Expert Series

Alison Qualter Berna & Allison Schlanger

Founders of apple seeds & songs for seeds

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At Beyond Mom we often discuss how to start a business from ground up! But what about building a business and growing it over 8-10 years and beyond? We turn to the founders of apple seeds indoor play spaces and songs for seeds music classes, Alison Qualter Berna and Allison Schlanger. They met 9 years ago and bonded over having twins and quickly realized they shared a desire for a new Beyond Mom life. The ladies share their favorite company mantra (keep moving forward!), a typical day on the job, their inspiration behind their successful company and the fact that they are looking for other Beyond Moms to partner with to bring their children’s music program to their own communities. If you are interested in a meaningful career, with flexible hours, and the ability to bring your kids to work with you – read on! 

And here’s a bonus- join us to meet the ladies in person this Thursday, September 28th at the “Developing Self in the Midst of Motherhood & Entrepreneurship Panel” at apple seeds. Sign up here for this rare opportunity!

Tell us about apple seeds and what inspired you to create your company?

apple seeds is an all in one play space for families with children newborn to 5 years old. The anchor of our space is a modern, unique, indoor playground that was inspired by our love of children’s museums. Our indoor playground is available to our families, seven days a week, every hour that we are open. There are no special hours or play passes. You show up when it works for your family’s schedule and stay as long as you want. We host birthday parties on the weekends and run a summer camp program. We also give classes in 13 different genres including art, dance, soccer, science, cooking, movement, gym, language and more. Our most popular is our music program songs for seeds. In 2015 we franchised songs for seeds and it can now be found in 31 locations across the country.

Our most important inspiration was our kids. In 2005, we both gave birth to twins. We met in a music class when they were about six months old. We bonded over the unique aspects of being a twin mom. We also quickly bonded over the fact that we were both struggling with the idea of leaving our babies to go back to our careers that we really loved (UNICEF and MTV). Our husbands, Craig and Bobby, were the ones who helped us realize that using our kids as inspirations we could build a viable business together. The four of us created a partnership to do just that and apple seeds was born one year later.

How did you work together as two Beyond Moms to launch this business?

We both spent over a decade building careers that we were proud of, invested in and really loved. Neither of us had planned to leave our jobs…until our kids were born. Once they were in our lives we both wanted to be in control of our days so that we could be with them much more and at the office much less. That said, we were also both driven to have a career outside of the home as well. We spent many hours “dreaming” up careers we could invent where we could “bring our kids to work with us” (and not have to hide them under the desk). As much as we wanted to be moms all day long, we also wanted to do something Beyond Mom. Our husbands wisely pushed the idea of a partnership between our two families. Without that partnership this business never could have lasted. We have found that the only way for us to build a business from the ground up and give ourselves the flexibility to be with our families as much as we want and need is to share the load. The workload, the emotional load, the financial load…all of it. 

Do you have a company mantra that you practice?

An official one? No. An unofficial one used so often that it feels official? Yes.

Craig is a big fan of the Rocky movies (let’s call it “franchise” to make it more relevant to this interview).

Any time we have a setback – big or small – he sends an email that says KMF…Keep Moving Forward. It is an abbreviation from a famous Rocky quote. 

Life’s not about how hard of a hit you can give… it’s about how many you can take, and still keep moving forward.” 

It works on a lot of levels (not the least important that Craig and Alison QB both have a love of all 80’s TV/movie references).  

KMF is short and simple and perfect for an entrepreneurial business. It is also the perfect mantra for the four of us. From day one we have kept moving forward. We always do. We don’t give up. When the going gets tough we pivot and think of a new way to do things. We will KMF until we are done!

The only other mantra we hold is about our kids… the kids come first. No meeting is more important than the needs of our kids. 

What does a typical day look like for you?

Ten years ago we launched apple seeds and spent the first year or two in the space 7 days a week. We managed this because we were able to bring our kids to work with us. We played in the playground with them and took classes with them. It was work, but it always felt fun. The pull of the working mom was lessened by our ability to spend time with our twin toddlers, and they had no idea we were working!  In fact, over a decade later, our kids are incredibly close and see themselves as cousins…we are both deeply grateful for that experience (for them and for us).

As is the case with many businesses, our highly capable managers began to take over the operational aspects of apple seeds and we shifted our focus to creation and expansion. 9 years ago, we wrote a children’s music class called songs for seeds. It is a 45 minute class that is so much more than just music. Through music we reinforce colors, shapes, numbers, counting and animals. We expose our kids to music from around the world and rhythm patterns. songs for seeds quickly became our most popular class at apple seeds and people started asking us to expand the reach of the program. In 2015, we launched it as a national franchise business. Over the last two years, the four of us have spent about 90% of our time on songs for seeds franchising. We have currently sold 31 songs for seeds locations across the country – from NY to Seattle. We help our newest songs for seeds franchise owners launch their businesses (helping them find their location, find their band and find their customers).  We also spend a lot of time looking for new, savvy owners who want to own a business, work for themselves, have more time for their families, bring their kids to work and make a difference in their community. Our most successful owners are moms…those who go Beyond Mom! They are smart, creative, self-starters who, after baby, can’t go back to life as they knew it. They want to work but want to be fully present for their kids. songs for seeds provides them with that opportunity. 

What are your top tips for creating a brand with longevity?

We have always focused on our brand aesthetic, setting a tone through our design, look and feel.  How our families engage with the brand the moment they see it really matters to us. Our modern design and clean look say what we are — we are not only a kids space but also very much a space for parents. Families have their home and their work, but we are their third space and we prioritize their kids. 

Internally, we strive to empower our managers to oversee their own staff and give everyone an opportunity to create new ideas and share in the entrepreneurial energy of our business.  While we are both sticklers for details and set high expectations for our staff, we are not micromanagers and this has paid off.  It has allowed our various departments to function with little oversight, allowing us to focus on strategy and growth.  This has been particularly important as we moved from a local NYC parenting market to a national franchise business. 

Most importantly, we have made of our business decisions less using our degrees and career backgrounds, but rather from our “mom gut.” We always believe that if we do what we’d want for our own kids, it will transcend to other parents in NYC and across the country. We are always willing to shift and change our original goal based on what our customers have needed and expressed. We are highly engaged in conversations with our customers….and we truly listen.

How do you know when it’s time to reinvent your brand and how have you done that? 

After opening apple seeds in 2007, we continued to write and build new classes, working with children in real time to adjust our curriculum, stay age-appropriate, interactive and educational. From the very beginning, we have been reinventing our brand, keeping in touch with our customer’s needs, as well as, making sure apple seeds and songs for seeds are a value to children. 

We always believed that apple seeds had the potential to grow and expand to communities across the country. When we began to research franchising, the idea to franchise songs for seeds surfaced somewhat organically, through our friend and first franchisee, Lisa Kozinn. It quickly became clear to us that a non-brick and mortar business would be a simpler business with a lower price point for a young mom to take on.

This is what we love most about launching our franchise business. songs for seeds is an incredible opportunity for women who are just like us and share in our sentiments. Our most successful franchise owners are moms who had a baby or have a couple of young kids and can’t go back to their job or life as they knew it. They are looking to work, but on their own schedule with flexible hours.  They are looking to bring their kids to work or at least have their work impact their kids. They desire to make a positive difference by bringing a fun, educational offering to parents in their community. Our ideal candidates are Beyond Moms!  

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are looking to reinvent their brand?

First, stay open to change and being willing to shift. It is the only way to keep your competitive edge in the marketplace and also stay in touch with the needs of your customers or clients.  We have been responsive to our customers since the day we opened our doors over 10 years ago, and we have always been open to reinventing policies based on their needs.  Similarly, we are constantly shifting and changing as we grow the franchise business, communicating on a daily basis with our 20+ franchise owners and responding to their needs in real time.

Our second piece of advice would be to stay clear about the long term goal (keep moving forward!). The four of us may have differing opinions on the little stuff, but we always come together on the big stuff, the things that matter. If you know where you are headed, and you’ve defined what success means to you, it’s pretty simple to not get caught on the little stuff.  In a way, we are already successful in that we’ve been able to blend our work with our lifestyles and raise our kids in the way we both desired. This core philosophy and our joint ambition are what carry us. 

Finally, we don’t have any ego about what it is we do or who does what, as long as we get to our goal and everyone remains happy. This has made coming to the office pleasant and sharing our work enjoyable. This may be the most important advice we have.  

Can you share your favorite key to success that has worked for your company? 

Similar the advice we gave above, we can share two things we believe have been the keys to our growth and success. 

From the very beginning, we listened to our families (our customers). When we first opened we spent every single day getting feedback from them and creating our policies and procedures based on the desires and feedback of our community. As we matured and our guidelines were in place we engaged a customer feedback system that now surveys our families daily so that we can stay in touch with the needs and opinions of the people putting their children in our care every day. These comments still help dictate decisions we make. 

We also make all top level decisions as a foursome. We are running a playground business, a classes business, a birthday business, a private playground business and a national music franchise business. There are a lot of questions to answer, things to develop and decisions to make every day. We come together to make all the big ones. Many times we come into the discussion with different opinions but we always leave with a united front and we keep moving forward!