Follow your heart. Starting and growing a company is hard. If you don’t care deeply about your work and why you are doing it, it’s even harder. Working on a problem or area that you are committed to improving or changing can make all the difference in your success, and more importantly the path along the way.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Fitzgerald & Meghan Fitzgerald of Tinkergarten.
After 16 years as an educator, curriculum developer and school leader, Meghan has her dream gig — an entrepreneur/educator/mom who helps families everywhere, including hers, learn outside. Prior to Tinkergarten®, Meghan worked as an Elementary School Principal, a Math/Science Specialist & and a teacher in public and private schools in NY, MA and CA. She earned a BA with majors in English and Psychology at Amherst College, an MS in Educational Leadership at Bank Street College, and was trained as a Forest School leader at Bridgwater College, UK. When she is with her kids, Meghan is that unapologetic mom who plays along with them in mud, dances in the pouring rain, and builds a darn good snow igloo with her bare hands.
Brian has been developing consumer digital products and businesses since 1995 with a focus on education technology in recent years. Before starting Tinkergarten, he was VP of Product Development at Knewton, and prior to that VP/Intrapreneur of Audible Education (acquired by Amazon.com). Brian was on the start up team that developed Rocketmail (acquired by Yahoo), and he later launched 50+ Yahoo consumer apps in leadership roles at the Silicon Valley HQ and London. He earned a BA in Entrepreneurship at Babson College and an MA at Columbia Teacher’s College. If Brian goes missing you’ll probably find him outside trail running, swimming in water of any temperature, or making his kids giggle into the wind as he pulls them in their chariot on his bike.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Tinkergarten was a labor of love for both of us. Since Meghan was a former classroom teacher and an elementary school principal, she saw firsthand the increase in screen time among children and the significant decline in time spent outdoors, which is critical to early childhood development. We felt there was something missing from every child’s development journey, and we had a vision for how to create a curriculum and training program for bringing that missing piece to families. Brian, who was a career consumer technologist, knew how to build, package and deliver what we envisioned at scale. So together, we created a unique method of instruction and a curriculum that combines the best parts of our own childhoods — playing outside — with the latest in brain and learning science to help families make the most of their children’s’ early years. Almost a decade later, we have taught over a quarter of a million kids and their families across the entire country!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The early days of any startup can be hard because you don’t yet have the constant feedback you get when your idea is being spread more broadly in the world. For us, those stories of how Tinkergarten has made a positive impact on our teachers, kids and families are like wind in our sails. You must go on your faith that the world needs whatever you are creating. So, you have to lean on each other, reminding your partner that this really is worth doing. The same is true as you search for your early investors. You have to find the believers, which means having a lot of conversations that are less than inspiring. You have to approach every one of those conversations as an opportunity to learn and gain further clarity and conviction around your vision, which is a chance to make your idea even stronger.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The most salient force that drove us to get started, that has pushed us through difficult challenges, and that still propels us today is the understanding that this mission is critical, and that the world needs Tinkergarten. At every step, the idea of not bringing this to life for as many families as possible is far more concerning to us than the fear that Tinkergarten will fail. Each time we hear a story about how this program has helped a child thrive, or brought a community closer together, or changed the way someone approaches their parenting, it’s proven well worth the risk.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Tinkergarten is thriving and we have reached more families than ever before. Tinkergarten has been running classes in thousands of outdoor spaces across all 50 states. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and we paused on bringing groups together in person. We mobilized to help families by sharing the program online, providing live training and guides for parents who needed further support of their children from their homes. Most recently, we launched Circle Time, live online classes designed to help families participate in Tinkergarten from anywhere. The program includes a weekly expert-led small group class and a weekly written guide that helps parents inspire purposeful, outdoor play all week long. Together, these elements help ensure outdoor play is part of every child’s learning mix this fall. Live classes are offered 7 days a week, throughout the day. For more information or to sign-up, families can visit https://tinkergarten.com/circletime/.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Meghan was presenting the “recess” portion of the Early Futures early childhood impact conference and came to find that the box of materials she had packed and shipped never arrived. After a momentary panic, she decided to ask if she could let participants pick apart the floral centerpieces to generate materials for the play activity. Thankfully, the conference team gave the green light. We have never seen such joy and engagement from adults — when do you get to pluck apart the centerpiece and make a floral crown?!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Many of our staff and Leaders are parents, and as a result our shared mission is a deeply personal one. Teammates attend Tinkergarten classes and participate in local community events and online communities, giving us much better insight and feel for how our work impacts kids and parents. The fact that so many of us are growing families as we are also growing Tinkergarten has allowed us to understand each other’s situation and feel understood in our drive to find balance — something that has made working and parenting during this pandemic feel possible. Finally, for Brian and me, this chance to work, learn and parent alongside so many creative and caring educators and parents has enriched our experience as parents more than we could ever have imagined.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Make sure you do not feel alone. As life partners, we have the benefit of being co-founders who also know the other inside out and — sometimes better than we know ourselves. We communicate often and lean on each other all the time. Being a founder can still be lonely — only a fellow founder can really understand the level of sustained effort, emotional ride, and complexity of each decision. As busy as balancing it all gets, it’s important to make time for walks outside, coffee chats or lunch conversations with other people (friends, colleagues, etc.) who can walk your journey with you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Isabelle Hau, Partner at Imaginable Futures. She was a strongly supportive seed investor and advisor at a critical turning point in the company and remains a board member today. Isabelle is the picture of grace and wisdom and has helped us keep our true north toward our social impact goals.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The very premise of Tinkergarten helps children prepare to care for themselves, one another and the Earth. In tandem, it helps parents become enabled teachers for their kids and strengthens communities.
To make sure that all families can benefit, we’ve also launched a One-for-One Referral Program for Circle Time enrollment. For every friend that you refer who enrolls into the program, you’ll enable a family in need of financial support to receive a free spot in a class.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Follow your heart. Starting and growing a company is hard. If you don’t care deeply about your work and why you are doing it, it’s even harder. Working on a problem or area that you are committed to improving or changing can make all the difference in your success, and more importantly the path along the way.
- Being a founder is unlike any other job you have ever had. The responsibility can be all-consuming but the freedom to create, to direct your creation and to develop a team and culture will forever rival any other “job” you could have.
- People you love will leave you. Even though it hurts, it is as it should be. As much as everyone you pick will love and devote to your dream, they too have dreams of their own. Truly great organizations support people while they are on board and when it’s time for them to fly.
- You’ll have a lot of breakthroughs. But some of the best of them come from hopeful experiments that fail, and in their failure are secrets that propel you forward.
- Even though you feel you’ve got something good that the world will want, it’s still important to stand on the table and talk about it through a megaphone. It’s difficult to rise above the noise and get early adopters and supporters to pay attention. This is what it takes to build momentum.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
To be honest, it’s Tinkergarten. That is what we’re up to! We just have more ground to cover to make sure ALL kids and families can benefit, and that’s what we’ll try our best to do!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!