When Vanessa Heywood took her young children along to a music session locally, she was left disappointed as it had failed to engage with them.
That underwhelming experience in 2004 led to the creation of Tiny Mites Music , a business that provides branded music, movement and drama-based classes for babies, toddlers and pre-school children.
As Vanessa explains: “I wanted to connect really young children with new, fun material that could cultivate a lifelong love of music for them. I decided at that point to establish my own business.”
What makes Tiny Mites unique is that all of the songs are entirely original, and recorded by live musicians, with a collection of original characters to boot.
Vanessa convinced musician contacts to give up their time, initially for free
Vanessa says that in the beginning “I literally had nothing” in terms of funding. Over an eight month period she had written 36 original songs, but didn’t have the money to record them.
So she tapped into connections in the music industry (her father is trombonist Chris Smith) and persuaded musicians to offer their services, on the proviso they would be paid once the business had built up the necessary financial resources.
That family help continued, with Vanessa’s mother helping to make the soft toy prototypes for the Tiny Mites characters, while her sister has helped with the sound at theatre shows.
Putting in the leg work
Her first paid sessions took place in the middle of a field, having invited mothers she knew in the village where she lives, plus all of their friends.
For each week of the summer holidays she took a half hour session for 40 children, charging £4 each.
It gave her some money to “pay back the musicians who had helped me and meant I could print some flyers to advertise my business”.
“I used to I used to go to cafés and parks and give a flyer to anyone who had a child – it was a lot of leg work,” she added.
The challenge of ill health
The Tiny Mites characters are a key part of the business.
Getting a business off the ground is difficult enough, but Vanessa also has MS and says that coping with the fatigue in the early days of Tiny Mites Music was “a serious challenge”.
She explains: “My children were still young enough to be taking naps in the middle of the day, I slept when they did and then wrote at night.
“I wrote one song after the other, they tumbled out in a creative flurry, but by this time in the day I could hardly move physically and was usually unable to make it up the stairs, so I slept on the sofa.”
After three years of operating as a sole trader, she moved to limited company status in 2009, but the “unpredictability of my illness” meant that Vanessa had to put a PA in place to handle things should she become unwell.
This did have the bonus side effect of giving Vanessa more time to write new songs, create more material and follow up new business ideas.
Hitting the holiday parks
Vanessa targeted holiday parks after spotting a lack of entertainment for small children
Around this time Vanessa elected to focus on holiday parks across the UK, noting that there was very little offered for the under fives in these venues.
She landed an independent holiday park in Norfolk first, which paid to licence the product plus training, and this was followed by pitching to Haven Holidays , one of the biggest holiday park firms in the country.
“They paid me for use of the Tiny Mites Music Programme in all their 35 holiday parks for the whole season, plus training costs.
“My team and I took a day to train 160 Haven entertainments staff, to deliver the programme in all their parks. Some of those staff have gone on to become Tiny Mites teachers, or parents who recommend us to their local nurseries.”
Spreading the word
Vanessa says she is “constantly cold calling” nurseries to raise awareness of Tiny Mites Music, which now employs ten actress/singers to deliver the classes.
She is unable to present the classes anymore due to the MS, but takes a percentage of each class, with the business set to bring in around £160,000 this year.
Tiny Mites Music offers free taster sessions, but there is then a fair bit of negotiation and logistics involved to bring together the nursery’s budget, the schedules of those who now deliver the classes, and what classes the nursery needs.
The lessons learned
How I started my business
Vanessa advises other would-be entrepreneurs to find something that they love, explaining that it’s much easier to cope with the occasional bad day if you love what you do.
She adds that as she knows her business inside out, and knows that music is hugely beneficial for children, “it makes ‘selling’ the product much easier”.
Her final tip is to keep looking for ways to move your business forward.
“It would have been easy for me to just stay working in nurseries. But I have expended into holiday parks, theatre in education and I also have two theatre shows. It means that if I ever need to increase my income, I have other areas I can promote.”