The year was 1975 and Marlene Bloom was looking for swimming lessons for her daughter, Stephanie, 2. But she couldn’t find anything for kids under age 3. So Bloom, who had a physical education degree and early childhood development teaching experience, decided to create her own. She developed the five-day “Turn, Kick, Reach” program to help infants to adults learn water-survival skills. The Turn, Kick, Reach Academy eventually became the parent company for Baby Otter Swim School.
Ten years later, after her close friend Mindy York’s 17-month-old daughter, Staci, had a near-drowning experience, York not only enrolled her daughter in Baby Otter classes, but joined the company. Today Bloom and York share the top positions in the business.
In the early days, Baby Otter instructors traveled to the home pools of their students. Then for many years, the company leased pool space to offer lessons. Baby Otter trademarked its Turn, Kick, Reach program and got state and national certifications. Bloom and York became active in several drowning prevention task forces and committees. The company became a provider for Broward County’s Swim Central, which offers lessons to elementary school children.
Around 2003, Bloom and York formed a nonprofit to provide lessons to underprivileged, special needs and foster children. Baseball Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson volunteered to become their celebrity spokesman after taking a Baby Otter class and overcoming his fear of water at age 50. To celebrate the partnership, the company renamed the nonprofit arm the “Baby Otter Andre Dawson Aquatic Center.”
“We want to help save children’s lives and reduce drowning statistics,” Bloom said.
In 2013, Baby Otter revised its business model. The company stopped leasing a pool and transitioned to a traveling swim school. Baby Otter has five instructors and offers private, group and lifeguarding lessons throughout South Florida. The company’s core service is its Turn, Kick, Reach program, offered in five 30-minute lessons for $375, to students as young as 8 months. About 350 to 400 lesson packages are sold each nine-month season. Baby Otter also offers safety DVDs and Home Assessment safety packages for pool owners.
The company is poised for growth and is seeking to license its brand and swimming technique. “We want to move from managing a swim school to managing a licensing business,” York said. “We need to move to the next level.”
Bloom and York asked the Miami Herald for a Small Business Makeover, and the Herald brought in Broward SCORE, a nonprofit with volunteer counselors from the business community who mentor small business owners. The SCORE tune-up team included David Harris, director of marketing, Greenway Golf Course Management, whose expertise is in operational management, fiscal controls and marketing; Russell Thompson, a Sunrise attorney with expertise in operations, marketing and accounting; and Jennifer Anglin, president of Allied Health Institute in Plantation, whose expertise is in start-up resources, marketing and advertising.
“Everyone who wants to grow bigger has to go from running a business to running a concept, but on a much bigger scale,” Harris said. “Sometimes it’s hard for businesses to focus on the big picture.”
Here is the SCORE team’s advice:
▪ Put a plan in writing: Bloom and York are working with a licensing attorney to finalize plans to license their brand and expand. “After you finalize your operating strategy for the coming year, put a game plan in writing,” Harris said. The Baby Otter team fleshed out their revenue plan and gathered research on potential markets by population and income. “It was a real eye-opener,” York said.
▪ Protect your intellectual property: The Turn, Kick, Reach name is trademarked, but the instructional process is not. Thompson urged Bloom and York to explore trademarking the process. “It will help in selling your brand to potential licensees,” he said. “If you have a patented instructional method, it strengthens your position.” Bloom and York like the idea and are investigating the process.
▪ Look for funding sources: Baby Otter needs capital to expand but has no collateral. The SCORE team suggested looking into a bank line-of-credit. Thompson suggested the EB-5 Visa program, aimed to attract foreign investors to domestic companies. “To raise capital, look for a master licensee,” he said, someone who can take over a large territory and sell sub-licenses. York and Bloom investigated the EB-5 Visa program but found it had a lengthy waiting period. “It’s not an immediate solution, but we’re still open to it,” York said.
▪ Get financials in order: Bloom and York came up with a formula to show licensees earning potential. Thompson suggested expanding it to a more detailed financial statement, using the success story of Baby Otter’s first licensee in Dade. “Use her as a success story,” he said. “You need more of a financial projection based on a real case history.” Bloom and York plan to incorporate the story into their packet for prospective licensees.
▪ Find the right master licensee: “Your first master licensee is really an investor,” Thompson said. Look for someone with an expertise in marketing or an area that you are looking to strengthen, he said. “Look at what the investor brings to the table,” Thompson said. Bloom and York agree that bringing in someone with a new skill would be an asset. “We’re looking for someone who believes in our mission,” York said.
▪ Explore sources for students: York puts Baby Otter brochures at pediatricians’ offices to attract new clients. Anglin suggested taking brochures to birthing centers, mommy and me centers and retailers like Bass Pro Shops. She recommended approaching pool construction companies about offering Baby Otter classes as an add-on. Anglin also suggested creating a gift card that could be given, for example, at a baby shower. “It’s a gift of love,” Anglin said. Harris suggested offering gift certificates on the company website. York said they love the creative ideas and have started compiling emails of pool companies to offer services.
▪ Revise website: Baby Otter uses a company to handle its website, SEO and social media. Anglin suggested creating different landing pages for its various target markets. “You need to categorize by audience, and adjust your keywords so people going to your website end up at the right place,” she said. Use videos of Baby Otter’s signature teaching method to immediately show the benefit, and include a form to fill out, she said. “Give them all the information. Get them excited; then get them to fill out the form,” Anglin said. York said they are working on website revisions to attract both swim customers and potential licensees.
▪ Expand board of directors judicially: Look to the community boards and task forces you belong to for potential board members, Harris said. “If they have the financial means, they could be a potential investor,” he said. As the licensing program takes hold, people will want to have influence on the brand, Harris said. “You will have to decide: Are they a good fit?” he said. Bloom said they also are looking outside the aquatics industry, perhaps for someone with banking or insurance expertise, to create a well-rounded board.
▪ Increase media exposure: Because Bloom and York have drowning-prevention expertise, Harris suggested that they ramp up public relations efforts with the media. He suggested creating a local media database to send out press releases offering expertise. “As you expand throughout the state and nationally, your media list would have to grow,” Harris said. “You may want to buy a list.”
▪ Expand staff: Bloom and York want to hire a sales and marketing staffer, but are afraid they can’t afford it. Harris suggested first writing a job description to pinpoint their needs, then looking for a commission-based person. Put trackable leads in place and pay a commission for each sale, he said. “Then you can pay a low base salary,” Harris said. Anglin suggested finding a marketing intern from a local college. “There are lots of kids out there who need the experience, even if they don’t get paid,” she said.
York said they learned a lot from the makeover. “The mentoring process and information is invaluable,” she said. “It has helped us make sense of structuring how to do things.”
▪ The client: Baby Otter Swim School and Baby Otter Andre Dawson Aquatic Center, based in Plantation, is a traveling swim school for infants and adults that offers group and private lessons in home pools, pool safety assessments and DVDs. Founded in 1975, the company has a nonprofit arm that offers free lessons to underprivileged kids.
▪ The experts: David Harris, director of marketing, Greenway Golf Course Management, whose expertise is in operational management, fiscal controls and marketing; Russell Thompson, a Sunrise attorney with an expertise in manufacturing operations, marketing and accounting; and Jennifer Anglin, president of Allied Health Institute in Plantation, whose expertise is start-up resources, marketing and advertising.
▪ The challenge: To move from operating a swim school to licensing and growing the business.
▪ The advice: Create a written growth plan. Protect intellectual property. Find funding sources. Select licensees and board members to help grow the business. Hire marketing help. Revise website and public relations plans.
Based in Washington, D.C., SCORE is a nonprofit with more than 12,000 volunteers working out of about 400 chapters around the country offering free counseling to small businesses. There are seven chapters on Florida’s east coast, including Broward SCORE, with more than 60 volunteer counselors.
Counselors from Broward SCORE meet with small business owners and offer free one-on-one counseling as well as dozens of low-cost workshops, such as “Supercharge Your Website” on Tuesday and “Build Your Brand” on Wednesday. See more under “Local Workshops” at www.broward.score.org.
How to apply for a Small Business Makeover
Business Monday’s Small Business Makeovers focus on a particular aspect of a business that needs help. Experts in the community will be providing the advice. If you would like a makeover, concentrate on one aspect of your business that needs help — corporate organization, marketing, financing, for example — and tell us what your problems are.
The makeover is open to companies in Broward or Miami-Dade counties in business at least two years. Email your request to rclarke@MiamiHerald.com and put “Makeover” in the subject line.