Thinking about starting a childcare center? Maybe you love working with little ones but also have some business savvy? Or perhaps you’ve noticed a shortage of childcare options in your area and think your community could use more services? Whatever your reason, this is a big undertaking, and you’ve got your work cut out for you. But the good news is that if you do your research, develop a clear plan, and stay organized, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goal of starting a childcare center.
Your success will depend on careful management of the process from start to finish and beyond. Starting a childcare center should prove to be a rewarding and successful venture if you approach the planning, building, and launching phases in a systematic way. If you follow our step-by-step guide to starting a childcare center, you’ll lay the groundwork for growing and maintaining a thriving and respected business.
Phase 1: Pre-launch
Set your program goal
Before you embark on this adventure, you should be certain it’s right for both you and your community. Do a needs assessment before investing your time and money into starting a childcare center. Consider all your options: Are you planning an in-home program, or will you look for a facility? What age groups will you consider? Will you serve school-aged kids or only preschoolers? Whatever you are considering as your focus, Child Care Aware is a great resource as you start your planning process. They publish guides to each type of childcare business and walk you through the process from the planning level and beyond. You’ll be visiting their website as a resource often throughout this process, so spend some time reviewing all of the helpful materials they offer at this early planning stage.
Learn the rules and regulations
Once you’ve settled on a program direction for your center, you’ll need to take a look at the regulations surrounding your program type. Each state has licensing requirements for childcare facilities, and you’ll want to follow them to the letter. The National Database of Child Care Licensing Regulations has a state-by-state list of licensing requirements as a starting point. You’ll also most likely be governed by your state as a small business owner, too. Check with your local government for all the rules and regulations on starting a childcare center.
Depending on the type and size of your program, you’ll also need several different types of insurance policies, including liability, property, workers’ compensation, and business insurance. Again, both child care and small business licensing requirements will provide guidance.
Develop detailed business plans
Writing a childcare business plan is a big task, but due diligence and hard work invested up front will set you and your center up for success. Your business plan will hash out your organizational structure, staffing, operations, budgets, insurance policies, marketing, and more. This is another research-heavy stage of this process, with a focus on understanding how much money you’ll need to successfully launch a childcare business. Are you using your own money, or are you seeking a small business loan? The U.S. Small Business Association’s website has details on creating each necessary piece of a successful business plan.
Decide on a philosophy and curriculum
Business plans and financial modeling may not be second nature to you, but knowledge of early childhood developmental needs is. This is the fun part, and will likely tap into your real strengths as a childcare professional. Whether you are envisioning a play-based Reggio approach or an outdoor-focused program, you’ll need to document this for your families and your staff. You'll also need to choose a daycare or preschool name that will make a lasting impression on prospective families. Once your guiding philosophy is outlined, you’ll have a framework with which to begin building detailed daily schedules to serve your center.
Phase 2: Launch
Find a location
Now that you’ve nailed down what you’re hoping to offer and how you’ll accomplish it, your plan will enter the exciting phase of actually making it happen. First things first, you need a location! Will you be remodeling your home to accommodate your center? Or are you looking for a facility to rent? In any case, you’ll need to find your childcare business a home. Start by checking your city’s zoning laws and child care licensing guidelines when you’re making this decision to be absolutely sure your location is compliant.
Prepare your facility
Once you have a location, you’ll need to prepare it. Will you be renovating, or is the facility move-in ready? Does it meet ADA guidelines? What are the fire codes for your facility? Are your appliances up to code for food storage? This is another regulation-heavy phase as you want to ensure you’re starting off on the right foot.
You’ll need furniture and loads of other day-to-day supplies, obviously, but you’ll also need health and safety equipment such as first aid kits, fire extinguishers, disaster preparedness kits, carbon monoxide detectors, etc. The list is understandably long when you are entrusted with caring for other people’s children.
You’ll also need to think through how best to set up your space for the flow of your day. Where will you store supplies? How should you organize your play centers? What’s the best floor plan for your furniture? These are all things that will evolve over time, but careful thought during this phase will get you as ready as you can be the first day you open your doors.
Create policies and procedures
While you’re working through your vision for the setup of your space, you’ll also be thinking through your day to day logistics and the nuts and bolts of running a childcare center. You’ll need to put policies and procedures in place for both your families and your staff, and gather these into handbooks. Child Care Aware offers a terrific detailed guide to this process. You’ll also develop a disaster or crisis management plan and health, safety, privacy, and nutrition protocols, all under the guidance of your local daycare licensing requirements.
Some sample policies/procedures you’ll need to think through and document:
- What are your agreed upon hours of business?
- Are there consequences for being late for pickup?
- What will you provide, and what will you ask your families be responsible for? (meals, snacks, diapers, etc.)
- What is your policy for sick children?
- Do you offer holiday care? Will you be closed for a spring or summer break?
- How will you handle tuition billing and late payments?
Find the right tools
One thing you’ve figured out if you’ve made it this far in the planning process, is that your administrative tasks as a small business owner may be daunting. You’ve got finances to manage, staff to pay, supplies to purchase, and endless licensing requirements to track, from daily attendance to incident reports to immunization records.
The good news is that technology is your friend. Brightwheel is an easy-to-use software platform that will help you manage your business and stay in touch with families. You will use brightwheel for recording and tracking daily events and activities, and parents get real-time updates delivered to their mobile device throughout the day. This powerful platform also offers digital attendance taking, reporting, messaging, and an automated paperless billing system. Use this software to streamline your administrative tasks and you’ll have more time to focus on providing top-notch child care to your families--which is your whole goal anyway, right?
A childcare center is only as good as its staff, so make your hiring decisions carefully. Verify the licensing requirements for staff to child ratios and teachers’ educational backgrounds and training certifications. Staff may be subject to criminal background checks and fingerprinting, and be sure to rigorously verify references and education levels.
Once you have staff in place, you’ll need to plan daily staffing schedules to maintain ratios throughout the day and provide necessary breaks. You’ll also maintain records of staff certifications and required trainings such as CPR and first aid. As a high-quality childcare business, you’ll also want to offer some ongoing professional development opportunities to keep your employees up to date on best practices and industry expertise.
Fill your roster
During your pre-launch phase, you’ll start to think about accepting enrollment applications, and would be wise to do so as soon as your program direction is mostly set and your business plan is solid. Along the way, you’ll then need to get the word out in as many ways as possible to fill your center.
List your center in any local directories of childcare businesses and participate in childcare or preschool enrollment fairs in your area. Advertise through local businesses, parent groups, local events, popular blogs, and online communities. Try sites like Parenthoods, Red Tricycle, NextDoor and Winnie. Run a social media campaign focusing on your target population, or host a grand opening event to attract families. Get the word out! Personal referrals are generally the key to a successful childcare business, so you’ll need to start building and nurturing these relationships from the beginning.
Phase 3: Post-Launch
Always be marketing
Once you’ve managed to fill your inaugural child roster, continue with ongoing marketing efforts so that you’ll always have a healthy waiting list. Having a sharp-looking website is a must these days, as it is how you will make a first impression on potential customers. Give searching parents as much information as possible about your program by maintaining an up-to-date, professional-looking site that offers everything they would be interested in when on the hunt for child care. Photos of your center, staff, and activities are crucial to include. The more details you can share the better, as choosing child care is one of the toughest decisions parents make.
Build a reputation
Word of mouth is priceless, especially in the childcare business. Keep your current families happy, and they will sing your praises when they run into other families at the playground or the grocery store. Encourage happy customers to share testimonials, posts, and reviews to all of your social media accounts. Consider giving current families a discount for any referrals they send your way.
Following these strategies should ensure that you get started on the right foot, and that you always have a full house and a long waiting list. Building your own business from the ground up should prove to be a rewarding experience, especially if you invest the time to carefully and systematically plan and launch your center.