“In the words of Sir Richard Branson, ‘Screw it, just do it,’” says El Brown, founder of KinderJam, a company that facilitates music and movement-oriented tactile learning programs for children. “That’s what I tell every mother who wants to start a business.”
Living by Branson’s words, Brown has achieved tremendous success. The former teacher created her program based on her own son's needs and founded KinderJam in late 2008 while living on a U.S. Army base in California, after her husband deployed to Iraq. She taught a few classes to children on base, but then expanded her reach to the civilian population. Over time, the popularity of KinderJam grew. Word of her good works made it to Oprah Winfrey, who invited her to the taping of "Oprah’s Favorite Things" in 2012.
Today Brown licenses her classes to 37 female teachers across 11 states and eight countries. Classes are taught in rented rooms; licensees are not required to own brick-and-mortar facilities.
It sounds like the last few years have been quite a ride for you. How did you come up with the idea for KinderJam?
The last few years have been nothing short of amazing. I got the idea for KinderJam when my son Ricky II was about 18 months old. He wasn’t making any attempts to speak and was showing signs of delays in motor skills. I took him to the doctor, but they told me to wait until he got older for a diagnosis. I didn’t want to wait so I decided to assess him as I would if he were a student in my classroom. I started doing tactile activities with him like pantomiming and holding stuffed animals and then telling him what the animal was. His progress was incredible; he started to talk just a few weeks later.
Did you always think your private classes with Ricky II would turn into a business?
No way. It wasn’t until a friend of mine saw me teaching Ricky II that she recommended I teach other kids on base. Once I did that, moms from outside the military asked me to teach classes at libraries and YMCAs, and that's how everything got started.
About a year after I started teaching classes, a few parents who were getting shipped to different bases asked me if they could teach my classes in their new locations, so I came up with a training program for them. Since then, I’ve had a ton of interest in licenses. Currently, I have a waiting list of 98 potential teachers.
What challenges have you faced?
I really didn’t face any challenges in the first year because I wasn’t intentionally starting a business. The challenges came when I tried to license the classes. I spent a lot of time building a training site for teachers and including videos of myself teaching classes, developing a script for each class and going through every song and every movement. It took me months to do that.
Nailing down a solid revenue model has also been a significant challenge. At first I was just charging licensees $1,000 to get started and would never ask for anything more from them. After talking with business advisors, I realized that my model wasn’t sustainable because some months I would have six people want to license classes and other months I’d have zero. It was a problem for me and for the mothers who wanted to run KinderJam classes but didn’t have $1,000 to pay upfront.
So in October 2012, I implemented a new fee structure. Now, licensees are asked to pay $120 per month for 10 months and then per capita fees based on class size. We also provide paid services such as business card creation and job placement. These days, I don’t teach classes anymore; I mostly work on the business side of things and do speaking engagements.
Tell me about going on the Oprah Winfrey show. How did that come about?
Oh, what a thrill. Last fall, Harpo Studios called and asked me to come to Washington, D.C., to screen a new show on military spouses for OWN. When I got there, several other military spouses were with me in the room. Oprah came in, introduced herself and thanked us for being there and then left. But right after she left, a curtain in our room was lifted and there was Oprah screaming, “It’s my favorite things! in front of TV cameras. That’s when I lost all bodily control [laughing].
She talked to each one of us about our stories and featured my interview on promos for the show. It was tremendous exposure for KinderJam. Our Facebook page got a lot of traffic.
What was it like to meet Oprah?
You are going to make me cry. I’ve never considered myself a groupie or anything, but when she walked out [voice breaks], I was just in awe. It was so inspiring to see her—an African American woman from humble beginnings that made it this far. Right then I realized that I could do anything, that I could grow KinderJam to a multimillion-dollar company.
What does the future hold for KinderJam?
We see ourselves as being the largest provider of preschool enrichment programs in the country. We also pride ourselves on creating mobile careers for women. We offer a perfect option for moms in all situations—military spouses on the move and civilian mothers. I want to give women the tools to succeed and convince them that they can go out and make it happen.
Read more articles on leadership.
Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. She regularly contributes to Hemispheres, USA Today, Consumers Digest, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Crain’s Chicago Business and others.
Photo: Getty Images