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Small Business

Small-Business Success Story: Engineering for Kids

A former teacher builds her summer camp into a nationwide franchise.

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Kiplinger's spoke with Dori Roberts (pictured at left), founder and CEO of Engineering for Kids, a Fredericksburg, Va.-based company that offers science, technology, engineering and math programs to children ages 4 to 14. Here, she discusses how she got started. Read on for an excerpt from our interview:

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Why engineering? I taught engineering courses to high schoolers for 11 years. I also advised my school’s Technology Student Association, an after-school program in which students worked on projects for competition. Many of my students discovered late that engineering was fun and a great career option. My mission is to introduce engineering to as many kids as possible as early as possible.

How did you get started? I proposed an after-school program all about bridges at my children’s elementary school. The kids built and tested their own bridge designs. The program filled up, and parents and teachers asked me if I would offer summer programs. So I created four engineering camps: mechanical, aerospace, electrical and industrial. My first summer, during the recession in 2009, I would have been happy to get 15 kids, but I got 50. I charged $159 for each weeklong, half-day camp. When I received requests for camps from other schools and community centers, I saw a business opportunity. I expanded to serve preschool and middle school kids, and I added school field trips, birthday parties and scouting events.

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What resources did you need? The first year, using money from my teaching salary, I rented classroom space in community centers and stored supplies in my basement. But I was paying a lot in rental fees, so the next summer I leased permanent space. When that paid off, I opened a second learning center. We typically charge $115 for six weeks of after-school, evening or weekend classes.

Why franchise the idea? Parents from other states expressed interest in the program. I couldn’t imagine running it out-of-state myself, so I attended a convention of the International Franchise Association. I took as many classes as I could and talked with representatives of children’s education companies. I decided that franchising was the best way to grow Engineering for Kids.

What did it cost to set up the franchise? I put in about $30,000 of my own money. My biggest up-front cost was paying a lawyer to look over my operations manuals and help me create a franchise disclosure document. Otherwise, we were pretty low-budget. My office was a small storage room in one of the learning centers, and we rented out hotel conference rooms for our first “discovery” days for prospective owners and training.

How much do you charge? A franchisee must pay from $35,125 to $90,625 up front, which includes a $19,500 franchise fee. The range depends on whether you start out home-based or rent outside space. Franchisees also pay a monthly royalty fee of 7% of the registration fees they charge for their classes. We now have 117 locations in 31 states, the District of Columbia and 12 countries.

How have your kids reacted? My daughter, Kaley, 14, is very analytical yet offers a kid’s perspective, such as, “Mom, I think the kids will like this” or “We need more time for this activity.” My son, Matthew, 12, wants to be a computer engineer.