We Bootstrapped An $18K/Month Virtual Pre-School Business

Published: July 11th, 2022
Ellis Annichine
Founder, New Sphere, LLC
New Sphere, LLC
started March 2020
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Note: This business is no longer running. It was started in 2020 and ended in 2023. Reason for closure: Shut down.

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Ellis Annichine and I am the owner and CEO of New Sphere. We offer virtual preschool classes for children ages 2 - 6 years old. We currently have three separate programs: Toddler and Me (2 years old), It’s Circle Time (3-4 years old) and Kinder Prep (4-5 years old).

Our customers are parents that are home with their children, for various reasons. Our interactive, live classes are 45 to 50 minutes long and include a comprehensive early education curriculum to prepare their children for a foundation of learning.

The virtual preschool began at the end of 2020. The original plan was actually to open an in-person preschool in Sacramento, CA in May 2020. For reasons we all know that did not go as planned. The company decided to transition to virtual due to the COVID pandemic and it took off!

We currently have 100 customers and approximately $18,000 in MRR. We employ a team of 9 teachers who are located all across the United States.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The idea was originally developed by one of my business partners, Phil Plante. He had planned to open an in-person preschool in Sacramento. When COVID hit in 2020 the plans for an in-person preschool had to be halted and Phil decided to pivot, taking his in-person preschool virtual.

My background is over 10 years of experience working at in-person preschools in Admissions, Administration, and eventually as a Director for a Preschool. I joined the team in 2021 when I was looking for the next step in my career. I had always been interested in remote education and when the pandemic hit it seemed like the perfect time to make the switch. I was also pregnant with my first child, Daisy, in 2020 and decided I wanted to be able to work from home with her.

We rounded out our team with Emma Fletcher, a software engineer, to build the remote tools we needed to connect our teachers and our families. Phil and Emma previously worked together on a Real Estate Analytics Platform called Rentlytics. Rentlytics was acquired in 2018 by RealPage, Inc a larger real estate software company.

The team has been through a few changes over the past two years. At this point, Emma Fletcher owns the majority stake of the company, runs all day-to-day operations, and makes all decisions regarding the business. I function as the CEO while Emma has taken on the role of CTO. Though in a small, bootstrapped business we bother to wear a lot of different hats depending on what the day brings.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The first program launched was It’s Circle Time for 3 - 6-year-olds. . We used Zoom and spreadsheets to coordinate the classes. Class rosters were stored in spreadsheets and zoom links were emailed out to families for the classes they were enrolled in. To be honest it was a very manual (an error-prone ) process! But we were able to validate the idea that YES preschoolers could stay engaged in an online class for 45 minutes.

We decided to expand our programs and offer Kinder Prep for older preschoolers who were preparing to enter Kindergarten. This allowed us to tailor the curriculum to the younger students in It’s Circle Time and cover more advanced topics in Kinder Prep. The Kinder Prep classes were a huge success! Many parents were worried during COVID that their children would enter kindergarten behind because of the time at home during the pandemic.

In 2021 we decided the spreadsheet and zoom links in emails weren’t working for our scaling business. The manual process of emailing out zoom links was becoming cumbersome and causing a significant amount of support requests when someone would accidentally not get cc’d on the right email.

We decided to create a dedicated web app for our teachers and families. We built the web app using Django/Python. We only build features on an as-needed basis, focusing first on zoom meeting creation and permissions. Typically features are done manually, then using some sort of automated no-code solution (like Zapier), and then eventually put into our customer web app.

Describe the process of launching the business.

The initial launch was very scrappy. I wasn’t even a part of the team yet, I didn’t end up joining until about six months after launch. Because of the COVID pandemic parents were understandably struggling to figure out how to keep their kids engaged and socialized at home when they could not send their kids to preschool.

That is where New Sphere came in. The initial customers were found using Facebook groups and word of mouth. They're an initial explosion of interest in Fall 2020 because everyone was rushing to find a solution to this challenge.

I have learned that timing in life is everything. Being passionate about what you do always leads you down the right path. You can’t go wrong with enjoying what you do.

In 2021 after the basic idea was validated I joined to provide my expertise in preschool administration. This was also around the time Emma joined to build a more robust system because the spreadsheet solutions weren’t working anymore. We did a “re-launch” in March 2021 which included an updated brand image and the launch of our Parent Dashboard that allows our customers to join classes and manage their subscriptions easily.

There are also several administrative features built into our custom web app that allow us to administer the programs without hiring a large number of customer support representatives.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

In 2020 and early 2021 we didn’t have to do much to attract customers. The COVID pandemic was in full swing and our parents spread information about our program through word of mouth.

In mid-2021 and into 2022 we had to adjust our strategies as people have begun returning to in-person. We are now focused on Work From Home parents, those who have transitioned to fully remote and will not be returning to an office, and homeschool families where our programs can help provide some daily socialization and integrate into the homeschool curriculum.

We are still experimenting with different marketing strategies but have seen a lot of success with our Affiliate Program. Having a social media presence has helped our credibility. I believe that people and families want to know the face behind the company. We have two Instagram accounts, my one and our company one. They are growing separately but we use the same content so there is crossover.

Most of our traffic does come uniquely from our Instagram accounts, which we use UTM parameters to track. This is helpful because it shows us what platform to put most of our time in. For us, that's Instagram.

We connect with parent influencers, particularly on Instagram. We offer a variety of partnership opportunities and often tailor the partnership to the Influencer and what resonates best with their followers.

Everyone has probably read this before: but just start. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Five years from now you could be owning your own company or still working for the one that you are now.

We also focus heavily on our Free Trial Program which has been through a few iterations. In the current version, families can try 1 week free in any of our programs. The trial students are placed in an actual New Sphere class and can enroll in that class, with that instructor, and those other students once their free trial is complete.

The relationship aspect with our instructors and students is what sets our programs apart. We focus on fostering that relationship consistently so the teacher can help each student grow to their full potential.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today we are running three separate online programs for children ages 2 to 6. Our operations have leveled out and while we always have areas for improvement, we are happy with our journey so far. We have improved our substitute process for our instructors and overall experience by providing a full lesson plan, with interactive links to resources.

What I think I am: hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and kind. Do you have those four qualities too? Start a business. You will not regret it.

Our social media following is steady with over 2K followers. We are always looking to support more friends. We are building our email list that is currently 4K subscribers. Our future is bright!

In the future, we are working on expanding our content to our audience to be a full-service educational company. Our current initiative is providing free printables to our audience. The data shows that these resources are 2X more popular than any other content we have provided to our audience.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

My journey here has been unique. I am the first to acknowledge that. However, I believe there are always many things that a person can learn, in all walks of life. For me, this was my first ever employment with a startup. Imagine that?!

Anyone reading this knows how challenging a startup can be and then someone comes along with a corporate background? Makes me chuckle.

I have learned that timing in life is everything. Being passionate about what you do always leads you down the right path. You can’t go wrong with enjoying what you do.

One last thought here, we were blindsided as a company with some accounting errors. The challenges were that the company we hired for accounting did not correctly report and manage our payroll expenses. This ultimately provided us with incorrect accounting information for our runway.

We ended up stopping our contract with them and hiring another company to handle our bookkeeping. - make sure you have a good accountant and bookkeeper! Always have a bookkeeper.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use several tools to help operations run more efficiently. Emma and I handle all the day-to-day administrative tasks for the business so we look for the most cost-effective solutions that can save us time

  • ZenDesk – Collaborative on support requests is key! With a team of two, we need to be able to easily respond to customer requests. I work in the Eastern time zone while Emma is in the Pacific time zone so I might answer a customer question in the morning but Emma will complete the request in the evening.

  • Stripe – For managing all payments and subscriptions. Emma tells me it is wonderful to work with them as a software developer. I also find the user interface intuitive.

  • Zapier – For automating quick tasks. Though Emma does write some custom software for our products she is an engineering team of 1. So for small things we set up a Zap. This is also helpful for proof of concept ideas that we may or may not integrate into our Parent Dashboard.

  • Tally – Easy forms on the web. We use this when we need feedback from our customers or if we need them to RSVP for events that we run. We offer monthly parent chats that are free for anyone to attend (they don’t have to be a customer). Tally makes it easy to create and share these forms.

  • Testimonial.to – An easy way to collect customer testimonials. Anytime we have a positive interaction with a customer we ask for their testimonial and send them the link. We have a nice collection of testimonials now to pick from to use on our website.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Right now, my business partner Emma and I are reading, The Embedded Entrepreneur. Well, honestly - I am listening to it. With a toddler at home, sitting down and reading is not feasible during the day. The author brings exceptional through to building your audience. Building our audience is our main focus. . .

If my family is considered “other resources”, they have influenced me beyond words. Caring for my daughter at home while caring for my company influences me on a personal and professional level.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Everyone has probably read this before: but just start. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Five years from now you could be owning your own company or still working for the one that you are now. If you would have told me 5 years ago I would be an owner of a small business that offers preschool subscriptions - I would have told you to check your drink.

I have an interesting take on this question. I do not consider myself inspirational or unique. So, it’s funny that I am asked to write it all down to inspire someone. Am I inspiring? Not sure. Maybe some people would consider me inspirational.

What I think I am: hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and kind. Do you have those four qualities too? Start a business. You will not regret it.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are not currently hiring for any positions but check back in Fall 2022. We typically see a jump in enrollments at that time and are often looking for virtual teachers to open new classes.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!