Q&A: How Kalkaska's Blue Fish Early Learning Center Used Covid to Pivot Their Business
Business: Blue Fish Early Learning Center
Industry: Childcare Services
Founder & Owner: Kristin Andrews
Where: Kalkaska, MI
When Covid-19 hit, Kalkaska native Kristin Andrews wasn't sure if her business, Blue Fish Early Learning Center, would be able to continue. Through several months of hard work, community support, and reaching out to local resources like Venture North, Blue Fish is now stronger than ever. We sat down with Kristin to learn about how she started her business, how they've dealt with Covid-19 fall out, and what is on the horizon.
Venture North: How did your business react when Covid hit?
Kristin Andrews: We were going to shut down with Covid. We surveyed the parents to ask if they would need childcare, and the response we got was that five people needed childcare. (Out of over thirty kids.)
So, lots of sleepless nights over making a decision about what to do. We decided we would close for two weeks and then re-open back up. But, when we made that decision, we heard from everyone saying "I didn’t talk to my spouse!" Or, "Just kidding, I need care!" So, I don’t know if it was just an answered prayer or what. Because I had asked God what our next steps should be, and it really was the next morning that things changed. We went from five children needing care to fifteen. We had licensing come and switch some rooms around to make sure we were still in compliance.
VN: That's amazing. How were you able to pull off all the quick changes?
KA: We couldn’t have done a lot of it if it hadn’t been for our community support. We had parents put an extreme amount of trust into us during such a hard time. That is a testament, I think, to the work that we’re doing here and the team that we have.
Our local schools and community in Kalkaska have helped us out with furniture and other supplies to help accommodate school-aged children, which has been a tremendous blessing. Back in December, we had 34 enrollments and we have 86 today. It’s been a huge blessing in disguise, but it’s really made me reflect back on what a great community this is to be a part of. We are all in it together.
VN: Why do you think there has been such an increase in children who need care?
KA: Unfortunately, there have been some people in our community with health issues or unknown finances where they have had to temporarily shutdown their in-home childcare. We gained a lot of children from there, but those providers have asked what they can do to help promote Blue Fish. We are not against each other. We are together and supporting each other, and that’s what’s been great.
We can all learn from each other and encourage each other. We don’t want to be against each other. We want to support each other, because we’re in this for the same reasons. I’m not in this for the money. I’m in it to provide an adequate, sufficient, encouraging, loving environment for children and families in this community.
VN: What are some of the community tools you've used to help you through this time?
We worked with Great Start to Quality. Actually, we got our Quality rating during Covid. There are a lot of good things to reflect on. It was scary. For me, with the Covid portion, Laura and Sara have been like “Just do it. Go for it. The worst they can say is no.” When it came to grant applications and loans.
I am not a loan person. I do not like to take loans out, and Laura can attest to that! However, you can’t always run a business that way either. We’ve gotten a few grants from the state of Michigan that have enabled us to discount childcare. We've also received grants for new furniture, and we just received another grant to discount childcare.
VN: Let's backtrack--how did Blue Fish get started?
KA: At the beginning of 2018, I had looked at this building.It was in a time when I was just really unhappy, and I thought “What can I do differently?” I knew this building was an old alternative education building, so I knew that it had been used as a school. I went in, and the price was astronomical! So I left it alone.
But, I looked again. I just kept wondering what it would be like. So, I talked to the realtor. I looked at the building, and the very next day, the Kalkaska Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Director, Cash Cook called me and said, “Hey I heard you’re looking to open a childcare center!"
The night before, I was talking to my husband about how great it would be, but how could I even afford it? Dream on, sister! But, I remember praying on it. Then, the very next morning Cash called and said, “Let me get you in contact with Laura at Venture North.”
I was very naive when it came to a lot of that stuff. I spoke with Sara and then with Laura. First, they said that I need to go up to the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and talk to them. The SBDC would be able to help me develop a business plan, that I would bring back to Venture North. I presented the business plan to Laura, and I was thinking “Yeah stinkin’ right.” But, here we are!
VN: That's fantastic! What was it like opening a new childcare center in Kalkaska?
KA: It’s been a learning curve for everyone that’s been here. Especially for Kalkaska County. They haven't had a public/private center. They have the hospital, which is essentially for employees only. Not many people in this community have worked in a center, or grew up in a center, or brought their children to a center. That part has taken a lot of work to progress to adapt.
VN: Have you returned to any of those services since Covid?
When Covid happened, I went back to Samantha at the SBDC and said, “I just need you to flat out tell me. Would I be stupid if I didn’t take or apply to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL)--all those different grants and loans. And she just said, “Yeah that would be pretty stupid.” So I just said, “Well, okay!”
I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks. Just punching numbers and thinking about all the bad things that could happen. That part was hard.
But, Laura and Sara came in. Laura is always up to bat for us. Our building needs a lot of things, like energy efficient upgrades and those kinds of things, and so she actually comes with me to the board meetings--there’s a nonprofit board that actually owns this building--she’s helped research different resources to help them out too!
She’s a phenomenal resource. I’m like, “Laura. Who don’t you know??” She knows a lot of people. She’s been so helpful, and she remembers things too. I know I’m not her only client, but she remembers details. She and Sara remember things and that’s what makes it so special too. From the very beginning.
VN: How has Covid affected your team and how you work together at Blue Fish?
KA: It made us grow faster than what we anticipated, and it made us grow tighter as a team because of that fast growth. I am all about putting the right people on the right bus, but I want to make sure they’re on the right seat on the right bus! You need to have that when you’re a new business--especially when you’re having to grow so fast and you’re in fight or flight mode.
The biggest thing is that we need to make sure that we continue to be those kids’--potentially--only hug of the day. The only meal of the day. We needed to make sure that we were still there for them. All of us in this facility either know someone who got Covid or passed away from Covid. So, there is always that fear, but we’ve learned as a team not to live in that fear. We needed to make it as innocent as possible for these kids.
VN: How do you as a leader, impart that mentality to your team? How do you encourage that in the workplace?
I did have to lay some people off, but you see here that a crisis really does bring out differences in people. That was another learning curve for my team. We have to treat people with grace. Because everyone responds to crises differently. It’s just how people deal with it. With grief or with anything else. You can’t let that set the tone of who they are as an individual. Showing grace is the biggest thing.
We only know what we’ve been told or what we can see first hand. We can make things up in our minds about what they may be doing outside of here and say things like, “Oh, they drive a really nice car, they must make a lot of money.” Or, “Because they live in a really small house, they must be poor.” Human nature is so quick to judge that way. The biggest thing is that we should treat people the way they deserve to be treated, not how they want to be treated.
VN: What are some of the core values of Blue Fish?
KA: People only know what they’re taught. If they’re taught hate, then that’s what we know. So we try to teach empathy, grace, compassion. Even in small Kalkaska county, we have a great deal of culture. Whether it’s do you sit at home at the table and eat together? Or, do you sit in the living room? Is one any better than the other? Absolutely not. You’re still eating! Or, how do you do Christmas? Do you celebrate Christmas?
Culture is not about religion or race or any of that. It’s what you do in your home, and that’s what makes it great. We need to embrace those different cultural things here. So, that’s what we try to do! That’s what makes the team so great, because everyone has different areas of knowledge and they can support each other and mentor each other. Culturally, that’s great too.
We are a work family. We spend more time together during the waking hours here than we do with our own families. And that goes back to grace and treating each other with grace. You have to, otherwise the kiddos sense it!
VN: Any final recommendations or thoughts for other small businesses?
KA: Start with your local chamber of commerce and look for funding from there. That’s what we did, and so far it’s worked. And, it’s very humbling to know that your community comes out to help you.
We have a great team. We have a great community. I really wouldn't have been able to do this without listening to God--sometimes we don’t want to hear what he has to say--and the support from Cash at the DDA, the SBDC, and Laura and Sara from Venture North.
Thank you so much, Kristin!
To learn more about the Venture North tools and resources available for small businesses, head to our Resources page.