How One Mom Created Her Thriving Business On A Tiny Budget

This stellar mom has figured out a way to get kids excited about problem solving. Here's how she cashed in on her discovery on a shoestring startup budget.

Laura Overdeck has always loved math--she even majored in astrophysics at Princeton. So, of course giving her three kids bedtime math problems each night always seemed as natural as telling them bedtime stories. When she realized her kids found the word problems fun, Overdeck started emailing them to friends and family as well.

Fast forward a few years. These days, Overdeck's Bedtime Math Foundation sends a daily math problem to 50,000 families by email, plus thousands of others via Facebook and its app. Overdeck’s first book, Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse to Stay Up Late, became a children’s bestseller, and the sequel, Bedtime Math 2: This Time It’s Personal, came out today.

Her mission? “To make math fun for kids,” she says. “A lot of adults didn’t like school in general, and they really didn’t like the math part of it." But, "Everyone needs to know math just to live their daily lives,” she says. Overdeck is working to create a big shift in people's attitudes toward math--all on the shoestring resources of a nonprofit budget. Here are five ways she's learned to make a big impact with little money on hand.

1. Crowdsource for ideas.

Overdeck and a staff writer create most of the Bedtime Math Foundation’s daily problems, but they welcome fodder from readers and have even offered a prize for kids who suggested good ideas. The organization debuts new products like books, programs, and an after-school math club kit only after lots of people have asked for them. That’s a good indication “it’s something the market actually wants,” says Overdeck.

If you’ve got limited resources, you don’t want to waste time and effort building demand, she says. Let people tell you what they find fascinating and go from there.

2. Test your idea as much as you can.

Before launching anything big, try it on a small scale first, so you can avoid making expensive mistakes. The Bedtime Math Foundation’s summer library program involves activities like sending a toy animal along a zip-line and measuring the distance it's traveled. Before creating zip-line kits to send to hundreds of libraries, Overdeck brought her own stuffed animals to a library to test whether kids found this project entertaining. And even that wasn’t her first prototype: “I’ve got an in-house focus group,” she says. “Everything gets tried on my kids first.”

If you want to enter a new market, “Fling together a prototype and get it out there,” says Overdeck. Don’t worry if the idea is half-baked. “If [people] love it, they will forgive you,” she says.

3. Hire when you're certain you need it.

Sometimes people hire to build an empire. But lean startups need to be more strategic. “I’d start feeling pressure in one arena of activity, and I knew someone could do just as well at the job, if not better [than me],” says Overdeck. If those two criteria were met--she had too much work and knew she didn't need to be the one doing it--she would hire someone. Once she had a small team, she’d shift people's responsibilities depending on the organization's needs. "Everybody’s got to be able to wear multiple hats,” says Overdeck. Hire talented people and “it will work out.”

4. Use partnership to broaden your reach.

Partnerships have helped the Bedtime Math Foundation scale their efforts. Overdeck can’t call every library in America. But the American Library Association can, so she’s partnered with them. When launching her second book, she partnered with bookstores to do glow-in-the-dark geometry parties for kids.

It’s all about scale. “If something’s going to be small, we won’t look at it, even if it’s a good idea,” she says. It’s also about messaging--which is why the Bedtime Math Foundation isn’t trying to be part of math class during the school day. Remember, Overdeck wants math to be fun and math class often isn’t fun for kids, which “kills the brand,” she says.

5. Grow carefully.

When you have limited resources, you have to focus on a specific niche or you risk diluting your work. The Bedtime Math Foundation focuses primarily on elementary school kids in the U.S., though there’s plenty of work to be done with, say, middle schoolers. “We want to exhaust the problem before we move on to another problem,” says Overdeck. “Let’s focus and have high impact.”

[Image: Flickr user Dennis Tang]

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