Tiny Hoppers; How We Got Started
- February 09, 2017
- Theresa Bertuzzi
The idea for the start of the original Tiny Hoppers happened one night between my best friend, Brigida, and me while we were on an evening drive looking for the close out sale of the White Rose craft store. We got lost trying to find the store and happened to pass by my son’s play gym where we attended weekly parent and child play classes. I explained how much I loved going to the play classes and that was it; we brainstormed, just for fun, how we would run a play centre if we had the opportunity. Less than one year later we would open the doors on our own play gym. I would like to say that we had a fantastic business plan but it would be a lie. The truth is we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, small children in tow, and had very little start-up funds but what we did have was a determination to make it work, a willingness to work really hard, long hours, and sheer dumb luck. We never could have dreamed that 12 years after opening we would be selling our original centre in our little neighbourhood to provide us with the time needed to manage a fast growing daycare franchise, with 15 centres and many more on the way. We also never would have dreamed that we would have locations literally on the other side of the world. It really was a dream come true but it did not come easily and there were tons of hilarious and not so funny goof ups and speed bumps along the way that made our journey only that much more interesting.
When we first started out we thought that we were all set. Brigida had a business background and was in charge of marketing at Grey Hound for many years and I was a kindergarten teacher who also had degrees in both Primary Junior Education and Early Childhood Education so we did make a great team. Together we would design the centre and I would take charge of picking equipment, designing the play class programs and leading the classes. I wanted to continue spending time at home with my two little boys as, at the time, I was on maternity leave with my middle child leading up to our opening, so I would lead the play classes during the day and evenings as I could bring my children to work with me. Brigida did not have children yet so she kept on with her job at Greyhound for the first few years and would run the business end of the company at the same time. Ambitious? Oh yes! The first five years we literally worked all day and a good portion of the night, seven days a week. If you ever passed by Tiny Hoppers on a Friday night you would surely find us there at three in the morning cleaning the play gym, decorating and changing up the play room to coordinate with our weekly play themes only to be back there at eight o’clock to open the doors for all of our tiny clients who were so excited to see how we transformed the place during the night. It was so much work but so much fun and now that we are running a decent sized franchise I look back on those first years with such nostalgia and longing for a time that was so exciting. I often watch our newest franchisees with a smile on my face as they struggle and have their own melt downs because I know or hope that one day they will look back on that time as some of the happiest years of their lives too.
Our first task was to find a place for our centre. We wanted to start it up in our own neighbourhood as it was a hot spot for young families and at the time the neighbourhood was pretty cut off from the rest of the city and you had to drive pretty far to get to any sort of activities for the children. When we first met with our landlord from Urbandale and explained our plans he looked at us like we were completely insane. He asked us to clarify exactly what types of things we would be doing with the children and when I said “parachute play” he was horrified and asked “you mean children are going to be parachuting off of the roof?” He really couldn’t grasp exactly what we had in mind but he was pretty worried that the two of us were getting ourselves into way more than we could handle and he expressed his worry that we were literally going to lose our shirts on this venture. He really did not encourage us too much and it was not because he was being difficult but we truly liked each other right from the beginning and he was trying to save us from what I am sure he supposed was an impending disaster. In the end he became one of our biggest cheerleaders and he was so proud of us as our company grew and grew, constantly letting everyone know at the Urbandale headquarters just how well those two crazy Tiny Hoppers’ ladies were doing. We also had a fabulous lawyer at the time who also explained to us the pure insanity of what we were attempting and even chuckled at our setting ourselves up as a franchise right from the beginning. He did save our butts though as we were poised to make many, many unfortunate mistakes and I remember a moment when he literally turned to us and said “hang on, hang on, now we are all going to jail if we do this,” which was immediately followed by Brigida and I placing our head between our knees to breath and keep ourselves from fainting. If it was not for his advice and guidance I am certain that we would have literally ended up doing something to get ourselves into deep trouble.
When we started out we each took out a personal line of credit for 25,000 dollars so we had a grand total of 50,000 dollars to invest. This is a ridiculously small amount of money to start a company and I still don’t know how we got by those first few years. When we expanded our centre years later in the neighbourhood with a move to a new mall the expansion cost over 400,000 to put in perspective how little capital we were working with. This meant that we literally had to do everything ourselves with help of family and friends. Brigida came up with our business name almost immediately and we both loved it and then our good friend, who is a graphic designer, did an amazing job designing us a logo on her own time and helping us argue our way through colour choices and ideas for our first flyers. When the centre was first handed over to us it was literally a cement box and we had the dry wall installed but it was Brigida, I and our husbands who laid every piece of flooring, hammered on base boards and painted the place from top to bottom and not one of us had any experience at doing any of this. Online “How To” videos became our guides and we would literally attack employees at the local home depot with a million questions on how to paint, construct and lay tile. They would cower when they saw us coming as we would have them change the paint colour over and over until we got it right and manipulate them into cutting everything for us.
Those weeks leading up to our opening were exhausting. We would work all night in the centre trying to get it open in time. We had no lights or heat and it was the middle of winter. This sounds like one of those stories where you tell your kids how you trudged to school through the deep snow every day but I am not exaggerating. We had one spotlight plugged in and we worked by its dim light and we were all dressed in full winter clothing to keep warm. Our husbands would laugh at our attempts to nail on base boards and would often send us off on errands to try to get us out of the way so they didn’t have to listen to our well-meaning suggestions and advice. One night they sent us to clean out the paint sprayer and we jumped at the chance because we were literally freezing to death. So we headed to Brigida’s kitchen to clean it out. Never clean a paint sprayer in your kitchen! Within minutes Brigida had hit a wrong button and there was a nice outline of my entire body on her kitchen cupboards while I was completely covered from head to toe with grey paint. This was followed by an hour of scrubbing to get the paint off of the cupboards before Brigida’s husband saw it. When we got back to Hoppers, Brigida’s husband took one look at my orange body and face, looked at Brigida and asked “please tell me that that did not happen in the house?” We didn’t respond and he just shook his head and kept painting.
Once we had the place painted, floors laid, baseboards on and lights installed we got to start what we thought was going to be the fun part and we loaded in climber after climber. We had purchased a whole bunch of these amazing snap wall climbers that were supposed to be easy to snap together. They were easy to put together after years of use wearing them down but brand new they were impossible and hours of work resulted in the two of us falling into a sobbing heap in the middle of the play room floor with all of the pieces still surrounding us. We were exhausted and finished. We each put a shaky voiced call out to our big brothers who showed up the next day and hammered them all in place for us. They then proceeded to direct us as to where we should put them all and obnoxiously inspected our sad, sad attempts at laying the floors and baseboards but we were so grateful that they had saved us on the climber that they were literally our heroes that day. Little would they know just how many things they would have to build for us and Brigida’s brother in law took care of building our half wall, to stop the children from getting out of the play area and our reception area. All of our families helped out with building toys, decorating and cleaning the centre and when it was all done we were so excited with how it turned out. All of our decorations were made by hand and everything was built by us but it still looked like a fabulous and fun place to play and the children who loaded into our centre over the first few weeks would enter with huge eyes, excited to come in and play. We naively faced our first week with smiles on our face, hope in our hearts, and absolutely no money left. Not a glamorous beginning at all but we had so much fun and it would be a journey that would change both of our lives forever.