13 lessons I've learned owning 13 early learning campuses
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > 13 lessons I’ve learned owning 13 early learning campuses

13 lessons I’ve learned owning 13 early learning campuses

by Jae Fraser, Founder & Managing Director at Little Scholars, The Scholars Group, Scholars Consulting & Fraser Foundation

April 10, 2023
Little Scholars Founder Jae Fraser is shown talking to a child

In eight years, I’ve gone from buying one small Yatala early learning campus to owning and operating 13 successful campuses. I’ve learned so much along the way, about business, about myself and the people I surround myself with, and I wanted to share my main lessons learned.


Lesson 1 – Just because you have industry experience does not mean you have experience in business management.


Running a business, lining up approvals, getting licenses in place, budgeting, marketing ourselves against the noise – while I’m lucky my previous experience not just as a teacher but a general manager of Australia’s largest ASX-listed childcare company certainly helped understand the order of what was involved, but it was still daunting from legal stuff, funding business, purchase and operations, and lining up everything to open, besides cleaning up and renovating the old Yatala childcare centre, it was a lot.


My suggestion to someone starting their own company would be set up information interviews with successful industry owners, pick their brain about the processes involved and when, get an idea of the need in the area in which you want to open, know the demographics, and ensure there is need. It is also essential that you develop your vision and philosophy – what are you trying to achieve and what is your purpose. Even if you are going to run the business yourself, pay a consultant for a few months to guide you – there is too much at risk not to do it properly.


When starting a business, you need to believe in what you’re offering. My passion for early childhood learning and care (ECEC) and commitment to setting children up for successful futures, I believe, is why Little Scholars is so successful. If you’re passionate about something you are going to do it well.


 And, find a great lawyer to work with. Whether you are starting a new centre or purchasing an existing, a favourable contract or lease can make all the long-term difference.


 Lesson 2 – Hire good people.


Finding reliable, trustworthy, and dedicated people to work for you is imperative to running a service that exceeds expectations. When I started, I brought my former colleague and good friend Melanie with me, she was group operations manager at the large childcare company I left, and I knew she’d be amazing as my operations manager.


Together, along with my partner who had 15 years of experience in marketing management, and other former colleagues who we knew could bring us forward, we opened Little Scholars Yatala in October 2014. Good relationships are key. I love that my team all have varying skill sets and we are constantly building on that. It is important that the good people you hire are retained, so we need to constantly develop them and allow them to grow in their career.


I also think people shouldn’t just be hired based on their qualification, but equally or more so on their passion, their energy, love of children and education. When we’re recruiting, we make sure our teams know they are contributing in a meaningful way, making a difference to a child’s life and Australia more broadly and importantly contributing to society by educating our future. We constantly celebrate great results and good work, so our teams are constantly having a feeling of accomplishment.


 Lesson 3 – Treat employees like family.


Because we started as a close-knit group, I really appreciated from the beginning how we couldn’t do what we do without all the people who work with us. We now have more than 450 employees, but we love to do things to make each one of those people feel appreciated and let them know we’re happy to have them at Little Scholars.


I try to know as many of them as I can so I can greet them when I visit. We love to throw a big Christmas party every year, every employee gets a Christmas present, we send treats to each campus to mark certain days each year, such as Early Childhood Educator’s Day or accomplishments as a campus, we host an annual Learning and Development Day where we bring everyone in to listen to world-class experts, play games and share knowledge. And every employee gets a personally signed birthday card.


But also, I believe our families understand we’re family-owned and operated, and that we truly care about each other and the children and families who decide to be a part of our extended home. Practically, family lingo in our branding supports that – care, community, family, passion – it shows how we connect with children, their families and our stakeholders. Our company philosophy and pillars were developed in conjunction with educators and our families to ensure it reflects and upholds our beliefs and values.


I think because I was an early childhood educator, who started out as a trainee – I know what our team go through each day, I have been there, this experience allows me to support them better in their roles.


 Lesson 4 – Nothing worth something comes easy.


When we started out, all of our savings went into purchasing our first campus, so we had to do a lot of physical work ourselves to get ready. We painted the entire campus ourselves, got the landscaping underway, mowing the lawn on the weekends, staining all the timber in the playground, a million trips to Bunnings, working in the kitchen to make lunches, staying back and having valuable conversations with parents at pick-up time. I think being in the campus allows you to see so much more.


I worked in our first campus alongside our team every day and was there from open to close while we built it up and developed what “Little Scholars” was. Parents loved seeing me in the campus working, and the team enjoyed seeing that I was a hands-on owner that genuinely cared about what we were doing.


My team still laugh about me watering the lawns and gardens – this was my stress relief, if anyone was ever looking for me, they would just come outside to the playground where I would be tending to the gardens.


The original goal for me was to own five exceptional campuses, but now we have 13 and I couldn’t be prouder. But none of this has been easy and in fact it’s been really hard at times. However, we love what we do and we are motivated by our incredible team, the families who support us and also the children, whose lives we are positively impacted each day – parents constantly ask us to open more in their area. I will never let myself forget that quality over quantity is so important in this field.


Lesson 5 – Know what makes you stand out.


Develop your philosophy/vision and try to offer something your community wants but is different to that of your competitors. You will need to shout it from the rooftops to get people interested in and investing in your business. Part of what makes Little Scholars stand out is that I’m a qualified teacher, and genuinely passionate about educator our future generations, so as the owner and approved provider of this company, I have hands-on experience in developing educational programming for our curriculum.


Melanie, our operations manager, is also a qualified teacher (and a mum!) so we’re passionate about what we’re doing for children in the critical first five years of their lives. We make sure our experience and enthusiasm is present in our programming, our indoor and outdoor learning environments, sparing no expense in equipment or resources that will help the children learn while having fun.


Our contemporary state-of-the art campuses, inspired by theory and research, offers a boutique service that sets the foundation to high quality early learning. A strong focus to environment design, inclusive of rich learning experiences within a natural and landscaped outdoor setting. An abundance of prime play spaces supporting early childhood development, inclusive of specialised and highly trained early childhood professionals guiding educational curriculum delivery. Our commitment to create a culture of excellence, our campuses are equipped with high calibre resources to support each child to grow and flourish, through our innovative programs.


These all make us standout from others, and we make sure to highlight all of these things in the community, in our marketing, to our stakeholders. We also put the children and our staff front and centre of every decision we make, we don’t exist with the staff and children, so they everything we do is and should be about them/for them.


We knew we were on the right track when families started talking about Little Scholars at BBQs on the weekend. Word of mouth is the ultimate form of marketing for any business. It takes time to build your reputation and while this is happening, consistency is super important.


Lesson 6 – Challenges will always test you but teach you what you’re made of.


During the pandemic, when vaccinations were mandated for our industry, we lost a lot of employees who decided their stance on vaccines or mandates was more important than their roles at that time. We understood it was a contentious topic, but it made it difficult to run our campuses at 100%. We increased our paid marketing on social media, offered refer-a-friend bonuses and talked to the schools that certified educators and teachers.


Staffing in this climate is still not perfect, but it’s gotten much better and thinking outside the box certainly helped us get through that tough time. We changed our focus from trying hire people (when everyone was trying to hire people) to showcasing what it’s like to work with us, we promoted what we stood for and how being a Little Scholars educator would make a difference and contribution. We know people are proud to work for us. I think people are excited to be a part of something bigger, to contribute to a grand plan, and this is not just a job, we are molding tomorrow’s movers and shakers. Now, that our staffing is almost back to normal, we can now sit back and reflect on that tough time and make changes to ensure that we are protected in the future.


Lesson 7 – Don’t underestimate yourself.


Certainly, there’s been times in my career that I’ve felt discouraged, generally connected to feelings of being overwhelmed. In those times I remind myself of everything that’s taken me to where I am now, that I’m capable and driven to succeed and those feelings pass quickly. And don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on doing an amazing job, offering exceptional programs for children, and delivering outstanding care for the children.


Whilst you may not have the flashiest centre, parents can tell when educators are engaged and making a difference in their child’s life. Listen to your team and get their input and feedback, allow them to be apart of the decisions you make, ask them what they think. It’s our team that has allowed us to get to where we are, and they teach me something new every day. My motto is never apologise for having high standards, because life can’t rise any higher than the standards you set.


We’ve focused on the future and what we want to accomplish, we don’t compare ourselves to others, we know we’re the best at what we do, and personally I remind myself frequently what I’m grateful for.


Lesson 8 – Make time for play.


I’m pretty lucky I spend my days in a sector that focuses on learning through play, so my visits to our campuses often end up in the studios with children reading, sitting at the table exploring a sensory activity or even helping them down the slide. I really love and live by the FISH philosophy – be there, play, make their day, choose your attitude, and follow these principles in anything I do. But in my personal life, I make sure I find time to have fun (and relax). Exercise does as much for my mental health as it does my physical health, so I’m training almost every day. It’s not always easy to fit in, but it’s helped my mental health so much. Oh, and a lot of chocolate, chocolate helps everything.


Lesson 9 – Be consistent.


In this very special sector, consistency in routines is so important for children to feel secure, but it’s also important for our employees. We hold weekly Monday morning meetings at our support (head) office to catch up on what everyone is working on, monthly campus manager and lead educator meetings for learning and development, sharing updates, concerns and achievements. Our look and feel in our environments is consistent across all our campuses, so that when someone talks about Little Scholars, an image is conjured.


While the campuses vary in size and layout, they all have the same homely feel. We only use natural resources and equipment as we are focused on sustainability, and we try to use local suppliers as much as possible. Timely toys, resources and the aesthetics of our campuses make people feel calm and special – many families tell us when they walk in, they feel like they are in a day spa – the smell and look is important and makes people feel welcomed and loved. Besides this, our educator uniforms are consistent so that when a parent enters the playground to pick up their child, they can identify an educator to chat with before they leave.

Lesson 10 – Know when to have the hard talks, and how to deliver them.


I’ve never apologised for having high standards and expectations of what our services offer, and our educational programs deliver – so if someone isn’t prepared to rise to those standards, we must talk about it. We are looking after people’s children and creating their future –what we are doing is important, so hard talks are necessary sometimes. If someone doesn’t want to deliver the very best for children, we must talk about that and potentially let them know, we are not the provider or employer for them.


Lesson 11 – Keep learning.


Working in the field of education, I hope it’s clear that I have a vested interest in learning. When I started out, I learnt how not to treat staff, this was a good lesson for me to learn and I also saw that this is not a business that you can be in if you are focused on profits / money – the focus MUST be on the children and staff. Do a good job, deliver a great service and exceptional educational program and the families will come and loyally support you, so therefore the business side will always work. We are constantly focusing and engaging in professional development, and I strongly encourage my teams to grow and continue learning as professionals.


Being an active executive of the Australian Childcare Alliance, both the Queensland branch and National, the peak body for the early childhood education sector, I’m constantly learning about the industry from its members, state and federal governments, regulatory authorities, and other stakeholders. But I also learn from my colleagues, including our educators, and even our families and children who come into our campuses each day.


I also learn from mistakes; I think everyone does. Starting out, we tried to do too much, offer too much as part of our service, but all the things we were doing were only average, so we learnt to peel it back, ask our families and children and team what was important to them, what did they need/want and then reduce the offering, but exceed expectations in those areas.


Lesson 12 – Listen to feedback.


We have literally thousands of voices in our Little Scholars community. It’s important to not only listen to staff, but the ‘customers’ – in our case, our families, even the children in our campuses. Everyone has an opinion, some of it can be replied with ‘I appreciate your feedback’ and left at that, but some of it is valuable. We ask for community feedback in various ways, online, our social channels, breakfasts where we host ‘food for thought’ sessions with our families as they do drop-off and other initiatives. When we renovate our campuses or install new playgrounds, we get the children involved, they draw pictures or they cut out from magazines and we then create what they want – after all the campuses are for them, so the facilities should be what they want.


We don’t always get it right and sometimes we need to refocus on initiatives or do more training with our teams or fix an issue, but it’s all about how you handle it and move forward as a company.


Lesson 13 – Stay positive.


Even though this sector is constantly challenging, it’s worth it. We must remember why we are doing what we are doing, always remind ourselves of the impact we are having for the future and also never forget the opportunities we have to set little humans up for successful futures! Any time I walk into one of our campuses, which are all at capacity, and see children laughing, running, playing, see educators’ interactions with little ones, I smile and think how proud I am of what Little Scholars is to 7,000+ families, 400+ employees across Southeast Queensland. Whenever I have a bad day, I take myself to a studio and interact with the children, it fixes everything. I also remember that one of these Little Scholars will one day, be the Prime Minster, a scientist who cures cancer, or even a teacher who continues to change the world via the very powerful tool of education. How can you not be positive?


We’ve focused on the future and what we want to accomplish, we don’t compare ourselves to others, we know we’re the best at what we do, and personally I remind myself frequently what I’m grateful for, supportive family and friends, close-knit communities that have welcomed and embraced us, and doing good work that I’m passionate about, helping little people learn and grow.


This story originally appeared on The Scholars Group Blog. To access the original please see here.

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