Season 1: Summer Camp Pivots from In-Person to Online to Save the Business

Rathna Ramakrishnan, CEO, LEGO Summer Camp, responds

This interview took place on June 3, 2020.

Like many people these days, I met Rathna online through a business group that we are both in. She has a bubbly personality and love for life that is contagious. Knowing how she's had to pivot significantly this year to get her camp offerings online, I reached out to get her perspective on what is happening in her world.

Guest bio:

Not only is Rathna Ramakrishnan a Google Digital Coach at SmallBizUnBoxed, but she also runs a thriving children's camp business that features engineering-based LEGO® sets and Money 101 concepts. Both in-person and online camps from the Palo Alto area of California are available. 

Spending time with her family is important to her, as she likes to travel near and far on exciting adventures.




Sally Hendrick (00:09):

News stories were coming in about this strange virus in Wuhan China. It was weeks before we saw the first cases in the US as the numbers went up each day. My curiosity got the best of me, and I started plotting the curves here's stories from real people all over the world and how they've responded. I'm Sally Hendrick, founder of Shout Your Cause. And this is COVID-19 the world response.

Sally Hendrick (00:39):

Hey Rathna Ramakrishnan How are you doing? What's going on?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (00:45):

Great. Doing great. Sally, happy to be here, excited to have a conversation with you.

Sally Hendrick (00:49):

So tell me, where are you joining me from?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (00:52):

I lived in the Bay area in Palo Alto in California,

Sally Hendrick (00:56):

In California. Awesome. And what is it that you do there?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (01:01):

I have a children's education business. We provide spring and summer camps for children. They come into our programs and they're enriched and entertained through Lego robotics and financial literacy, which is money one-on-one programs, where they learn about the stock market savings and spending and so forth.

Sally Hendrick (01:22):


Rathna Ramakrishnan (01:23):

We employ teachers to run our programs because the cost of living in the Bay area is so high and, you know, teachers inevitably land up working in the summer. So we hire teachers, we hired a teacher team, we train them on our curriculum and then they go and deliver the curriculum.

Sally Hendrick (01:39):

So how long have you been doing this?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (01:42):

I'm going into season seven, which should've started next week, but COVID has other plans for us.

Sally Hendrick (01:49):

Yes. Covert has its own timeline it seems. So what since you're in California, what kind of restrictions are you still under?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (01:58):

So till two weeks ago, we there was no way we could think of any summer camps. Only the essential workers were they could go to a very restricted daycare services but there was no access. So two weeks ago we are allowed to run in-person small group programs, which is one teacher and 12 students. So a 1 is to 12 ratio.

Sally Hendrick (02:28):

Okay. And how many do you normally have in a situation like that?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (02:34):

You mean how many small group programs we're planning to run

Sally Hendrick (02:38):

Or how many do you normally have versus how many you're going to have because of the restrictions

Rathna Ramakrishnan (02:43):

I see. So this year we were scheduled to operate in 22 cities in the Bay area which would have amounted to about 80 weeks of camp. And so with the, with the restrictions, it looks like we'll land up offering about you know, 12 weeks of camp. And the, our group sizes are typically between 30 to 32 children that come to our Lego programs. And so with the restriction, we'll only have 12 children, but we don't plan to just have one teacher. We'll definitely have two teachers because with the PPE and you know, all the restrictions that come along in a COVID-19 situation, we don't want to burden one PTO with 12 children. So

Sally Hendrick (03:30):

That makes sense. So you're going to have a six to one ratio in your camps this summer, which is really that's great. That's great. So it's like a really high end kind of camp at this point when you move in that direction. Right. So

Rathna Ramakrishnan (03:47):

Anyway, so we sold, it made our current families because we already have over 200 families that are registered for the summer with us. And so we surveyed them to ask them if they were interested in coming in for an in person camp, right. Because we are absolutely an extraordinary times and we don't know what people's empty intonations are and what they like. And I was blown away by the interest in people wanting to tell you to have an opportunity to come in and, you know, have some kind of socialization and enrichment. And typically we're able to offer programs for children that are as young as four years old, but this year we decided not to engage in the preschool market. We just want to offer programs for 6 to 11 year olds, children, because they can, you know, they're little people, they understand they can follow instructions. And once they get to the tween, you know, they become, they have an opinion. And, you know, they'll probably be telling us what to do about the PPE. So we thought the 6 to 11 year old age range would be our target market for this.

Sally Hendrick (04:50):

Yeah. A little bit more control from the adult perspective, I would assume. So as far as that's your, that's how you're going to be managing, you know, the camp in person, but are you doing any options online as well?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (05:09):

Absolutely. So we have launched three online options. One is our stop motion animation curriculum where, you know, every child has an iPad today and a tub of Lego at home. So they'll just come to the computer with their tub of Lego or their iPad. We will recommend a stop motion animation app. And our teachers will sit on the other side of the screen and you teach these children how to create a story, how to storyboard and you know, build a movie using their iPads in person. This curriculum is 18 hours long. So the children, when they come in, they leave making fantastic movies. But we're just offering it as an online option for five hours. But even with the five hours, the children are going to be so inspired that all summer long, they're just going to be making stop motions movies of each other. If they have siblings of their back then dog. And so it can really trigger their imagination. So we've already started getting some registry since then for the stop motion animation camp, but also doing the money one-on-one as an online option again five hours. And we have a really special Lego kit that the children get to use when they come into our programs. And we've been able to take one Lego kit that has 400 elements and 27 out of that one box

Sally Hendrick (06:37):

From home as well.

Rathna Ramakrishnan (06:39):

No, so yeah, that is going to be from home as well. But in order to, in order for children to participate in that they would need to buy that Lego kit from us. And that Lego kit is made by the Lego company. And so what we're planning to do is we've already gotten 10 registrations and I launched it last week, the family, the family has to buy the Lego kit and then the children will come to the zoom online class. And then the teacher will share with them the instructions. And so the whole zoom class will build together. It was, it took a lot of, I was struggling to give up the kit and, you know, show things online because this is the IP of the business. This is the proprietary stuff that I have worked so hard to create with, which is what makes our programs special. That it is, feels like a lot to let go of the kid and then share the PDFs via screen. And there is an interest in it and I really want to keep programs going. So children can have some fun memories and be enriched during this, you know, unusual times where

Sally Hendrick (07:43):

Yes, it will be the summer of 2020. How will we explain this in the future? What's going to be the story, you know? So how has this affected you? Just emotionally, you know, in your mind, how have you been able to manage this? Because that's a huge change for you. You've been doing this for seven years. You've got to be very entrenched in the ways that you run your camps normally. So you've had to really adjust very quickly to try to save your business basically. So how has that been?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (08:25):

But it's been a humongous roller coaster ride. So the moment we went into the shelter in place there was somebody that went and wrote a one star review on Facebook for us. And then instant messaged us, you know, personally messaged us and said, I will bring down the one star review, if you will refund your money. And we had just gone into a shelter in place. I was still wrapping my head around what was happening, but this parent was so worried about their money that they had us for some of them that, that I just don't know what kind of a tactic that is. But I was, it really literally shocked me as to how the world can behave in pandemic. But I immediately put out a page on our website, you know, explaining what our plans were and no questions asked if we do not run our programs.

Rathna Ramakrishnan (09:15):

If you do not want to come to our programs, we were just going to refund your money because every family story is different. You know, people are laid off sick parents, so no questions asked. And so I simply wrote a heartfelt email to all the families that were registered with us. And I said, if you want to refund now, just reply back. If you don't want your refund, you don't need to do anything. We're happy to roll over your credit to 2021. And I was blown away by how many people were interested in letting us keep their money, because we still have bills to pay. You know, we have employees, I have a classroom rent over here. We carry crazy kinds of insurance to engage in a children's education business. So I was so relieved when there were families that were willing to roll over their money into 2021.

Rathna Ramakrishnan (10:00):

It really kindness of their hearts. And then whoever wanted to refund, right? We just refunded them. So probably the first four weeks, I'd say I was just moping. You know, I was getting all my calendar alerts for all the camp fairs because we go to camp there's to sell our programs. My team was wondering what to do. And one of my team members, she was like, you know, I don't know what what's going to happen with this summer campuses. So she decided to go get another job. So it was, it was really a little roller coaster ride.

Sally Hendrick (10:30):

every day, something new that you had to face and handle it. You couldn't just ignore it. You can't go hide in a hole when you've got a business and you've got people to communicate with and to inform and let them know what's happening. You have to step up and be strong, probably stronger than, you know, a lot of others.

Sally Hendrick (10:50):

So when it comes to you, because you're a mom, you've got little kids at home as well, and they're in school. How were you managing switching to the homeschool situation at the same time that you were managing your business changes?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (11:06):

So the first thing is because I have a classroom in one side of my classroom is an office. I have desks and chairs. So the first, immediately I told my husband, you're going to go get the chairs and a desk into the house. So the kids have like a foreigner. Everybody has a comfortable chair because I, I just didn't want like the dining table chairs drag around and say stuff like a study station for them right away. And my fourth grader, his teacher like day three of being in shelter in place. She went online, right? Because she's one of those seasoned teachers. The moment she went online, we realized that, you know, she's an amazing teacher, but because she's retiring, you know, her generation, she's not very tech savvy. And so it was just crazy trying to tell them later, so called mom, I don't know where to click. I can see the teacher and the teacher's like quiet. And then I emailed it. And I said, you know, there is a mute all button in zoom. And he was like, am I can actually mute mic

Rathna Ramakrishnan (12:08):

I think the initial days of stress were just trying to get the children situated with this online education and the school district that parents are pretty ambitious in how rapidly they wanted to take stuff online. My sixth grader was, is far more tech savvy and you know, easier. And, and he's one of those I liked school I wanted to learn. And my fourth grader, you know, we really have to say, okay, 11 o'clock, you've got to get on that zoom call. So it's just, you know, some kind of better thing. And then I have all the work related stuff happening on the sites. It's definitely interesting times. And then the food shopping and my husband being home all the time and working, which is something that I've never had, which is, you know,

Sally Hendrick (12:47):

Everybody's all of a sudden taken up all the wifi space and taking up all the physical space. We had a similar situation here and that we even have an added family member, if you will, to, to the mix. We have six of us here in our apartment in downtown Nashville. And so that's been different. I'm used to being at home all day by myself. Did, yeah, we did get that situation remedied somewhat in that my husband does have a workshop and it has offices. And so the older kids who are in college went to work with him every day. And then my high schooler was not flourishing so well with the changes. And so we ended up sending that child to the office as well. So they all went over there where the, where the Internet's much faster and better. And then I was able to get my space back for, you know, cause I work from home and I I'm used to it being quiet here and getting a lot of distractions like that can really break your concentration when you're not used to all that activity. And then just, just for somebody to ask you a simple question, where's the car key. Can I go over here to the store? Where's your credit card? Just that sort of interruption can just make you go I just lost half an hour. I mean, how did that happen? You know,

Rathna Ramakrishnan (14:18):

Well, for me, one of the things that stopped me was my sixth grader plays the saxophone. And so I'd be in a phone call like this and suddenly he pitched up warn mommy, that you're going to be, he's like, no, mom, I have an assignment due. And he has an iPad in front of him. He's recording himself.

Sally Hendrick (14:38):

Oh my goodness. Yeah. That's, that's tough. That's funny now didn't you set up an online camp over spring break, kind of

Sally Hendrick (14:48):

Have at the last minute to.

Rathna Ramakrishnan (14:51):

no, was there wasn't enough time to do that? So yeah, I didn't do it. So it's just going into starting the week of the 15th, June 15th is going to be the first set of online camps. And so we already have our teams hired for the summer. So I reached out to them to ask who was in passivity, in teaching online gangs. And there's a significant, you know, everybody wants to work because that's what they, some are. So there's a lot of interest and then there's several of them that want to work in the in person camps, which are looking a bit more tedious to do compared to convention. So times because of the PPE and you know, all the rules I was I wasn't expecting anybody to stay yet, but again, you know, there's quite a few teachers that are interested in working in person camps. So now it's the logistics of figuring it all out and, and going live. So,

Sally Hendrick (15:44):

So this brings up the question, how are you going to shape the future of your business, knowing that your, your, you have the ability to go online. You're getting to do basically beta test this, live this summer, and you'll be able to expand beyond where you are. Cause I know that that was one of your goals in the past was to be able to open up other camps around the country that other people might have part ownership in or whatever it is that we had talked about this before. Maybe some sort of franchise information, you know arrangement, if you will. But knowing that you can open up this program to an online space, what, what do you think's gonna happen?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (16:42):

You know, I, I can't wait to see what happens to the shipping of this Lego kit custom Lego kits to the families, and then offering this instruction online because I actually collaborated with Lego master. That's what they call the Lego masters. And there's not very many of them in the world. And he has about 15 books that he's published on Amazon. His name is Danielle [inaudible] and he's the one that designed the builds that the children come in and engage in the camps. And so it's always been my dream to take these builds to as many children as possible. And so if this exercise of shipping the Lego to the parents, you know, and then being able to offer that online instruction works, then Hey, I can be in Australia and India and wherever the word, the world, because, you know, there's, there's no more limitations by geography and money curriculum will really work well online, which is why I moved our business on the Kajabi because of the course platform.

Rathna Ramakrishnan (17:42):

And so you know, I've started putting together the one hour curriculum. So now I'm creating it with the vision of being able to have a teacher on the other side, but it could potentially have recorded videos because I'm going to be recording all of these sessions that are happening now will happen now by a zoom, like potentially take those and edit those and, you know, create online courses. So yeah, it's, it's, it's exciting and scary all at the same time. I, however, I'm a great fan of conventional summer camps, right. Because it's very sweet to come together, make new friends, you know, there's, there's so many fun things that come out of a conventional summer camps again. So in my heart, I really wish that we go back to the conventional times and can have, I don't know what is conventional anymore, right? Yeah. Yes, definitely exciting possibilities.

Sally Hendrick (18:38):

Even give an opportunity to kids who can't afford to come do your camp now. Yeah. If you have the online option, because obviously the costs are lower when you don't have a building and all of the things you need to bring someone into a live space. So if they're online. Yeah. I mean, I've talked with a lot of educators, a lot of people in that space over the last few weeks for this podcast and they talk about, you know, the adult education, the career education, you know, you have different types of programs and continuing education credits and things that people will tend to do with local colleges. And then you think about the fact that, you know institutions all around are going to have to really change and adapt, and it might give a kid in Ohio or Tennessee or somewhere else, the opportunity to take a really cool class at Harvard or at MIT or out somewhere in California at a university there, you know, that would be really cool.

Rathna Ramakrishnan (19:53):

I'm actually going through a happiness course with Yale on Academy, Udemy, or Coursera they made several of their courses free and I it's really cool. It's really, you know, helping me with my mindset and this pandemic, you know, parenting from home, trying to delve into the business and it really puts happiness in perspectives. So you're right. I wouldn't have thought about looking up a course, if not for the online ability in the, in the entire mold that our brains have switched to right now. So yeah. And you know, talking about costs the East Bay in the Bay area, you know, the San Francisco and then East Bay, some of the cities are not as affluent as the remainder of the Silicon Valley. So that, and actually offering these programs for add cost where the children would just stay for the Lego kit and then be able to come the online class. So I'm curious to see how those families are going to behave that, you know, that demographic will they be interested in being in buying a Lego kit for a child to have some funds. So only time will tell I'll report back to you

Sally Hendrick (21:03):

Now from a money management standpoint, I'm curious, are you creating a discount on that particular camp and then writing that off on your taxes? Is that something that is available to you to do?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (21:22):

I don't believe still no scholarships. Yeah. You cannot. You don't. No. So what I did was typically, you know, we, we do offer like, you know, discounts because people like discounts, right? Everybody likes some kind of savings, but I just made a decision that we were just not going to discount anything. So for the first three years in business, I said, you know, it's okay. I'm not going to discount anything. This is what the services of whoever's interested can come. And then I caught onto the market and I realized that it's just the nature of this business where people want to feel like the $10 and $25. Right. No matter how affluent the family is. So again, this summer I'm reverting back to the price. Right. And not be hassled with refunds, if it's going to be fewer registrations, because people are not getting that refund. It's okay. Because I, you know, it's an experiment, we're all in a giant human,

Sally Hendrick (22:15):

Well, we are in many, many ways

Rathna Ramakrishnan (22:18):

I don't deal with discounts and, you know, there's the discount code and like all of the headaches price to try it. And that's it. So overcomes comes if they don't want to come it's okay. So that's been my philosophy.

Sally Hendrick (22:34):

Well, I love how you have made all of these adjustments and adapted to the situation and you've still got a beautiful smile on your face. And yeah, I can't wait to find out more as this rolls out and see how this human experiment and business experiment and everything that we're doing right now is going to come about. So anything else that you'd like to?

Rathna Ramakrishnan (22:59):

Yes. So when the children come to our programs at the end of the week, we have them create what is called a story card. And so they basically draw and write out what they loved about camp. And when I think about all the things I'm going to miss this summer about not having, you know, the actual light gangs, it's going to be those story cards, because there's just absolutely delights of looking into that child's mind and seeing what they loved about jam. And so I've actually rolled out this entire program and we'll reach out to all our email subscribers and ask them to have their child make a postcard about what they love about summer camp, what they're going to miss about summer camp and in these Epic times, we're in. And I wanted to mention that. So if you have any listener,

Rathna Ramakrishnan (23:46):

You know, it's not limited to two of them that have come through our programs, it's the concept of summer camp? What is it that you love, or what is it that you're going to miss? And I just want her to share the cards as they come in on our website on Sundays, or, you know, pick a date. And so we can just have a catalog of what these children miss or love from this generation. I love that because when they put it in their own words, it's really funny. It's a, it's entertaining, it's heartfelt. And, and it's so honest. We did a project like that for school one year where we did like a, a photo album of the class. And it was in addition to, you know, the normal yearbook. This was just a particular type of thing where we had like baby pictures and whatever else for all of the kindergartners that year.

Sally Hendrick (24:39):

And then we had a list of about 20 questions and we randomly asked three or four questions to every child to see how they would answer it. And it was the funniest thing ever. And we published it in the book. You know, there was a whole page of like, you know, superhero kind of questions or what are your mom and dad do for a living. Cause you know, they were in kindergarten, you know, you never knew what was going to come out of their mouth. All kinds of things like that. So I can see that being a very fun project. It's probably my best resource for help improve the curriculum because it's straight from the horse's mouth. Right. They tell you what they love even more than, you know, serving the teachers and asking them for ideas on what better we could do with the curriculum at the end of the season. And I just love looking at those story cards. So I hope people will engage by and if they keep those study guides like, well, that sounds like a great idea. All right. Well, thank you so much for meeting with me and I look forward to hearing more hearing an update from you later in the summer. Okay.

Rathna Ramakrishnan (25:51):

Thank you for having me. Take care Sally. Bye.

Sally Hendrick (25:55):

Thank you.

Sally Hendrick (26:05):

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