Summer Picha and Katie Wagoner were inspired to start a year-round Montessori school after attending a conference in Chicago.
They opened their doors in September 2010 with one student. Their school, Peaceful Valley Montessori Academy, is located in the Golden Valley area of the Twin Cities (Minnesota, USA). It is a year round school serving infants through kindergarten-aged students. They are growing by leaps and bounds and have just opened a new facility to accommodate their new enrollments.
I asked Summer to share the story of their startup days with us. I have come back to read this story over and over again and continue to be amazed at Summer’s spirit and tenacity. I think you will find her background and success very inspiring!
How did you discover Montessori and what made you fall in love with it?
I moved to the Minneapolis area when I was 19 years old. It was not a planned out decision, very spur of the moment. Needless to say, I didn’t have any money saved up!
I took a job working at an upscale mall, selling baby clothing. At this time I was also attending night school to become a social worker and learning how to feed a family of 4 on $21/week. It was an extremely difficult time.
One day while waiting for the store to open I opened the yellow pages (does this date me or what?!) A large advertisement for a Montessori school was staring me in the face. I didn’t know what Montessori was at the time; I just knew that I was truly happy when I was working with children. On my lunch break that day I went in for an interview and never returned to the baby-clothing store.
I was absolutely amazed after a few weeks of observing. My observation notes became more detailed and the Guide began to tell me what she was looking for. I began to scientifically look at the children and the classroom. It was incredible!
One day in August I was observing a blonde girl who was doing the walking-on-the line activity. She had a bean bag on her head. The sunlight was streaming in. This small child was so joyful, peaceful, and happy. I just started crying. It was that exact moment that I knew this was for me.
I spoke with the Guide after lunch and she encouraged me to call the Training Center of MN. In fact she dialed the phone for me! It turns out, an international student had a visa issue and they had one spot available, to start in 6 days. I wrote my entrance essay, had my interview with the AMI Trainer, and began my training.
Did you have experience running a business prior to starting your school?
No. I had no idea what I was doing! Luckily, I have a charismatic personality and I love people so I could “fake it until you make it” pretty easily. As for the internal structure of the business…well, lets just say that’s a goal to dive into this year!
What made you want to open a school (rather than just teach/send your child to Montessori etc.)?
Flash back to 19 yr old Summer, working at the first Montessori school with the amazing Guide. The director at the time was incredibly supportive. She actually co-signed for a loan so I could take the Montessori training. She has become a trusted mentor and friend throughout the years. I distinctly remember her telling me that Montessori was a calling for me, but if I ever wanted to make money in this field I had to own a school. Ever since that conversation I knew I would own a school someday. I began buying Montessori materials at the age of 20 and hauled them with me as I moved throughout my 20’s. I had 30 cots that I moved 4 times!
Fast forward 10 years, I had met and married my husband and had completed a three year teaching cycle at an AMI school. I am grateful for the three year teaching cycle and the opportunity to learn about many job duties above and beyond teaching that I learned from that opportunity.
I moved on to another AMI school as the Extended Day Coordinator. My position was 11-6 in a separate room containing many materials, but not a complete set. I had all of the 2-4 year olds in the school (3 classrooms) for lunch and nap, and the non-nappers stayed up and had a work cycle. I loved the school and was grateful to be part of the team. The school was well known and well respected and I was gaining a reputation for working there.
It was this school that sent me to a conference in Chicago on All Day/Year Round Montessori. I went thinking that it would be fun to go to Chicago and have the school pay for a mini vacation. Little did I know it would be life changing!!! I was so inspired. This is exactly what I was looking for. I had the same feeling that I had when I “discovered” Montessori. I went back home to my boss and said we have to do all day/year round. He was “glad that I was inspired, but that was not the direction that the school was headed.”
That was a defining moment in my life. I could stay where I was, knowing that I think there is a better way or I could go somewhere else and try to change their way, or I could start my own. At this time all-day/year round was unheard of in our area.
My business partner, Katie, and I held our breaths and decided to jump in!
So, in summary I guess I started a school because I wanted to be able to make money doing something I love and because I didn’t want to be told what to do.
How long did it take between the time you seriously started planning and the day you opened?
We returned from the conference in June, signed the lease for the building in August, found out I was pregnant in September, became an LLC in September, worked for an entire academic school year at our jobs while working on remodeling and licensing, had a baby in May, and opened the following September. Phew!
How did you find the right space for your school?
I knew at a young age that I would open a school so I was always on the lookout for spaces. My husband went to school for architecture and loved to look at buildings. When we were dating we used to drive around and scope out properties or take pictures of cool windows or parts of buildings that would be amazing for a school. It was an inexpensive hobby of ours.
When opening a school became a real possibility, my business partner, my husband, and I examined the census to gain an understanding of where a school would be necessary. We also looked at other schools and daycares in the area to judge our demographic and competition.
I distinctly remember looking on Craigslist and seeing an office space with a beautiful, sunny atrium. I was a nanny that summer and I loaded up the child and drove across town to see the space. Across the street from the office was a free standing building with a large piece of land on the side. I peeked in the windows and immediately knew that this was our space. We signed the lease that day.
What were the main things you worked on during the planning stage?
During the planning stage we worked on:
- Bringing the building up to code
- Working with the city to change zoning regulations
- Learning all about state/city fire code, handicap accessibility and occupancy requirements
- Ordering materials, building shelves, buying and assembling tables and chairs and playground equipment
How did you budget for your startup? What were your startup costs? What did you prioritize spending on?
We took out a $10,000 loan in my husband’s name. A friend lent us $5000. We maxed out every credit card we had. We sold everything and anything of value and still found ourselves needing more money to start.
Estimated Startup Costs:
- Rent/utilities while we were not open-$15,000
- Renovations-$17,000 (most were able to be negotiated into the lease to be paid over 5 years)
We didn’t really prioritize anything, we paid for things as they came up. We had a very simple business model; money coming in must be equal to or greater than money going out. Five years in, I feel that we can look into the inner workings of the business model and make changes.
It’s time to stop operating on cash flow and begin running a solid business!
Describe your program in its first year. How is it different now?
- Hours: 7am-6pm
- Three programs: Half day (8:30-11:45) Full Day (8:30-3:30) and Extended Day (7-6)
- Days: M-F
- Ages: 33 mos-6yrs initially. We started getting a lot of phone calls for toddlers so we changed our license to accept 5 students under the age of 2.5.
- Capacity: 29 students due to city code
- Staff: Katie and Summer. We did have a CPA/Payroll company because we had no idea what we were doing and didn’t want to get into trouble with the IRS.
- Actual Student count:
- September 1
- October 3
- December 12
- by the end of the year probably around 20
2014/2015 —Golden Valley Location
- Hours: 7-6
- Three Programs: Half Day + Lunch (8:30-12:45 lunch required) FD (8:30-3:30) and ED (7-6)
- Days: required M-F (one family comes 4 days a week, but pays for 5)
- Ages: 2.5 yrs-6yrs
- Capacity: 30 (received a variance from DHS)
- Actual Student count: 30+ (we keep getting phone calls and asking for variances from DHS!)
- Katie and Summer co-Founders/Directors
- AMI Lead Guide
- 2 morning assistants
- One extended day coordinator
- One 2-7 assistant/cleaner
* Rockford location scheduled to open soon!
- Hours: 6-6
- Days: M-F
- Ages: 6 weeks-6yrs
- Capacity: 60+
- Katie and Summer Co-Founders/Directors
- Assistant Director to go back and forth between both locations
- Infant lead & 2 infant assistants
- Toddler lead & 2 toddler assistants
- Primary Lead & 2 primary assistants
- 2 extended day coordinators
- 2-4 floaters
How did you get your first few students?
What were your recruitment tactics when no one knew about your school?
Katie and I knew that we had nothing to go on except aesthetics and our ability to sell Montessori. We made our space very inviting and beautiful. We came up with a scripted tour, which both of us memorized so we could make sure we said everything we needed to say to potential families.
We did the typical open houses, handing out flyers, and talking to every person with a child at the park and grocery stores. I distinctly remember walking in a parade with my six day old baby!
We had a few open houses before we were licensed and a few people stopped in, probably out of nosiness. We recorded their info and reached out to them as soon as we were cleared to open. A boy from the neighborhood enrolled and was our first student. Another neighbor started in October. After that, we had a few enrollments based on drive-bys.
We had to be very flexible in the beginning. We accepted students part time, as low as one day a week. We discounted tuition drastically just to get people in the door. Finances were a struggle but we knew it wouldn’t be forever. We also knew that we wouldn’t be able to spread our message of Montessori if we weren’t open. The discounts and part time students were temporary. Keeping that in mind really helped.
Tell us about your emotional journey. What was your biggest challenge during the startup phase? What gave you the most satisfaction?
For me, very specifically, it’s all emotional. During the start up phase I couldn’t separate business from emotion. I genuinely think I will never be the same person ever again.
We knew our vision and our close friends and family understood to a certain extent. However, we encountered a lot of judgment from the Montessori community in our area and did not feel very supported in many ways.
The highs are high and the lows are low. There are deep feelings of defeat, where it almost feels like you can’t go on another minute and can’t handle another day and there are ecstatic and euphoric feelings of making a huge difference in our world and the triumph and success of helping the families and the community.
There are phone calls, emails and tears of joy on a weekly basis saying thank you, thank you for saving our family/loving our child/taking the time to explain or meet make it worth it.
There’s the humbling idea that because of my hard work, sweat, tears, and struggle, our staff members have jobs and can support their families.
The whole story is so ridden with emotion that I honestly don’t think I can separate the good from the bad. It’s all intertwined; the good only happening because of the bad and the bad building something up inside of me that can only result in something good… or something broken and I know I’m not broken yet!
Looking back at who I was before opening a school, a few adjectives that would probably describe me would be kind, gentle, nice, sweet, innocent, naive, perfectionist, wide eyed, unaware, trusting.
Now I would say a handful still apply but I would add/change some to smart, skeptical, professional, classy, poised, guarded, quick, self-reflective.
It may seem that the latter is not as desirable but that’s not true. I’m so grateful for the life lessons that have come along with my journey and who I have become. I genuinely feel that I am on the path to becoming my true self.
Now that you’ve been established for a while, what are your best tips for:
Marketing your program?
1. PUT A SIGN UP RIGHT AWAY!!! For some reason we didn’t put a sign up until we were open about two years.
2. Find a mastermind or support group to keep you accountable.
3. Create a brand and mission statement.
4. Figure out your demographic and market to them.
5. Find your niche and communicate what it is. *HINT: it has to be more then Montessori. What are people in your demographic looking for (security system, lunch, art, music…)
6. Do community events to get your brand out there.
7. Create trust with the parents (your clients) from the first interaction.
8. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Educate, educate, educate!
9. Don’t stop learning. Learn from all aspects of the world. Observe how customer service works in many fields, observe how people you admire act and what are they reading. Observe how other businesses make you feel. Keep Going!!!
10. Drip drip drip…don’t try to do it all at once. Drip little nuggets of education all of time.
11. Position yourself as an expert. You know what you are doing!
Finding and training staff?
1. Create systems that can be duplicated by others—that is probably the biggest piece of advice I can give. In order to move forward in business others have to be able to help. This is my biggest challenge.
2. Create a clear mission/vision statement so people understand what your program is about.
3. Remember no one will be you…take others where they are and train them!
4. Do not put yourself or your program into a box.
Continuing parent education?
1. Know your demographic
2. Listen to your demographic.
3. Don’t be offended by what people tell you
4. Listen to what people aren’t saying…
5. Try to reach people several different ways
6. Take the parents where they are too, use several different opportunities to drip philosophy without offending them. As Montessorians we tend to take our work very seriously. People are looking for childcare or school for a number of different reasons. But, most importantly they are looking for a special, safe, and fun place to take their children.
Doing it all/finding balance/productivity?
1. I work all the time.
2. I have a lot of support. My business partner and husband are supportive.
3. I enjoy my work. Work is my hobby.
4. I don’t know if I am balanced…ask me in a few years!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I have a couple of quotes that inspire me greatly.
“My life was divided into before and after. There is no going back to the before, but a chance to live the after. I have to decide”
“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness—life’s painful aspect—softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient for being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose—you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would just all go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have the energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
“Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.”