From Engineer To Award Winning Entrepreneur

An Interview with Barbara Lax

A brain-storming session at a BBQ with friends inspired Barbara Lax to quit her successful engineering career and create a winning child care concept for modern families and companies in Switzerland. Undaunted by attempts to sabotage her business and the inevitable family struggles, Barbara eventually won Veuve Clicquot’s Swiss Business Woman of the Year 2017 and is today ranked among the Financial Times 1000 fastest growing companies in Europe. 

Website: www.littlegreenhouse.ch

02:00 – What is the Little Green House?
05:02 – What is considered a modern family?
06:50 – What has the public recognition and awards meant for the business?
09:36 – What was your vision and reason for starting the business?
14:08 – The personal importance of starting a new business and making it a success
17:50 – Challenges in the beginning of starting the business
21:00 – The scale-up operation of the business today
23:13 – Did you receive any help on this journey?
32:57 – The learnings on the journey shared
27:48 – The future vision personally and for the business
30:38 – Who would you choose to mentor or help and why?

Click to Read Full Transcript...

So what do you do when your first employee resigns and then runs off with the password to your business computer system containing all of the company’s data and operations. And then you go ahead and sign lease, a 10-year lease for your first business lease and the bank turns around and says, ‘Sorry, but we can’t fund you anymore’. Well I tell you what you do, you go ahead and create an incredibly successful business called the ‘Little Green House’ which is an innovative, multi-lingual childcare business for modern families and companies. Let me give you some stats about this business, so turnover today approaching 9 million Swiss Francs a year. Over 150 employees and have helped over 2000 families since May 2012 when it was first founded and operating today in four locations in Switzerland. My guest today is the CEO and founder of the Little Green House and she also was awarded in 2017 the Veuve Clicquot Swiss Business Woman of the year award and was also recognised by the Financial Times for the past three years in a row in the Top 1000 fastest growing companies in Switzerland. So, again, I’m delighted to have as our next guest today the CEO and founder of the Little Green House Barbara Lax.

 

Alex: Hey Barbara, welcome to the show, absolute pleasure to have you on.
Barbara: Thank you, Alex.
Alex: Barbara, I was driving my daughter to school this morning and well, she fancies herself as a little bit of an entrepreneur. She likes to sell her vintage clothes via Instagram and all of that. She asked me a very good question about your business, because I was trying to explain it to her. She said, ‘Well what’s the difference between what Barbara’s doing and a normal creche?’ And I said, ‘Ah, okay, well I’ll ask her’. So, I’d love you to explain Barbara the concept of the Little Green House and why you think it’s so innovative?

 

What is the Little Green House ?

 

Barbara: You know when I started the Little Green House it was really out of my own frustration because I couldn’t find a place that was you know, inspiring for working family, where both parents are working and both want to have a career. Because what I was really looking for was this you know very strong partnership between the educators and the parents. Where you could really rely that everything you wanted for your child was provided while you were at work. Also, you know I didn’t really get to know the people that were working there in a relaxed way and I always felt a bit like a stranger at the place.

So, that was for me the starting point and different elements in our concept that are very different I would say to other places. One of them is that we are multilingual, so we provide a childcare in English, French and German and it is a concept is called ‘emersion’ so it means in each of the groups there is educators in each of the languages. So, the children are really emerged into these languages. That also, motivates them to also keep their mother tongue if it’s another mother tongue even.
It’s very interesting and I found that in such an International environment like we live here, it would be a pity not to build on this very multilingual environment of the children that they already bring. So, that’s one very important point.

The other important point is everything about nature and health, so we have our own vegetable garden, the children you know learn, they spend a lot of time in nature so they can really discover and get their own rhythm. We have forest days, we do a lot about. You know we have a compost, we do work a lot in our vegetable garden and we work a lot on recycling and really making the children also responsible for their environment and create that strong link to nature and these roots that will then also help them to resource themselves when they get older.

Then, the other very important point is you know, we call it the ‘mighty minds’. It’s all about neuro-pedagogics, it’s everything that we today know that the children can actually learn that their brains, the brain development. These are a lot of things that we didn’t know maybe in the 60s or in the 70s about a lot of those pedagogics concepts have to be developed.

So, you know, just to give you some ideas and then of course on the parents side, there is a lot of flexibility and support for those working parents. And that’s also why I think it’s something that is different.

Alex: Well I mean you mentioned to me before we did this interview that you’ve had nearly two thousands families have come through your…you’ve got four different sites now offering your services. Two thousand families, that’s incredible. And you talk about them as being modern families, so just explain again, I know you did it just briefly, but what is the modern family, I mean that your define for your business?

 

What is considered the modern family?


Barbara: For me, a modern family, I mean of course there’s a lot of models for modern families. In the end I think it’s when a family really allows itself to you know live their ideals and these can be very different. But, they don’t try to just live a social model that they think that’s kind of the standard, but they actually really allow themselves to live their ideals.
And, for a lot of families this means that they also allow themselves to combine having a family, and a good family and a family that works well. Also developing and working on their career, so that both men and women in the family can actually, you know, be a very good parents and also be a very good you know employee or entrepreneur or whatever and develop their career throughout also their children.
That of course demands a lot of additional support, so they can obviously not do everything perfectly well, in terms of I don’t know, cooking and housekeeping and everything else. So, they really need to focus on the essential and that’s obviously spending as much time with the children as possible, whenever they can. And that’s where we want to be their support.
Alex: Great. I think a lot of people listening will probably fit into the category, or at least think they do, so it’ll be very curious to see what they think of your business. Now you’ve had two large, and you’ve probably had more, but the two that stood for me large public recognitions of your business. One was the FT Top 1000 fastest growing businesses in Switzerland. But, also you won the Swiss Business Woman of the year award in 2017, from Veuve Clicquot. Two great recognitions for what you’ve done, so what have those meant for you and obviously your organisation as you built the business?

 

What has the public recognition and awards meant for the business?


Barbara: Yes, these were very important recognitions for us for a variety of reasons. The Veuve Clicquot prize for me was, of course, very prestigious and wonderful award. There’s a lot of events around it and experiences and –
Alex: Did you get champagne?!

Barbara: Oh lots of it, lots!
Alex: Oh good, that’s the main thing! [Laugh]
Barbara: And you know it’s also a nice story, because I don’t know if you know  Madam Clicquot she actually became a widow when she was 27 years old and she had a daughter you know like aged 7 and so I’m a widow obviously. So, she started or she continued the business, the champagne business all by herself and that’s you know a long time ago. She was a very strong woman and that she wasn’t afraid of what everything people might say and I think that that’s very encouraging to get such a prize in that memory. So, I’m very proud of that personally.

And you know the Financial Times ranking, I mean we are already now ranked 3rd year in a row. We also got ranked again in 2019, we actually just today we received the official document. That’s really for me also very important, because you know a lot of people think that the social area like childcare, like they care for old people, hospitals things like that are not really businesses and they don’t classify and there you cannot talk about this like a business, and I think you do. Because you know you also need processes, you need controls, things need to be working well. You need to have a very high-quality in order to attract also people that want to invest in you longer-term. And so, I really, I mean I’m coming from the business side and I’m running this daycare like a business, and I’m very proud that we are receiving those business rewards.


Alex: Fantastic. Well it’s a great recognition of what you do and I’m sure it makes it also helps you in hiring great people as well. Because obviously, the see the business being recognised and they want to be part of that, so I’m sure that really helps?
Barbara: Yes, definitely, that helps. We are, you know, this is actually one point that I have been putting a lot focus since opening the first opening in 2012 on developing a team of people that are highly motivated, that bring a lot of enthusiasm and also a lot of knowledge. That stays with us and then that can really create this very strong spirit that makes the different the Little Green House. So, yes, definitely it helps that we have this brand and this recognition.
Alex: Fantastic. Okay, so let’s go back a bit then. Then you touched on a little bit before, but you’re from Bavaria, Germany and here you are now in Switzerland, in the Geneva area. So, how, and why did you start this business, I mean what was your vision when you wanted to get this started?

 

What was your vision and reason for starting the business?


Barbara: It was a development I think of a lot of different things you know. Actually, I’m coming from the engineering side. I’m an engineer, I’ve been working in the construction business, and the machinery business for a total of around 15 years. There was one very big motivation for me and one very big frustration at the same time. And that was to not always see the result of your own efforts when you work in a big corporation, or you work in research. You do a lot of things and you get very excited about a topic and then you’re not the one who will do the final decision, if things are done and how they are done.
So, I’ve been working in strategy for many years and you know, I’m familiar with doing market studies you know. Competitive analysis, things like that. But, also develop new markets and so there was always this kind of nagging voice in my head to say, ‘Okay, you need to do something more tangible and something more useful to society in a way at least that you can see the use directly’.
So, that really was something that developed in my head over the years and, you know, this idea about creating Little Green House came during a barbecue with some friends where we were doing a brainstorming and where we were like, ‘What would we do tomorrow if we could start our own company?’ Actually my first idea wasn’t even to open a childcare centre, it was to open a Bavarian Beer garden because you know, [laugh] I’m Bavarian and so I think that’s really needed, so maybe that’s something I need to work on at some point. [Laugh]
But then my friend said, ‘Yes, but this is maybe not the right moment because you just have a little baby and so you will not be able to work nights and you know come home and take him out.’ I said, ‘Okay, you know what I mean this is really another topic that really bothers me, we need to have an innovative childcare and so this is something I could do as well.’ And that got a lot of applause, you know everybody came up with a story of somebody they knew that couldn’t find the right place or couldn’t find a place at all. And that eventually had to really make changes to their lives, like moving away or you know stopping to work, things like that. 

So, you know that suddenly there was this spark and then I couldn’t get rid anymore of this idea and so I started this project you know in my free time. But, while I was still working, I was working you know 100% of the time, so it was really stressful. But, was really emotional and I was spending two years to develop the whole project until I then I actually quit my job.

Alex: That must take quite some motivation, how do you keep going. You know, [laugh] because doing that 100% career as well as having a young child and doing lots aside. That means evenings and weekends I suppose?
Barbara: Yes, and nights and mornings and you know I was travelling a lot so you know I had time in the hotel rooms, on flights, and things like that. It was really strong feeling like when you fall in love, you know it was, I couldn’t stop thinking about it anymore. So, it was always in my head, I was so excited, it was very tiring also because there was all this feelings, you know it was very emotional. And, so, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and it was kind of natural, but then of course when I started to work with people, you know then I had to start meet real estate agents and I had to meet architects and so on, banks, you know. That was really the most stressful part, because first of all I needed to make time for that, so that was very difficult. Then, I needed to pretend that I’m this you know completely confident entrepreneur that knows exactly what she’s doing. I mean this was just an idea in my head, and so of course I decided to do market research and so on.
But, nevertheless, I felt like I live a parallel live, you know. Like I’m living these two different worlds, and I felt like I’m playing theatre to people. I did, you know, I was preparing myself mentally in the car to drive to these meetings, and I came out, you have to jump into this role of this entrepreneur who knows exactly what she’s doing and she will figure it all out. You know and you need to have an answer to all their questions and that was unbelievable tiring, but it was actually most of the time it wasn’t fun.because you felt exhausted and it wasn’t very authentic. But, I think that sometimes also what it takes when you start something completely new.
Alex: Absolutely. It sounds like there was a lot at stake for you in doing this business for you personally, can you tell us a little about that?

 

The personal importance of starting a new business and making it a success


Barbara: You know on the one hand that was this, as I said this very strong feeling, emotions and so on, so I knew I would regret more if I don’t try this than if it maybe fail. So, I had this very clear, I imagine myself you know, dying and thinking oh my God why did I never do this. Or, thinking, yes okay I did it, but it didn’t work out and I felt very strongly that I needed to do it because I would really regret it, you know, until the rest of my life. Because this, for me, it was like this one moment, this one possibility to jump off the train and to start this very big thing, maybe, or maybe not. But, then at least I had tried.
So, I was putting a lot of energy into that, but at some point it wasn’t only the energy that was needed, but I also needed to take some very bold decisions, so I needed to sign a lease for 10 years for a rental contract with a real estate agency. I did it, and you know believing that I had figured out the financing just because I had an oral agreement from a bank. But, just some days later, actually that same bank came back to me and said, ‘Sorry, in the end we can’t give you the loan because, you know it’s too risky and I really like your project, but my boss doesn’t, and so sorry.’

So there I was, you know having signed this 10-year lease and I didn’t really know you know how to move on. So I found luckily, I was really lucky, I found another bank that agreed to give me a loan but I had to sign a guarantee that I put our house you know, as a guarantee. So that’s big you know, and I also have to say that my close environment, like my parents and my husband, they were not really convinced about this whole thing that I wanted to start. Because they’re like, ‘Yes, you are an engineer, I mean this is what you know to do. You have a very good job, you have a good salary, you like your colleagues. Hello?’
Alex: They must have thought you were crazy, they must have?

Barbara: They did, they did, and they told. And so, I didn’t tell them that I was actually signing all these documents, you know putting our house at stake and stuff like that. I mean, I did all this not telling anybody and then of course, you know worse things comes to worse at some point, the business really went really bad, you know.
In the beginning I was having all this great feedback and we started off, but there were a lot of difficulties in the beginning. And at some point you know we didn’t develop like I planned, and we really running out of money at some point. That really for me, was a complete nightmare because you know, I felt like I betrayed everybody and like, you know I really felt a lot of shame and desperation because I felt like now if everything goes down then I’m not only going to lose our house, and not only all these people will lose their jobs, and all this family will lose their places. But, you know I might also lose my family because they were disappointed, I will maybe also lose all my friends, because maybe they only like me when I’m strong and dynamic.
So, you know that was this whole cinema going on in my head and you know, when you don’t sleep anymore and you have these nights without sleep, then of course you imagine so many things that a rational person would think that that’s ridiculous. But, then you get really deep into these kind of thoughts.
Alex: One thing that I think that you mentioned to me before, was in some of the difficulties that you had, and you had a number of them, you said I think it was right at the beginning that you, that you I think your first hire I think it was, you struggled there didn’t you? You had some issue with data and computers, can tell us a little bit about that and perhaps anything else that really, you know any other big challenges you had to go through?

Challenges in the beginning of starting the business

Barbara: Yes, I mean of course you know I was still working 100% as I said, so I knew that I couldn’t take all of this on. Plus, of course, you need to have a trained professional pedagog in order to take care of this whole team. So, I hired a director for this childcare centre and you know, she was very enthusiastic and motivated young woman. Didn’t bring a huge amount of experience, but a lot of enthusiasm. So, I let her work it all out in the terms of details of the pedagogics and then also managing this first team of 15 people.
Of course, on my side I had to do all the administrative side and had to run the business. That’s also something that I needed to learn and I had no clue about because I knew how to do a big strategy, but I didn’t know anything about you know payment sheets and insurances and stuff like that.
And so, I think for her that was very scary and de-sterilising and her Dad, you know as an accountant, so she wanted her Dad to take over the company basically and me just providing the funds. Which obviously wasn’t my idea and I was ready to learn everything I had to learn, so we had this big discussion and I said, ‘Look, you know I don’t see this. I mean I love working with you, but I don’t want to work with your Dad’. Long story short, but the next day she was basically on sick leave and didn’t come back anymore. The problem was that I also didn’t have the password to the computer where all our data was, you know. Company data, the employee data, you know all the schedules of planning, the concept. So, I couldn’t do anything, so I was really afraid also that at some point she maybe somehow comes back and maybe deletes all the data, so I was super scared.

So, I called my brother-in-law who is an IT specialist and he flew from Barcelona you know and we did this, you call this cloak-and-dagger operation and he basically he pirated my computer. So, I was pirating my own computer, I felt like a criminal in a way. And then this director she never came back. The moment then in the end when she sent her resignation and the password finally, you know after months, to the computer, you know the computer was empty by then. So, I was doing a good job of listening to my gut feelings.
Alex: I’m sure a few lessons learned there.
Barbara: Yes, I mean I think sometimes there’s so many things that you live and you learn. Today, we have 150 employees and we have you know around 700 families at the moment. So, there’s always something going on, so it’s very exciting. But it’s also of course you always need to decide quickly and awake.
Alex: So, let’s talk about that point there, I mean 150 employees, let’s talk about the scale that you’ve created now in the business. So, how have you managed to set up the operation so that it can grow now without killing you? [Laugh] Because obviously you can’t do everything, but having a scale-up operation like that is quite something.

 

The scale-up operation of the business today


Barbara: Yes. So that’s true, I mean that was also the most difficult thing for me to learn, you know in the beginning. I mean I had to learn how to run this team by myself, because when the director was gone it wasn’t like I had a new director the next day. So, I needed to quit my job and learn how to run the team. And of course, you know being an entrepreneur I thought well you just give people a good idea and a nice vision and then things will just fall into the right place automatically.

That wasn’t the case, because you know people need a lot of security, people need processes, people need to know that everything is under control. And you know that’s obviously not something that I was able to provide to them in the beginning because I didn’t know how to do it. I had to learn it myself and then very soon I realised that there were some people in the team that were really ready to take on responsibilities and that were very motivated to take some weight off the shoulders. So that things continued to work well and the people could actually grow. And, so those people then got more and more responsibility and we got also more and more of those kinds of people. 

Together we then built up this whole grid, this whole concept, this whole project where we now even you know we have two General Managers who are managing. The site manager is and all the operations, and we have one Quality and Process Manager who is also doing all the training for our new staff and to make sure that everybody knows to the last bit of detail, how we want to work at Little Green House.

So, we don’t have these discussions anymore and these struggles about oh you know there’s two people disagreeing on how you should talk to a child, or work in a certain situation. Or, you know feedback to the parents, things like that.
So, there is a lot of detail that’s needed and I’m very happy, because today I’m not a lot involved anymore in the operational, nearly nothing. It is really run by those people that took on more and more responsibilities and so I can think more and work more on the strategy and on the growth and on the brand. So, that’s a lot of fun for me, obviously.
Alex: Fantastic, that’s great. Talking about help, did you get any help on this journey?

 

Did you receive any help on this journey?


Barbara: Yes, luckily I got a lot of help and I took all the help that I could get from the beginning and I think that was a very good thing. One of the organisations that helped me a lot is Genilem, it’s an organisation that helps startups that have innovative ideas, in Switzerland. So, you have three years free coaching where people, you know there’s somebody that sees you regularly and helps with all kinds of different questions and that’s also a great network of other companies that you can tap into. Plus, a lot of exposure to the press you know. That also helped us a lot because we got a lot of visibility and it helped create also create our brand.

The other help that I got was from a personal coach at that moment where I was really down and I didn’t know how to continue anymore. And she helped me to really focus on what is going well and you know even there in the beginning I thought, ‘oh well there’s actually nothing is going well’ but you will always find something, you know. Even if it’s not related to your business, even if you’re in the worst moment you will always find something that actually went well in the day, or in the week. To focus on those things and that to work that and that also really helped me to get out of that very big crisis situation.

So, those were I think the two biggest supports. Then of course the support from the team itself, you know from some of those people in the team that really were ready to take on responsibilities, even though they might not be able to influence all the different aspects, but they were ready to find solutions and that really helped me.
Alex: Fantastic. So, what about learnings that you could share, that perhaps could be relevant for other people in startup mode today. What have you learnt that really would, you know, be worth sharing?

 

The learnings of the journey shared

 

Barbara: I think for me the biggest learning was that you know I needed to learn that because I’m somebody where we have a lot of endurance, I’m very focused and I’m quite a strong person I would say. I did iron man you know when I was younger. I did a lot of endurance sports and also during all the engineering career, you know you sometimes really need to hem there and be very focused.

So, my idea was I’ll manage this because I’m a hard worker, I can stay very focused. And if things don’t work out, I just work harder and then it will work. That I had to find out the hard way, that that’s actually wrong. It’s sometimes less is more and that when you are really not in a good moment or when things are really not going well, the solution is not to work harder and to work more. The solution is to, at least as an entrepreneur and where as a leader where people are depending on you and your decisions. The solution is actually to take care of yourself and to make sure that you are in a good emotional state and in a good place, so that you can take the right decisions. Sometimes, and many times that means actually to work less and to take better care of yourself, of your sleep, of your body, of your health, of your mind, of your family. You know, going on vacation, things like that.

 

So, I’m telling this to my team also today, so I’m encouraging them to allow themselves to take the time they need, especially the leadership team. I’m also allowing that to myself, you know I like to travel, so I’m often gone and I might work also from other places. Or, I take time off because I know that you know when you are in stressful situations you don’t do any favour to anybody to work day and night. It’s actually doing a lot of harm, because you then are exhausted and you will not give energy to the people that they need.
Alex: I mean that’s a great lesson, and it perhaps goes against what a lot of people perceive as being the way of doing business as an entrepreneur and that is you know long nights. I mean of course it’s hard work, we all understand that. But, you’re right self-care is key, otherwise you don’t make it.
Barbara: Yes exactly, the hard work you can do when you’re feeling great. When things are going smooth and you can put some extra hours in if you want, you know if your fine. But as soon as a crisis situation, I mean don’t believe hard work will get you out of it. At least that was for my specific case, that was really a lesson I had to learn.
Alex: So, tell us about the future for the Little Green House and for yourself, what are you planning, what do you think that you want to bring into the vision now?

 

The future vision personally and for the business

 

Barbara: Yes, so, you know I want Little Green House really to be an independent organisation. I don’t want us to be part of one of these big groups that are just growing and looking at market share.
I’m passionate about innovation, I’m passionate about the state of development, about social responsibility. I want to create this very inclusive, innovative place for the modern family and for the future citizen, so that they can really you know put their focus on what’s best for them. And if we can give them good you know good roots and good wings so that they can develop the best way.
So, that means for me that of course I would like to grow, because I think we have a very good concept, it has a lot of potential. We have a lot of ideas, we’re adding different services on a daily basis more or less. You know sometimes people are on, we get a bit tired of all these ideas that are coming. We have just created also a club for our families, where parents can come to our, even parents that are not part of the Little Green House, can come on the weekends, have a coffee with us. Come to conferences about all kinds of you know work-life  balance, education, things like that.
They can celebrate their birthdays at our place and we do a lot of events also you know, around sports, around just hanging out and we create this really nice community. I think that’s more services that a modern family needs, you know this how to continue the language skills of the children once they leave the Little Green House. Or, maybe concierge services for the modern family, so maybe they don’t have to worry about cooking healthy food anymore when they get home in the evenings. Co-working, you know we could be partnering with co-working spaces. We’re doing a lot of things around providing these extra services.

Then of course, developing further and further our pedagogic project around this neuro-scientific learnings. Because there’s a lot of new results on a daily basis, and it’s very interesting. I think that’s very exciting and for me it’s important that we keep our independence and that we grow at a moderate pace, you know that we, I don’t know, we can do openings, maybe two childcare centres per year, something like that. I think in the long-run that will be no problem, but I don’t see us kind of just you know spread and just think about growth. It still needs to be fun and it still each time needs to be something new.
Alex: Fantastic, that’s a really exciting vision and I think that you know the way that you’re looking at the modern family and what they need. It’s a lot more than just “childcare”, it’s a much broader vision, and which it’s fantastic, really, really exciting. So I want to finish off by a question which I ask all my guests, and it’s around you know the idea of you mentoring other people or giving back. I know you give a lot already today, but if you chose to mentor or help someone, who would it be and why?

 

Who would you choose to mentor or help and why?


Barbara: Well, you know there’s one phase in my entrepreneurship journey that really marked me the most, was actually this very deep crisis that I went into because I was taking so much risk and I was going against all odds. And I had to kind of you know survive this moment and come out of this stronger.
That’s nicely said, but it’s not so easy to be done, and I think today I could be a good resource for people that are actually in this very stuck stage and that they feel there is no solution to their problem. That they just took too much risk and that they just don’t have the support they need. I think I could share with them a lot of the things that I did and that helped me during that moment. So, I think that those are the people I could help, I could mentor.
Alex: Fantastic. Okay, so well I’m going to call it an end of our wonderful conversation and thank you again. Thank you for everything that you do and all the families that you’ve helped and all the employees that you take care of and provide this fantastic opportunity. If anyone wants to find out more about you, I’m going to put your website up on the show notes. It is www.littlegreenhouse.ch and of course people can also chat to you personally via LinkedIn if they want to do that. But that’s the main website and once again, Barbara, I really want to thank you very much and I wish you all the best for the future.
Barbara: Thanks, Alex, it was a great pleasure to chat with you and also all the best for your great show. Thank you.

Alex: Thanks a lot.