It’s called Tinkergarten® and it provides the best early childhood education in the healthiest classroom of all—the great outdoors. Tinkergarten matches families with leaders in their local community who offer activity-based classes for kids aged 18 months to eight years old, that help them to develop the skills that matter most to their age group —all while having fun!
Cofounder and CEO Brian Fitzgerald talks about the company, where both parents and kids all seem to be having fun under the sun – and where it’s expected that you’re going to get your hands dirty. All in good fun.
Tell us about the service.
Tinkergarten provides engaging early childhood education in the healthiest classroom of all—the outdoors. We match families with leaders in their local community who offer activity-based kids classes that help them develop the skills that matter most—all while having fun!
Anyone can become a trained, certified leader and build a business delivering on-ground classes that bring back the experience of unbridled, outdoor play that used to be part of the fabric of growing up.
Classes are offered for kids ages 18 months to eight years, and designed by experts to help kids learn and develop skills like self-reliance, creativity, leadership, and problem solving. The classes take place in local green spaces, where leaders, parents, and kids meet up to spend an hour each week doing hands-on activities that are engaging, educational, and fun for everyone.
A technology platform helps to: recruit and train leaders; facilitate marketing and managing local classes; and manages communications and photo sharing among a parent population who can support and celebrate their child’s experiences.
How is it different?
First, we are creating significant value out of under-utilized assets. Our classes take place in local green spaces everywhere and are led by a local community member, often a parent who has a flexible schedule. This network of moms and dads are mission-driven, self-motivated, enterprising individuals who feel strongly about the benefits of outdoor play based learning for kids, and want to earn money while bringing this new idea into their community.
We’re also in a very human, real-world business—bringing together parents and kids in outdoor environments for a social learning experience. We’re doing that, however, with the help of a robust technology platform. The technology allows us to scale faster to more communities with less friction, but also delivers a more delightful customer experience. With features like photo sharing and developing a history of skills gained through a child’s experiences, we’re far exceeding a parent’s expectations for their typical kids class.
What market are you attacking and how big is it?
Tinkergarten squarely addresses the early childhood enrichment market. That said, our service is a substitute for other purchases, such as educational toys, kids apps, kids media and entertainment, and even formalized preschool programs. There are 20 million kids age 0-5 in the U.S. alone, and U.S. parents spend 18% of their income on kids. If you look at the “enrichment for kids” segment specifically, that’s about a $175 billion dollar market in the U.S. alone. This is a big opportunity.
What is the business model?
Tinkergarten is a direct-to-consumer service that earns revenue when customers enroll their kids in classes that meet 1-2 times per week during a 6-12 week season. Leaders manage their operation on the platform, and are compensated for every class they lead, earning more for each additional student who enrolls in their class.
What inspired the business?
Tinkergarten began as a side project after our first daughter was only a few months old, and, like many first time parents, we started talking about who we hoped this person would become and what we’d do to help. What skills would she need most? What would school provide for her? What would school in her time even look like? And, most importantly, what could we do with our family time to help ensure that she grew into the happy, healthy, thriving person we’d wish for?
It concerned us that, in recent years, kids’ lives had become considerably more structured—busy schedules at an early age and spending the majority of time indoors, on screens. Plus, kids time had become mostly adult-led, meaning there was less “free time” than a generation ago, which meant less time for experimentation and, out of fear for children’s safety, less risk-taking.
Although Tinkergarten experiences are adult-inspired and adult-supported, we strive to keep the experience child-led as much as possible. That’s why we say that Tinkergarten is bringing back the unbridled, outdoor play that used to be part of the fabric of growing up, but delivering it in a way that makes sense for today’s parent.
You have a husband and wife founding team. Tell us what that is like.
Yes, my wife and I are business partners. It comes with its challenges, but on balance, we love it. Startups are hard enough, and it’s great to be tackling the challenges alongside the person who is not only the most qualified co-founder, but also whom you trust and understand the most. We also have three kids under the age of five, and we’re building Tinkergarten together while raising the family. Crazy? Maybe. But given the nature of our work, the kids are very much a part of what we are creating. They attend classes, test out new activities, and provide unfiltered product feedback!
We work long and hard, and so work and life tend to get blended, but we are super disciplined about allocating non-work related time together each week, and time as a family.
You recently closed a funding round. Who were your investors and how has it been working with them?
Yes, we raised $500,000 from two institutional investors and a group of prominent angels with a direct interest and experience in what we’re doing. Investors include Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, Structure Capital, and edtech entrepreneurs John Katzman (founder of 2U, The Princeton Review, Noodle), and Don Katz (founder of Audible).
What are the milestones that you plan to achieve within six months?
We expect to be in over 50 markets in the next six months, adding leaders in all regions of the U.S. We also expect to do so while continuing our track record of exceptional customer satisfaction.
What is the one piece of startup advice that you never got?
Find your balance activity and build that into your schedule first. Trail running? Yoga? Kung-Fu movies? You’ll never have enough time to do everything your business needs, but nothing will help you keep an even keel and a clear head like your balance activity.
If you could be put in touch with anyone in the New York community who would it be and why?
Savannah Guthrie, Co-Host of the Today show, member of the Today Parenting Team, and mom. I think she would understand our mission and believe in it.
Why did you launch in New York?
We started Tinkergarten as a local community service in Brooklyn, and ended up growing organically from there. If we were starting again, we’d do it the same way. In many ways, New York is the hardest market to crack, given how many choices there are for consumers and how discerning the population can be. If you find product market fit there, chances are it can travel.
Where is your favorite outdoor bar in the city for a drink when it is actually warm out?
The bar at the Prospect Park bandshell on a Celebrate Brooklyn concert evening!