Has the potential but not the ambition.
A line on my fifth-grade report card somehow stuck in the back of my mind forever. At that time it didn’t make much sense to me: What kind of ambition can a fifth-grader have? My mother didn’t pay too much attention to it either: As long as my grades were good, she wasn’t too worried about whether lack of ambition would pose a problem in my future. After all, girls in the 1980s in India didn’t have much of a choice – their life path was fairly well defined by society. Go to school, get reasonably good grades, finish your undergraduate degree (in something), get married (preferably into a reasonably wealthy family), have kids, and do “something” to occupy your time. There were never discussions on what that “something” would be because it was understood that whatever “it” was would never interfere with family, taking care of the house, husband, in-laws, etc. That was and always would be the primary goal of a female growing up in India.
Searching for “something”
So fast forward about 30 years and I was in the USA with two kids, my husband working full-time, and desperately wanting to do “something.” A full-time job seemed impractical; if my husband works 12-hour days, who would look after the growing children? Again, the “something that fit in” thought reared its head.
And so I thought of teaching. It seemed easy enough and was something that I had always enjoyed. It would fit the criteria of being home when the kids were home because hey – I wouldn’t need to teach if schools were closed right? So I got my CBEST certification and applied to become a sub. Then realized that to sub in schools meant I had to get to school BEFORE the kids got there and most days I would need to stay AFTER the kids left! Hmm… that didn’t quite fit my perception of a “fit in” job.
Some hits, some misses
Then I thought of teaching a recreation class at daycare centers. Maybe that would be easier to do, didn’t require licensing. Since I was a computer science major, I went hunting for software for kids and found a company called Imagine Tomorrow that created a curriculum to teach some simple computer skills to young kids. They had a network of licensees. I didn’t do a lot of research but the initial investment was about $9000, which seemed to be quite reasonable. I bought 10 computers and started doing the rounds at various daycares, learning how to sell (some hits, some misses).
After about two years, I realized that although the business was making decent revenue, the bulk of the money was going into franchise fees. I would whine about it at home but couldn’t see a way out. Then one day – through sheer serendipity – I was volunteering with my daughter’s LEGO Robotics group and thought, “This is such a fascinating way to learn! Why don’t we have younger kids do this?” I searched online and found that LEGO has an education arm that makes different types of Robotics kits, for kids of all ages! I bought one kit, played around with it, and then thought to myself, “Well this might be something that I could teach!” I was a bit nervous because until then, the only experience I had with LEGOs were the ones we bought for our kids. But I thought, It’s LEGOs! How hard could it be?
Finding My Fit… with LEGOs
And that’s how it started! I created a curriculum, called the program RobotED (Robotics +Education), and began weaning away from the Imagine Tomorrow franchise. I taught the first sessions myself, learned the ins and outs of building LEGO models that move and how to teach it to kids; realized that I needed new content constantly (because the classes were a hit but kids wanted something new each time), started hiring teachers, then a shared office space, then a bigger office…and so on and so forth. 10 years after I first started, we had 50 schools in the Bay Area, Portland, and Denver.
And then COVID hit. And with that schools shut down and revenue slowed to a trickle. I had all of the inventory of LEGO kits and computers, but nowhere to teach and nobody to teach it to. Robotics requires students to have the kit and software to create a programmed, moving LEGO model. All of which we provided during on-site classes but could not offer in an online format since no parent wanted to spend $200 to have their child sit for one more hour in front of a computer. We started teaching some coding classes online but did not get much traction, as competition for coding classes is fierce and so much is readily available for free on the Internet. So we pivoted and started researching alternatives for our Robotics program. We found a product that was cheaper, simpler, and more or less suited to our needs. And we started from scratch again…
In all this, I realized that hardly any part of the work I chose to do “fit in.” The classes we teach are “after-school enrichment” which meant that I had to figure out where to keep my kids for at least two hours after their school ended. Running a business meant that during non-class times I had to deal with the multitude of other things required to keep that business going: insurance, taxes, hiring, marketing. School holidays were my busiest days because that’s when parents needed my classes the most! As overwhelming as it sometimes was, it was also fulfilling, creative, and educational. Plus, when I needed to, I could even bring my kids to the classes!
So – if I had to bullet point lessons learned and still-to-be-learned it would be: I learned that:
- Ambition doesn’t have to be “burning” all the time. Sometimes it can be a low-but-steady-glow too!
- What you start with and what you end up doing will always be different!
- Everybody in the world has different balls to juggle at different stages of life and we each make a conscious decision as to which ones to hold onto. Those that we let go of should never be perceived as a failure but rather as a necessary release in order to juggle the remaining ones better.
- Constantly remind yourself that you work for your business.
- Don’t spend time on creating “the perfect” marketing content – simple works just as well!
- Don’t hesitate to cold-email. …it works! (And as Jill Salzman has reminded us often – it’s OK to follow up)
- Always respond to customers as soon as you humanly can!
- Even if you don’t need the money – pay yourself each month and save some each month.
- Support can and will come from many sources – a partner, family, friend, a group on Facebook – always reach out to as many as you can!
… and still learning
I’m still learning:
- How to leverage different social media for marketing.
- How to read my company’s balance sheet and understand it.
- How to quote a higher price – and stick to it.
- How to allocate time each week to spend on business related numbers.
- And many more things that I’ve yet to discover I need to know!
If I had to do this all over again – sure, there are definitely some things I would change! Don’t believe anybody who says “I wouldn’t change a thing!” I would have planned my business a bit better, taken some basic finance courses earlier, kept track of my numbers better…
…But what matters is – I WOULD choose to do this all over again!
About Vrinda Joshi
Guest Post: Vrinda Joshi is the owner and founder of Tiny Techs Club – a Bay Area, California-based company that offers enrichment programs for young learners in Robotics and Coding. Find them on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.