Ask the Expert – Lucy Lewin, founder of The Profitable Nursery Academy
This year, we’ve launched a brand-new blog series – ‘Ask the Expert’.
This provides a platform for all Early Years (EY) professionals, where they can share their experiences and advice with the industry, on their chosen specialist subject.
So, whether you’re a policy expert, nutrition specialist, or knowledgeable practitioner, we want to hear from you!
This month, we welcome Lucy Lewin, founder of Little Angels Uppingham and The Profitable Nursery Academy, to talk all-things nursery management…
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in the Early Years (EY) sector:
I’ve run Little Angels Uppingham for over 10 years, and I realised that while we were providing first-class care for children and parents, the EY sector often didn’t have time to take care of the ‘business of business’.
Nursery owners are working long hours and then coming home to catch-up on emails, pay salaries, and ensure operations continue to run smoothly – all of which leads to an incredibly stressful situation where you feel like you’re on your own.
I could see there was a real need to help settings become more streamlined in their processes. They required help to track and measure systems and understand key performance indicators – all while being able to deliver high-quality care for children and parents.
That’s why I set about developing The Profitable Nursery Academy – a five-stage journey that equips owners with the tools to run an efficient, profitable business.
Q: When it comes to learning from experience, you’ve got a really interesting backstory to tell. Could you explain more about how you overcame such challenges?
It’s been a real rollercoaster ride, that’s for sure! In 2018, the introduction of the 30-hours Government funding scheme came into force and it effectively brought my nursery setting to its knees.
Naively, I hadn’t factored in that full fee-paying children would have access to funding and that led to a £15,000 deficit in cashflow overnight. When you think I had staff wages of £16,000 to pay, it was a horrible position to be in and I couldn’t recover.
I remember the day vividly where I had to tell my employees – many of which I’d grown the nursery alongside – that they wouldn’t be getting paid over Christmas. That was the worst moment of my life because it rocked everything we were about.
Going from boom to bust in less than 12 months, I knew I had a choice to make and that led me to create a business that we all needed as a team.
Q: And what did your next steps involve?
I got a business coach in place, and I absorbed every ounce of information possible to understand processes, systems, and operations. Speaking to other owners and working with my team, it was important to rewrite my failures and provide solutions for settings to address culture, systems, and processes – all of which are built on values of being ‘fun, flexible, and full of love’.
Everybody can have an effective, efficient, and profitable nursery, it often only needs a few tweaks to get it there – and that was a key driver for me. However, I didn’t have a business model, marketing plan or strategy in place, so had to learn everything from the outset – and that’s something I’m still doing to this day.
As well as still running my nursery, the academy also helps to support practitioners and it’s great to see people grow and upskill in this amazing sector.
Q: What kind of impact has the pandemic had on your business?
We’d already experienced our own version of ‘mass disruption’ so in a way we were on the front foot. We’d built resilience and had given ourselves time and space to think about how best to react to such a crisis.
When lockdown hit in 2020, I used this time to really ramp up that help for nurseries – particularly when my own setting was closed – and listened to everything practitioners were telling me.
I’d set off with the goal to help just one owner to transform their business model but now I’m on a mission to help 500 nurseries to take their organisations from ‘overwhelmed’ to ‘over the moon’!
We’re all in the same storm, it’s just we’re on different boats. I want to share knowledge and provide assistance wherever I can, so we can all provide the best possible care for children, parents, and employees.
Q: Culture plays a vital role in the smooth running of nursery management. How much value do you place on this helping a setting to excel?
We invest emotionally, physically, and mentally into the work we do with children, so it’s important to have fun at the same time. Spending an hour with pre-school youngsters can really alter how you see things because they are amazing – they sparkle and that’s what we should be focusing on.
Culture plays a critical role in how we care for others and for ourselves too. We have an ‘Actual Gratitude Space’ which is an opportunity for employees to communicate and praise one another because nursery staff don’t realise what an incredible job they’re doing.
Creating safe, open, and supportive areas to discuss ideas and come up with solutions helps the internal environment immeasurably – and that paves the way for more productivity, motivated staff, happy children, and satisfied parents.
Q: What would you say are the key day-to-day challenges for nursery managers?
Away from the pandemic, it’s about not having enough time to get the tasks done – that’s where we need to help practitioners to prioritise what’s urgent and block out the ‘noise’.
When I try to be all things on all days, I get nothing done, so I wouldn’t expect that of managers either. It’s important to play to your strengths and also respect your boundaries – that way you’ll be more productive and energised to get the important parts of your job done.
Q: As you know at Connect Childcare, we’re big on technology. It’s something that plays a big part for you too. How important are digital solutions when easing nursery workloads and streamlining processes?
Pre-Covid, I had a very different answer as I was quite ‘anti-tech’! That’s because I didn’t have the investment to be able to make it work properly. Fast-forward to now, each of my team has a tablet so they can communicate regularly, and we’ve got a Parents Portal which is updated by users.
My manager and I analysed our workloads and we realised that 80% of our working day was taken up by emails, so having these systems in place has made us so much more efficient. With that, we’re now able to provide an even greater level of care to children, staff, and parents.
Q: So, in conclusion Lucy, how can we all ensure that nursery management is taken seriously?
When everything is so pressurised, you can’t often see the wood for the trees. Personally, I use this as a point to tell others that I’ve been there too and so understand what they’re going through.
I’m not sitting in a separate office that’s disjointed from the day-to-day requirements of running a successful, happy, and profitable nursery. I’m involved throughout and everything I provide for others are things we’ve trialled as a team.
It comes back to being able to listen and recognise the challenges that people are facing – and let them know that it’s okay to get things wrong, as long as they learn from those mistakes. I believe there is always a solution to a problem too, so if you’re facing an issue, chances are that others have been in your shoes at some point too.
If you’d like to take part in our ‘Ask the Expert’ blog series, please contact our PR team, via firstname.lastname@example.org.