MusiKids Strikes a Chord with Families

Cacophony enters a household with the arrival of children and sometimes at a fever pitch, but eventually and hopefully a melody is reached, which is how musiKids helps families harmonize.

Lisa Flaxman, the firm's president and founder, took her natural talent as a songstress and educator to link parents and children through music. Her journey as a small business owner took twists and turns due to her firm's rapid, profitable growth, but also because she had to cope with an unexpected illness that affected her personally and professionally.

Flaxman of Chevy Chase, Md., was a practicing attorney for two years. During that time, she had her first son and began singing professionally as an "outlet while practicing law." Concurrently, she began hobnobbing with other parents of young children, who honed in on her music skills.

"I started demonstrating how to do musical things with children" for the other parents and soon she hit upon an idea - a music class for parents and children. "The other kids' music classes I had experienced felt to me like the parental understanding and involvement in why we were doing these things was missing."

So, when a chapter of the National Audubon Society near her home was having a fair, she posted fliers along the road advertising music classes. She had her first class in her house with three children and their parents.

"The beauty of neighborhoods is news passes word-of-mouth and in about six months I had 50 students," Flaxman noted.

Space - Not Even Close to the Final Frontier

Suddenly, Flaxman had to confront the fact that her house could not adequately hold the new students and their parents. "Was I going to shut down musiKids because it was dependent on me and my house?" she recalls asking herself. Meanwhile, she was contemplating having another child and realized that she would need to enlist help to manage the rapidly growing business as her personal duties mounted.

"I was forced to think about giving up reins of control early," she said.

She began to look around for additional space and that meant going to churches and trying to hire someone to teach. She decided not to search for someone who had a master's degree in education, but she wanted a teacher most like herself.

"I wanted someone who was dynamic and had energy," she said, and placed an ad in the Guide to the Lively Arts in the Washington Post where actors often search for auditions.

"I thought if someone had the potential and personality, I could train someone on the developmental side," Flaxman said. "But I couldn't train them in having chemistry with me, the students and the parents."

She hired her first two teachers in fall 1998. Flaxman also found a space at Chevy Chase Baptist Church that she could rent hourly. It cost about $40 to have two classes one morning a week.

"When I started the business, I was looking for something that didn't have a lot of startup costs," she said, noting that she had about $2,000 in fees at the beginning of her business. Fortunately, she was profitable right away and reinvested the money into her business to grow it.

She had 100 students about six months into her business and was on a scale of doubling her business every six months. When musiKids began serving 200 people at the church, using two rooms, five to six days a week, Flaxman decided to lease a space.

Flaxman saw a recipe that worked - find good teachers and church locations to hold classes. She promoted her service through ads in local magazines and about a year later found her business in seven locations in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Like any business owner, the rapid expansion brought challenges.

"Being sort of an instinctive business person I didn't realize that growing so quickly without having a central plan would make my business vulnerable," she said.

Teachers who served particular areas left for other jobs, leaving Flaxman struggling to fill a position in Northern Virginia, for example. "I never wanted to hire anyone who didn't meet my standards," she said, adding "it's like you can be held hostage by one person." Flaxman also would lose space abruptly. "If you're teaching in a church, you're always subject to the church using the space for a church event."

It was exciting as the business got more grounded and our reputation grew," she said. "I couldn't afford to lose those spaces, and it became very stressful."

Any business owner must at some point "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em," as the song says. She "drew back" and closed all satellite locations. She focused on building business at the church in Chevy Chase and at her 2,500-square-foot Bethesda studio. Last April, she moved to Congressional Village in Rockville, Md., to offer classes in a 1,750-square-foot studio.

Today, Flaxman has about 600 students in these three locations.

Dealing with the Unexpected

While the business flourished, Flaxman had to deal with an unexpected turn of events. In 2003, after having her third child, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her kids, today, are now 10, eight and five.

She went through two rounds of chemotherapy and eight surgeries.

"It was a life saver to have musiKids while having breast cancer," Flaxman said. "I had my children, and it gave me something to focus on."

Flaxman felt relieved that she had already given up some control of the business. During the chemotherapy, she was able to do some administrative work, but didn't have the energy to direct the business. In 2005 when she was able to fully assess the business situation, she reviewed the numbers and saw they were going down and parents weren't coming back.

"I thought it could go on and grow without me, but when I went through chemo the business went flat and started deteriorating. I suddenly realized that the business did have a lot to do with me."

She commends her employees during that time, calling them "great" and "special" but they "didn't have the entrepreneurial side and in the services industry, you business depends a lot on personality," she said.

In 2005, she reshuffled employees and once again became the public face and inspiration for musiKids. She hired new teachers and now has 14 employees. She also began reenergizing her firm by offering to host birthday parties and consulting with day care centers.

"Chemo takes the life out of you, I kept working throughout, and the beauty of it was that I didn't have to go to an office."

She is now talking with advisers about offering franchises.

Her experience with cancer prompted her to found musiKares, a program that uses arts to help patients get through their time spent at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Georgetown, where she was treated.

"Everyone goes down there and stares at the walls. I did too," she said. In April 2006, she started a public CD drive through her classes and collected about 2,000 music CDs. She donated about 40 portable players and made music libraries in waiting rooms, patient rooms and the pediatric ward. She is now working on making musiKares into a non-profit entity.

"Life is certainly a conglomeration of experiences," she mused. "Thank goodness for music."

Summary: Lisa Flaxman of musiKids tapped into her innate skills as a singer and educator to start a business in 1998 offering music classes for parents and children. The business grew rapidly and experienced profit growth, letting her expand, but by doing so too quickly, Flaxman hit some challenges and had to rethink her strategy. Just as musiKids started growing again, she was faced with another challenge - cancer and two years of intense treatment. Flaxman learned that even though she relinquished some control of her company, musiKids still needs her entrepreneurial spirit to thrive.

By Sharon McLoone |  August 16, 2007; 11:09 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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If she went to an Audubon fair in Chevy Chase, it would have been sponsored by the Audubon Naturalist Society. ANS is a local, independent Audubon society, and is not a chapter of National Audubon. Indeed, it was organized a few years before National Audubon and chose not to affiliate. It is a great educational resource the community can be proud of.

Posted by: Dottie B | August 19, 2007 12:29 PM

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