CHALLENGE CHAMPION AND FIRST PLACE: MUNCHKIN FUN

Platform for kids’ classes begins national expansion

 

Munchkin Fun gives busy parents a one-stop shop for children’s programs.

ndahlberg@MiamiHerald.com

Yanil Livingston pays for her daughter’s dance lessons at Le Petit Studio in North Miami through Munchkinfun.com. With a recital coming up, she books those tickets as well. And with summer fast approaching, she has been exploring swim schools and summer camp options on the site.

“I have three girls, I don’t have time to google around on the Internet,” said Livingston.

Neither did Munchkin Fun’s founder, Valerie Schimel. An inefficient experience trying to sign her children up for classes spurred her to create Munchkinfun.com for busy mothers like Livingston.

Munchkin Fun functions like a couture Ticketmaster for kids’ classes and camps, giving parents a single place to find, book and pay for children’s programs, all vetted and guaranteed by Munchkin Fun. The business won first place in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge’s Community Track and was also named Challenge Champion, based on a combination of judges’ voting and People’s Pick totals. Challenge judge John Hall, who also runs the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program at Miami Dade College, said he was impressed with Munchkin Fun’s business model, rapid market penetration within a short period of time and compelling value proposition.

Indeed, Schimel saw a need in the marketplace.

“For kids’ classes, all the innovation in the industry has been on the programming side, which is amazing, it allows your kids to take math and science and engineering and robotics for 3-year-olds — it’s crazy awesome,” said Schimel, a mother of three daughters who also runs a separate popular kids’ calendar site in Miami. “But none of it has been on the logistics side. There is online booking software that exists for different industries, but it is not the right fit for this industry.”

That’s where Munchkin Fun comes in. After raising $230,000 in friends and family financing and working through the summer on its platform and building partnerships with businesses, Munchkin Fun launched in Miami in November. Today it already has 120 partners — from well-known players like My Gym, Gymboree, Miami Beach JCC and Miami City Ballet to small independent businesses like Le Petit, Danny Berry’s Little League, Anhinga for art and Rising Stars for drama. Every business has been personally vetted by Munchkin Fun, and has a profile on the site.

The site has already attracted 3,000 members. “We validated the model, which was great, we proved the concept. We have a much better sense of our customers,” said Schimel, who has a background in journalism and has been a freelance writer for a number of publications, including Miami.com. “Now for phase two, how do we grow?”

While continuing to grow Munchkin Fun’s site in Miami-Dade and Broward, Schimel and her small team — two full-time employees and two sales contractors — are taking what they learned and going national. But the company is taking a much more targeted approach in the rollout, as the Miami launch offered some important lessons.

What sold best were classes to the new moms.

“We were working under the assumption that based on the size of the city, we wanted to be able to cover every subject area,” said Schimel, who is part of the startup incubator at Venture Hive, an entrepreneurial education center in downtown Miami. “What we found is ... if you are used to paying a certain way, it’s hard to change that. But the beautiful thing about new parents is they don’t have existing behavior — and there are always new parents.”

As a result, Munchkin Fun is building a national network of maternity and mommy-and-me classes that will grow along with the ages of its kiddie clients. It plans to launch first in Washington, D.C., in August, and signed its first business partner there last week and is in active conversations with others. Chicago will be its second expansion location.

Schimel explained how it will work. Mothers-to-be and new moms set up a profile on the site. Based on a mother’s due date, Munchkin Fun will send her emails with recommended programs, such as prenatal yoga classes at four months and family CPR training and car seat installation at eight months. “We follow it through when the baby is born with mommy-and-me classes, then music classes, then gymnastics classes. Munchkin Fun will grow with them, with expanded offerings as the kids get into preschool, etc.”

It’s always free to become a member. Based on information in your profile and the ages of your kids, your search history and your location, the site will behave differently. That’s key because at any given time, there are more than 500 classes on the Miami site, and moms are time-pressed. “The data shows that mothers don’t want to drive more than 10 miles, and I am the same way, so we need to serve up the classes that are as relevant as possible,” she said.

Munchkin Fun defines classes broadly: a maternity photo session, a CPR class, a Halloween party, summer camps and teacher workday camps, in addition to traditional offerings. If something should go wrong, all classes come with a money-back guarantee.

Nina Ginatta, founder of Play-In, said her indoor multisensory activity center for children has been a partner from the outset.

“I love everything they have created as far as the ease of finding and booking a class, and the [customer service] responsiveness, they are always on,” said Ginatta, whose classes, camps and drop-off programs are offered through Munchkin Fun. “They are doing something that is not out there, and I hope they will continue to thrive. It’s a symbiotic relationship; they help us and we help them.”

Munchkin Fun charges the consumer buying the class a $2 per transaction fee, just like buying a movie ticket online. The class provider pays the credit card transaction fee. “That is an important piece of our model because our model will only work at scale,” Schimel said.

“All of our competitors take a commission from the businesses. We don’t want to do that. The bulk of our businesses are independent business owners and every last little dollar for them is really going to count. We didn’t want to be in the position of cannibalizing the people we are trying to support.”

By late summer, Munchkin Fun plans to roll out a software suite for its business partners. It will be point of sale software that will enable them to manage their inventory and have an online database of their clients, Schimel said.

“Our businesses are so passionate about their areas. We want to give them marketing and software tools to run their operation because we are 100 percent incentivized to help them sell more,” Schimel said.

“We believe better classes make families happier,” she added. “It’s all about empowering parents and empowering businesses and empowering children at the end of the day. My kids are growing, they are learning, I believe in the product.”

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