so important because if it's not the guiding force and nobody knows how to get there nobody's you know operating in that visionary stance. Everybody is kind of walking around scratching their head saying yeah we'd like that to happen. But how does it?

SPREEUWENBERG: And would you say that's the main challenge of a lot of the child care programs out there that you work with, is sort of revisiting that core piece of the vision and really focusing on that and executing on it. Is that it? I it the vision piece or is it other pieces that are really the main challenges that they're facing.

BARTKUS: If we were to break it down into a core fundamental element I would say absolutely yes. It’s the vision. We don't know how to bring it back and we don't know how to live in the vision. All of us have a vision and we tape it up to the one also that some track thumbtack you know through it and it's up there but we always say "oh we have a vision but aren't really living in it". And when you live in your vision it's a feeling that you interject to the outside world so that when people come in for a tour or new staff come in to possibly work in your childcare program, they feel it you know and that's how people make their buying decisions.

And that's why once you get this element right you could so quickly change your struggle for not having enough of enrolment to being full with a waiting list like many of our clients. But it all goes back to really understanding the holistic business model instead of just saying oh we're low enrollments. We need to do this or oh our staff is unmotivated we need to do something to motivate them. It's really looking at the big picture and taking some brave steps to transform it, for you and for everybody in your program.

SPREEUWENBERG: As someone who's worked as a business consultant outside of the child care sector. I wouldn't say that that is unique to child care. Why do you think a lot of businesses and child care of organizations as well struggle with the issue of you know focusing in on a bigger vision.

BARTKUS: You know and you're right. You know it's not just unique to the childcare industry I think the childcare industry has the opportunity to be so much, to be very impactful with the work that we do. We touch so many lives in many ways. So that's I just want to add that that that's why it's so important in this industry even more so than like working in a telecommunications company or you know, we're impacting the children we're impacting the future of the world. So your question was what was your question again?

SPREEUWENBERG: Why is the vision is the main challenge of child care programs. Do you think?

BARTKUS: I think it is because we're in an industry where we are very conscientious of making sure that people in our care and who walk through our doors are happy and that happiness can come at a price. If we don't have really good professional boundaries around what that happiness means. So some people even use the slogans and this is what I heard a lot when I was first in this industry. Oh just one happy staff. We want happy kids and we want happy parents. Especially as women we kind of have this needy place that we function from to make sure other people are happy, and sometimes with that comes the bending of what we really desire in our hearts to bring to life. But it might also be listening to negative comments taking those in and letting them crush or collapse your vision. So there's a lot of things that we hear from staff a lot of things that we hear from parents a lot things we hear from community. Negative reviews online people, not paying you, whatever it might be but all of those things.

The reality of the business can cause that vision to crumble because it needs to be supported and the vision support but also needs to be supported by your mindset. And you know that's a second part of our business model but it's really important that when you operate from a visionary perspective that you really see what you want to bring into fruition with more than your eyes your physical eyes. It has to be a deeper level of seeing it with your mind first. Like every great visionary right they have a vision. You have the vision but you don't see it with your eyes because reality will dictate something else is happening and unfolding and it might even tell you that what you really want to transpire is impossible. So you've really got to back it up with a strong mindset that says you know what you know this is the desire that's in my heart and this is what it looks like and I can't yet see it with my eyes. But I know in my mind's eye that it can absolutely come into fruition.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yes and I know something that you mention on your website is about the hamster wheel. And I think you touched on a little bit there with some of those points. You know there's so much going on as director, owner, administrator of a child care program that I think it's really easy to lose sight of your big vision when you know you're putting out fires kind of left, right, and center. So I think a lot of it is kind of getting at getting out of that hamster wheel that you speak of as well.

BARTKUS: Yeah I love the hamster wheel image. So basically we did an illustration of a person running on a hamster wheel wearing several different hats. You know and that's is reflective of the owners and directors that we talked to a lot because they're like I'm wearing so many hats how do I even get off the hamster wheel to start operating in more of that visionary position so that I can really bring things into life and. And that was really hard.

You talked about staying in your vision. You know we're bringing that to life and the difficulty of it because when you come into your talk or program 100 different things will hit you. And it's not like oh let me step back now and be the visionary. It's like oh I got to deal with this one, got to deal with this and got to deal with this and got to deal with this one. And you've got realities of call outs you've got reality of parents. It just everything is right there so bluntly in your face. How do you possibly bring the impossible into existence. So our clients do it, you know and we work through that with that to help them get to that point.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. And so I know you have a framework for this but you know if I'm the director that feels like I'm being pulled in all different directions you know. What are your tips for freeing up my time to really focus on that so important vision and living in that vision?

BARTKUS: Well if you're a director even an owner and you've got so many people eating up your time there's a couple of you know things to do and one is to pay attention to the thoughts that you're thinking because the thoughts that you're thinking can really lead to a lot of things being harder than they need to be. And that really takes up a lot of time. So I would say the hardest thing about you know having a successful business or motivating your staff is what's going to go on between your two ears, because as you process all these different thoughts pop into your mind and if the thoughts are primarily negative you know every negative thought can lead to eight hours of procrastination. So you're thinking a negative thought about a parent just thinking a negative thought about a staff member you're thinking a negative thought about you know a fight you got into with your loved one, or whatever it might be those things are very time consuming. So that's number one.

The second thing is to really think in terms of your communication and switching it from quantity of communication to quality communication. A lot of times we think quantity is better but it's not necessarily the case so it takes you pulling yourself back and saying OK what is the communication that my team feels that they need to have in order to do their jobs affectively and that words feel is a super important word in there because perception is true. So if they feel they need communication then we have to step back and address that and then purposely decipher what can we put into place to have real quality communication and systematized communication. Think about how do we make it effective but not necessarily to wear it in huge quantities.

SPREEUWENBERG: Super helpful. I can relate to those points as well. Taking a bit of a different line of questioning here. You have spent over 17 years in the child care industry. So you know a lot about it. One thing that I think a lot of people struggle with parents in particular is what might be seen as a bit of a dichotomy in that, hey as a parent I pay so much for my child to go to daycare, works of this early learning program and yet it seems like from working within the child care industry a lot of child care programs don't have a lot of discretionary spending money and are really struggling to get by. And there's like I said there seems to be a misalignment between you know parents thinking it's really expensive and yet the child care programs a lot of them seem to be struggling. Why do you think that is?

BARTKUS: We spent like over a couple of years talking to our owners about the profit killers that your security cameras will never reveal to you. And there is a misalignment because there's a lot of things that we don't see any profit loss statement in terms of the profits that are leaking out of our pocket and where some of those big huge expensive costs are and how we could really make our whole business model work with us. So one of the things that we do is we look at your profit potential with our child care owners and directors and say you know if you were really functioning at full capacity with full enrollments and you had a motivated staff and all of these factors were in place, how much more profitable could your child care program be. And so people start to get the formula right. They have to realize that you know when we look at our multi-site clients now we've got a lot of single site a lot of multi-site people who are transitioning from home into centers. They're all different models. But when you get into the multi-site level it's easy to sit there and compute numbers that say that because staff are unmotivated you know it's costing us like 4.5 million dollars or 6 million dollars since the inception of our business.

So it's really important to look at things that aren't necessarily line by line items a lot of people are saying OK here's my profit and loss. Now I want to compare that with everybody else's profit loss to see what we're doing wrong. But there's a whole internal structure at work that really requires a little bit of a deeper analysis to say OK here's what you specifically at ABC childcare center need to do more of or differently so that you realize greater profit potential. And most people pull back their money with where will get them the most rewards which is in their step motivation efforts. So we have clients who start to get super profitable and then they're like OK Julie now you need to come back and come on site work with our staff so they invest in that and then they get more and more profitable.

So there are things that we don't see when we look at it from what would seem like a very logical perspective. Here's my profit loss. You know we want to compare it to industry averages but it's not going to show you what's really going on behind the curtains that you need to fix yourself.


BARTKUS: Does that help answer that?

SPREEUWENBERG: It does. A follow up question to that. Or let's say I'm an owner of a child care program and I've started this child care program because I'm really passionate about working with children in improving learning outcomes for children which a lot of child care programs are started in that way. Why is profitability important?

BARTKUS: Oh my goodness. Well have you ever flown on an airplane?


BARTKUS: You want to fly on an airplane that's near bankruptcy?


BARTKUS: Why not?

SPREEUWENBERG: Well I've definitely seen these horror stories of people who show up at the airport to get on their flight home and then they kind of go up to the counter and there's a sign up there that says sorry we're bankrupt and then they're sort of stranded.

BARTKUS: So taht's one reason why.


BARTKUS: You know but this is why profitability is important, in a lot of parents, so we've been in some different parenting groups serving parents and they say that if a child care program is too inexpensive that a red flag will go up something in the business is being done right. So probability is really important because it allows a business owner, especially one with a big bold dreamy vision in place to really put money back where it matters in your staff. You know and really the nurturing and caring of the kids. So if we look at a program that is struggling and doesn't have money and is cutting fees and really try to do things for bottom line it doesn't provide high quality.

And for those of us who have flown I mean think about this think about the airlines where you're paying you know pretty decent money for a ticket versus the one they shall not mentioned on this podcast where it's like you're paying pretty much for you know a jumper seat or something. You know where it's like you're sitting in a seat with no cushion and no leg space. You pay a lot less but that's what you're getting as well and people know that if things are too inexpensive there's a red flag there. And what is it that you're not doing.


BARTKUS: Parents have told us that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, that's interesting.

BARTKUS: Now you know and the interesting thing too Ron is that you know some of our clientele they don't have these fancy centers. They have some old toys. They have different things but yet they're selling their programs with a waiting list of people who are paying pretty good money to be a part of their program. So it's not even necessarily about the material thing of like it would be like in an airplane but it's about the thing that's most important for making sure that their children are little miracles are safe throughout the day. Which is your staff, you know and of course your building has got to be a safe place.

But sometimes we put money into things where it doesn't necessarily really matter. You know, to have the nicest equipment because we've been called into some sites where they've got heated floors they had had before Keurig’s before Keurig’s were cool and you know they're still having problems with staff motivation, retaining parents and all these things so we really have to look deep and say well what's really going on here and what will turn my child care program or my telecare business around. And sometimes we look at what we call bright shiny objects where we just need this and we need a better playground or better this or better sign when it's not really any of those things that will make or break our culture business or program.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's a very good point. And so just to reiterate if you're thinking as a child care program owner you know where am I going to invest money in the quality of my programs that makes so much sense. As you said to invest it in a lot of the things that we've been talking about like your staff and staff motivation and your vision as opposed to those shiny objects. If I think about a parent you're not going to refer a child care program to another parent because they've got better toys or a better playground really are you now.

BARTKUS: Not usually you know people do you know studies show this over and over and over we all make buying decisions based on emotion and the emotional connection that we feel with the person the owner or the director or you know this thing it's emotional we may justify that decision with logic but it really comes back down to emotion and that's why you know a car dealer when you go to buy a car what do they do this will be the key and say here you go you know take it home. You know they want to get emotionally connected to that thing so it becomes yours.


BARTKUS: And you know and that's the same reason parents buy when they come to our program it's an emotional connection.

SPREEUWENBERG: That makes sense. Hey this has been a super interesting conversation with you.

BARTKUS: Yeah it is.

SPREEUWENBERG: Thanks so much for taking the time.

BARTKUS: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure and I love learning about. HMama as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Last question for you. If our listeners want to find you on line where would they find you?

BARTKUS: Well we're going through a little bit of reconstruction with our Web site but we do have our conference site is rock my childcare.com here like a rock my baby that rockmychildcarecom. And then you could always find me at childcarebusinesssuccess.com. And we also have a program called the childcare program of excellence and also the childcareprogramofexcellence.com.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Thanks so much Julie.

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