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Increasingly, nuclear families are becoming the norm coupled with more women spreading their wings and taking up jobs, leading to a new societal structure with its own requirements. With no family members present at home, parents are progressively relying on childcare centres to look after their children whilst they go to work. Unfortunately in this era work timings know no bounds. With many private companies requiring employees to work well beyond the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. model and travel frequently for work, parents with younger kids have difficult decisions to make. Childcare centres typically close by 7 p.m. and one parent has to accommodate time in their calendar to pick up their child(ren). This schedule has left many working women compelled to sacrifice their careers on the altar of motherhood and family.
Sucheta Madhusudan was one such mother, whose necessity to leave work by 6 p.m. to pick up her two year old before 7 p.m. affected her promotions at work and in turn forced her to leave her job. The resultant situation gave rise to a fire in her to change the scenario and enable other mothers and fathers to continue to pursue their dreams and yet have a family, without the logistical encumbrances. Motivated, she started Kids Space Academy, a 24×7 childcare centre, and this is her entrepreneurial story.
Sucheta has always been a strong person who has persisted on getting things done her way. At an early age, she moved to Bangalore from Vadodara, where her father had successful businesses, to pursue her MBA in 2003. She subconsciously absorbed many of his traits and inherited good people and business management skills. She also saw the downsides of running a business when their family’s factories shut. That experience taught her about hardship and situation handling skills which she applies to her own business to this day. With a penchant for new challenges, she believes in putting oneself out of comfort zones.
Kids Space Academy, in Bangalore’s Banashankari, has been thriving for 6 years now. The idea sprang from both Sucheta’s experience and that of her friends’, family’s and colleagues’ of raising a child as working parents. It resulted in recognizing the need for a care centre with a home like environment for infants whose parents have work commitments. She wanted to cater to parents who travel and work round the clock, and save them from forgoing their professional dreams, for which they would have strived so hard. Until 2011 despite the widespread need, a 24×7 childcare centre was unavailable. Sucheta capitalised on this opportunity and her Kids Space Academy was the first in Bangalore to start providing the 24×7 service.
While on a two month break after quitting her job, Sucheta conducted her market research on the various kinds of childcare setups. She identified the USP, designed the logo, zero-ed in on a name, worked on the interiors, researched about the kind of people to be engaged, etc. Visits to other schools helped her understand the business and reinforced confidence in her idea being unique.
Initially there was much criticism from society as well as some of the family members. Harsh opinions surrounding the idea as well as the concept of a childcare centre would break her heart, but she stayed strong and stuck to her vision.
According to her, business grows with emotional connections. A childcare centre is the first schooling experience for children, who at such a tender age go through several emotions associated to stress, insecurity and apprehension. Both the children and their mothers are afflicted by separation-anxiety. Hence, it is crucial to provide comfort to both and emotionally reassure them, and thus, Sucheta has learnt that this business runs purely on emotions and personal connections, making her an expert in this sector. She has trained her staff as well in the specialized customer service.
She has observed that many other childcare centres may have invested heavily and provided the best of amenities or curriculum but have regardless failed to work owing to parent dissatisfaction on a personal level. However, she was very particular about providing a facility that was home-like and hence prioritised the services by catering to the emotional needs of the parents. Kids Space was started in a 2BHK duplex equipped with Sucheta’s children’s play equipment and toys as she did not want to invest heavily. She also used many personal belongings such as a laptop, a tab, tables, chairs, etc. To keep expenses low, she ran around with her child in tow to distribute pamphlets, open premises early or close late at night and many times herself did menial work like washing vessels, cleaning and feeding kids, putting them to sleep, the administrative work, online advertising, installing banners on roads or apartments, etc.
Once a positive response began emerging, they expanded their services and relocated to a bigger commercial place with more open space, custom designed for the safety and needs of children. Kids Space was the first in its area to be a large play school, whilst competitors were still operating from smaller houses. This attracted more people, which helped scale up business.
Over the last three years, Kids Space has had 100 children annually. The batches are organised to suit parents’ convenience without binding times. However at least a day’s prior notice is needed to accommodate requests outside of the batches. For instance, once, Kids Space cared for a 14-month-old baby girl for five days and nights when her parents had to travel at the same time and at another time a doctor mother dropped her son and daughter for 2 two days and nights as she had to attend a conference, held out of city. The centre operates on a Monday to Friday basis with Saturdays reserved for cleaning and maintenance of the premises, equipment, toys, etc. with children taken in for the weekend only on ad hoc requests.
Sucheta believes in understanding children’s needs and occupying them in activities accordingly. Thus, she creates schedules carving out time for naps, play, snacks or meals, homework for older children, and activities like carom, dancing and drawing. They also encourage delights of olden days such as musical chairs, hopscotch etc. Keeping abreast with modern times, children are occasionally allowed activities on tablets.
Supervising the centre virtually, Sucheta now leaves its daily management to her staff, which comprise of a centre head, a day-care supervisor, six teachers and five helping staff. A contracted agency takes care of security in addition to CCTV cameras.
While the facility provides for 24×7 childcare, demand has been sporadic. When a request emerges it is usually for one or two children and may be just a one off case or a few days at times. Owing to this, Sucheta personally looks after the child(ren) for security, given the risk of a child being left alone with a helper. Additionally, without it being a regular occurrence, the math does not add up unless there are economies of scale since the helpers will need to be paid more for their night-time services and parents will have to shell out more as well. With Sucheta taking up the night-time service, aside from the reasonable fees parents are comforted by the personalised touch, home food, homely and child-proof environment and assured security. Her own children too serve as good company. Furthermore parents can get regular updates from Sucheta directly.
To advertise Kids Space she strategized to initially target young parents working in the IT sector and deployed both kinds of advertising: print and digital. Posters and banners were put up in nearby shops, schools and existing clients’ apartments and pamphlets were distributed with newspapers. Sucheta also created a website and a Facebook page to capitalized on free internet advertising.
Additionally, satisfied parents become marketing associates. Word-of-mouth advertising helps advertise the facility in parent circles, which in-turn yields incremental business and then the cycle repeats. For almost two years, they have not had to actively advertise.
While things are going smoothly now, every business faces turmoil and roadblocks. One of the primary challenges Sucheta faced was the legal formalities and documentation in setting up Kids Space. That aside, she established the business by bootstrapping. Putting her savings on the line to start a venture for which she had no support drew on her resources, creating uncertainty for the future. Fixed and operational costs were ascertained to sustain their initial months of running the business till cash inflows began. Kids Space broke even in the first year itself and started earning profits from the second year of starting operations.
While financially returns were realized, before this could happen, an executive from a bigger childcare brand pilfered her idea when she approached him to take up a franchise. However, they failed to be successful in their operations, while she made it to newspapers and magazines by February 2012.
At the outset, another unforeseen challenge was the language barrier, which Sucheta had to work around to gain the confidence of staff, vendors and parents whose children had only been spoken to in their native language so far.
Having set it up and got it functioning smoothly, Sucheta is looking to expand her business. However she consciously wants to maintain a work-life balance for her family to which tune she intends to only set up branches under a franchise model, or alternatively manage affairs as an owner and not partake in its daily functioning.
She has received calls for branches to be set up in other cities such as Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. But to start she plans to go local. She is looking at Koramangala, JP Nagar, HSR Layout and Whitefield as potential localities to set up two more branches based on the clientele. According to her, these areas are home to several workingwomen who travel for work.
Furthermore, burgeoning demand in the current facility already appears poised to double the business.
Moreover, her long-term plan is to enter the corporate crèche sector within the next five years.
In conclusion, Sucheta has some thoughts for those contemplating foraying into the entrepreneurial space – “always follow your passion, always follow success, money will automatically follow. There will be many people around you to discourage you and question your ideas, do not let that affect you as it might divert you from your passion. They (people) have no idea where your ideas will take you, if they knew they would have been in your place already. But no one is in your place, its only you and you only. I have experienced this personally. I never looked for money in my business. I always looked towards helping people personally and professionally, which converted to my success.”
*Disclamer: Ms. Sucheta’s article has been co-authored by the Perennial Publications Editorial Team.