Conversation with Lauren Pohl, Founder & CEO, Kidz Central Station
Bringing Search & Booking Technology to Kids’ Activities
May 2, 2018
1. What is your business?
My company is Kidz Central Station, and it is a platform that connects busy parents with kids’ activity providers. We have over 20,000 activities, so it is kind of like a personalized Google search to find kids’ activities by age, activity type, location, price, even day of the week, and time of day. What we did differently was to introduce booking technology into a space that had previously been only directories. Technology-wise, it is search coupled with booking, so it’s an e-commerce platform.
We initially started in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan with only a few activities. Through Kidz Central Station’s platform, parents are able to see full schedules for each program offered, and then with one click, they could enroll their child. Today, we have partnerships with over 500 activity providers. We like to compare our service to Open Table, only instead of booking restaurant reservations, we facilitate booking kids’ classes and activities. Kidz Central is a fantastic and simple resource for parents–no barriers to purchase, search, and book. My initial vision of the service was to help busy parents efficiently check off their to-do lists. But as we grew, we realized that kids’ activity providers also wanted exposure to parents via technology and not the traditional print advertisements. This “two-sided” marketplace has allowed us to grow Kidz Central even faster.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I was a corporate lawyer in New York City at a large firm, a position I initially thought I’d have for 6 months, and then it became six years. When I had my second child, I was searching online for a kids’ cooking class that I could take my older daughter to while on maternity leave. I had trouble finding what I was looking for, and I noticed many of the programs didn’t offer online enrollment. This was a big problem because I didn’t have access to a scanner or fax machine at home. The process was time-consuming and frustrating. I thought, “Why isn’t there something like Open Table where you can easily search by criteria that matter to you and then book?” It was clear that this was a space that was outdated, ripe for change and technology was the way to make this happen.
So while on maternity leave, my co-founder and I, who was also a corporate lawyer, started discussing this and we thought, “Why don’t we try to find a solution.” We kept looking into the idea, trying to find a reason why it didn’t make any sense, but we couldn’t figure out why no one else was doing it.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
Prior to starting Kidz Central and changing careers, we wanted to validate our idea and talked to many activity providers and parents, both formally via focus groups and informally as well. I consistently heard from so many parents that they loved the concept or they had even thought of it themselves. This consistent reinforcement from our target audience gave me the confidence to push forward.
Three years later, we were fortunate enough to be featured in a Wall Street Journal article about our business. That article was circulated nationally and internationally, and we received hundreds of emails including from parents in India, UK, Dubai and other locations that expressed their desire to have a local Kidz Central in their area. Getting that sort of feedback gave me the confidence that our business was solving a problem so many parents faced.
Incidentally, that email from the UK was from an engineer and mother who had already started building the same thing, and we ended up collaborating. So it is kind of a strange path of expansion, but I think ultimately you build your company around talent, and the UK team was a perfect match. Our current goal is to continue to expand, but also to make the New York City offerings broader.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
It was hard for me to transition from a very structured path of being a big firm corporate lawyer with a ton of resources at my disposal to starting a business in a space that I didn’t know much about. I didn’t know how to market a business, I didn’t know what SEO (search engine optimization) was, I didn’t know what SEM (search engine marketing) was, and I certainly didn’t know how to code. And on top of that, I needed to figure out how to take an idea, execute on it and put together a team of people with very limited or no budget. It was tough to find people who are equally passionate about what we were building but also had the requisite skill set.
A lot of it was really tapping into my network to see who I could speak to or be referred to in order to learn about different areas. It worked out because I was passionate about learning new things, and it was actually very interesting for me. One thing I learned is that it’s important to try to do everything yourself in the beginning so that you truly understand the details of all the tasks that you’re going to ultimately delegate to other people you hire. Also, I realized that you can’t be an expert at everything, and you need to utilize experts who will make your business better and more efficient.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
As an entrepreneur, there are many low (and high) points. It is helpful to have a support group to validate what you’re going through. It is very likely that an entrepreneur will build something, or introduce something new and it won’t be received as she/he expects. When this happened to me, I would talk to other entrepreneurs/mentors and hear similar stories and realize that this is part of building a business and that I should not give up.
6. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?
We raised friends and family money to get us off the ground, to validate our concept, and show revenue. I wasn’t comfortable going forward unless I could see that we were actually monetizing and bringing in revenue. Many startups don’t really look at revenue initially and are more focused on growth. But I just didn’t feel comfortable building my business that way.
7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I am proud that I took an idea and made it into a successful operating business. I’m proud that we have over 500 providers and 20,000 activities and keep growing. I’m proud that we have helped many small kids’ activity businesses grow and helped level the playing field for them. Lastly, I’m really proud that parents all over have found value in what we built.
8. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
I would say positive overall. I do have a lot more flexibility, and I want to be there for class trips and parent-teacher conferences. I think the negative, or the other part that goes with flexibility, is that you’re almost always working. And so, when my kids are asleep I do everything that I should have done if I was doing something with them at their school. In my family, we joke that Kidz Central is our third child.
9. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
I think it would be to take some risks. When I was younger, I was very risk averse: go to college, go to law school, work as a lawyer and work my way up at a law firm. It’s important to try something if you are excited about it. The other advice would be to know when to ask for help. I have found that when I ask for help, I get a lot of interesting advice, connect to people who know more about the subject and it’s just a much more efficient way of building something. Plus the connections that you make when you ask for advice can be extremely valuable.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Absolutely. I feel like we got to where we are now because so many busy people took time to share their stories and help. I’d be happy to do that for others.
Date of Conversation: March 19, 2018
11. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Absolutely! I always respond to people who reach out to me on social media for advice and strongly encourage everyone to join Help a Sister Up – HASU. It is a great resource for mentorship in our community not just by me, but by so many other outstanding women in cybersecurity. And their male advocates!
Date of conversation: March 1, 2018
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