When Karen Sherr started Musical Minis 20 years ago, she wanted to provide fun and stimulating sessions based on what she knew her own baby son Matthew would love. She combined this with her expertise as a play specialist at Great Ormond Street Hospital to found the winning combination of fun sessions now loved by children and parents across the UK and in Mumbai, India. Here’ she explains how the business has flourished at the pace she has chosen – and offers tips for other ‘mumpreneurs’ hoping to follow in her footsteps.
Karen, now a mum of three, says: “I think one of the major things I have learned is to set out a strategy and to follow it. Working with a strategy gives a sense of being in control and even if things do not develop as one may wish, it makes the identification of where things are not going right far easier.
“The other major lesson is to continually revisit every aspect of the business. It is too easy to be complacent and resistant to change. Having somebody else challenge your beliefs and rational is really useful and can quickly help you refocus when you have lost your way.
“In terms of formulating a business model for both the running of the classes and for attracting franchisees, I think my experience as a mum has been invaluable. In terms of the classes, I have recognised that mixed aged classes are both more convenient and more beneficial. For mums running a business, offering the flexibility of working hours and no formal targets, makes the Musical Minis proposal an attractive one.”
“After school, I did a psychology degree at Warwick University. Then I was employed as a play specialist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, on the cardiac unit, says Karen.
“Being a play specialist involved caring for the emotional, not medical, care of the children – telling them about their operations, why it was necessary, what would happen to them etc. and also emotionally supporting the child’s parents and siblings.
“Following the birth of my son Matthew, I began to take him along to an exercise group where they sang a song at the beginning and the end of each session. This was Matthews’ favourite part. I tried to find a local music group that I could take him to but with no luck. The few I did find were very musical and very strict, I was looking for a ‘fun’ music group that would not put children off music but would not necessarily teach them rhythm, beat etc. This led me to launch Musical Minis.
Having fun – not running music classes
Karen adds: “I set about putting together a programme that had cognitive developmental aims at the heart of it. I am not musical and therefore had no wish to create something that would uncover the next Beethoven or John Lennon.
“The first thing I did was make the groups multi-age, thereby allowing a carer to bring more than one child. I also visited health professionals to encourage them to send children with special needs along, we offered free spaces to those with financial difficulties. Over the years it is the change in these children that has given me the most satisfaction and pleasure. Through this I have been able to fulfil a small part of my original career hopes.
“The dilemma of wanting to work with a large number of children whilst being an important part of my own children’s upbringing was a further inspiration. Finding that work/life balance that sadly eludes so many others has been a reward within itself.”
When Musical Minis was established, I had no idea that so many parents would wish their children to join. It soon became apparent that we had a proper business.
“We financed it ourselves out of our savings. We ploughed all the money we made from the classes back into the business for a number of years.
“The nature of Musical Minis has allowed me to take the children with me, so childcare wasn’t an issue. Matthew loved attending Musical Minis. The preparation before each class was something he could be part of and it just became a normal part of his life. I was able to work throughout the pregnancies of my son Alex and daughter Emily, and Musical Minis became part of their lives.
“Locally the business took off very quickly. The number of children attending grew rapidly. Our first franchise was in September 1997. The delay was due to the fact that we wanted to set up everything legally before we offered the franchise for sale. One obstacle we had to overcome was getting our music cleared, which we did by hiring a recording studio with a male and female singer, so we owned the recordings. We then had to create the lesson tapes, apply for a licence to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), duplicate the tapes and pay the required royalties.
“We were lucky enough to be introduced to a music publisher who helped us with matters of music clearance. My husband Rob acted as our representative on these matters. He also wrote the operating manual whilst myself and Pat Elson wrote the training manual with the support of Pat’s husband Roy who is a personnel specialist.
We ran, and still do, our own sessions so any problem or guidance our franchisees have or need we can offer first hand experience.
“I know we could have grown much quicker and have many more franchisees but we have kept the business growth small to fit in with the family. Also we wanted to be able to fully support each franchisee. I can’t think of any other job I’d rather be doing!
“As the children have got older it is easier to fit in running the business around family life, even though the business is growing,” explains Karen.
“Trying to get the right balance was the hardest challenge. I was keen to ensure that I fitted Musical Minis around my children and not the children around Musical Minis.
“There was not a day when I could not take the children to school and be there to collect them. I am sure they benefited from the fact that I felt entirely fulfilled through the combination of being a full time Mum and running my own business. I have in recent years been able to take a reasonable sum out of the business and my three children, who are now 21, 19 and 16, are certainly making sure they benefit from this!
I have found the balance that is right for me. Expansion with Musical Minis has purposely been kept small, on a level I can manage, as I still want to be a mum. Now as the children are growing up, I feel expansion can be more rapid.