When it came time to enroll her children in preschool, Joanie Keays had a hard time finding a provider that satisfied her expectations. Rather than settle, she decided to leave her job to start a preschool that would provide children with an enhanced educational experience in the Granbury, Texas area.
Th First Discoveries Montessori Academy opened in the winter of 2007 after Keays stumbled on a centuries-old, child-centered educational approach. Combining mixed-age classrooms with individualized education, the Montessori Method of education is designed to encourage critical thinking in children at a young age. In addition to helping her own kids, Keays’ academy satisfied a demand from other parents in the area also looking for a nurturing, educational environment.
Unlike her previous career where she employed around 30-40 employees, Keays had little outside help to build the school. While she occasionally worked with hired contractors, Keays managed everything on her own, from developing the parent handbook to handling payroll. She also wore the hats of HR, marketing, admin, and day-to-day operations all year-round. As the school grew and enrolled new students, Keays also made sure to continuously iterate new operational processes to ensure First Discoveries was the very best it could be.
Although Keays’ original plan was to sell First Discoveries after her children graduated, she held onto the academy because she was curious to see where she could take the school. However, after a few attempts to grow the school, Keays’ desire to stick with the academy slowly dissipated. As she searched for advice on selling her school, the former businesswoman decided to try taking a shot at selling her business.
Within the first month of listing First Discoveries up for sale, Keays received no fewer than 25 serious inquiries, resulting in over a dozen tours. Having built the academy from the ground up and with children’s futures at stake, Keays required a prospect interview during each visit to ensure the new owner was sufficiently qualified.
“I had to consider what the community and our existing families at the school would want in my successor,” said Keays. After multiple interviews, the school sold for $1 million to a buyer who was passionate about taking First Discoveries to the next level.
Drawing on her experience as the founder of First Discoveries, Keays offers the following advice for others thinking about starting a business:
- Start now before it’s too late. “Reservations hold a lot of people up,” Keays said. “But the longer you go without doing something, the more you’ll feel like your time has passed.” A self-described non-executor in her 20s, Keays points to a lack of confidence and a fear of risk as preventing her from starting her own business sooner. For those thinking of entrepreneurship, there are plenty of resources available online, including BizBuySell’s Guide to Buying a Small Business, which can help guide buyers’ search for businesses in a number of industries.
- Do the work with honesty and integrity. Despite having no professional background in education, Keays found success with First Discoveries thanks to the upfront work she invested in the school. In addition to taking a hands-on approach to building the school, it was important for Keays to do everything with honesty and integrity. “You need to be able to stand behind yourself and the employees who represent you,” said Keays. She recommends constant troubleshooting to identify areas for improvement and to be transparent to avoid problems down the road.
- When the passion dies, it’s time to move on. No entrepreneur is immune to career burnout. “After my children left the school, I made plans to sell because my dreams and passion were elsewhere,” said Keays. When that interest dries up and the work becomes less fulfilling, entrepreneurs should consider listing their business with the help of a business broker or online marketplace.
Keays saw the need for better preschool education so she took matters into her own hands and built a school that met her expectations. Regardless of your prior work experience, it’s never too late to switch career paths and explore entrepreneurship as a career path. It might seem scary at first but if done right, the rewards are limitless.