By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Every week, dozens of museums, theater productions and pick-your-own farms vie for the attention of local families. On a recent weekend, kids could learn about spiders at a nature center, attend Arabic or Chinese classes and win free advanced-screening tickets to "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," all without leaving the Washington area.
With so much to choose from, Amy Miller is betting many parents feel overwhelmed. That's why she acquired Our Kids and developed it into a weekly e-newsletter and Web site with a searchable database of family-friendly activities. "The real gist of Our Kids is: We do the research so that you don't have to," says Amy, who lives in Arlington.
Amy, a 36-year-old mother of two, has always been interested in creating community. While studying social work at George Mason University, she produced an in-house newsletter for a defense contractor and taught herself HTML. She built Web sites and managed accounts for Internet companies until her daughter Madeline was born in 2000, when Amy left work to stay home. Her second daughter, Emma, was born two years later.
In 2005, Amy took over a basic e-mail group list from another local mother free of charge. She then transformed it into a viable online business that allows her enough flexibility to volunteer at her daughters' schools and shuttle them to afternoon activities.
Amy spent $2,500 to get the site up and running, she says. Over time, she greatly expanded event offerings and promotions, beefed up advertising and raised the annual subscription fee to $26. Membership has grown from 500 when she took it over to more than 3,700 today, mainly through word of mouth, she says. Subscribers receive a weekly e-mail listing of up to 200 events and access to one of three searchable Web sites covering the D.C. area, the Chesapeake region or Richmond.
Amy culls the listings from a host of parenting publications, newspapers and Web sites, and hires other moms on a contract basis to enter events into the system and review attractions. She does the rest, including selling ads, herself.
On a recent day, subscriber Barbara Heis took her two children to a free Our Kids-sponsored open house at Kidville, a new learning and play space in Rockville, and to a Wiggles concert using a discount coupon she'd scored on the Our Kids site. "It's a resource you can't live without," Heis says.
Last year, Our Kids took in about $80,000 in subscriptions and ad sales and netted about $35,000. The biggest expense was a Web site redesign that cost about $25,000. Amy deposits most of the profits in a college fund for her daughters. (Her husband, Russ, a Defense Department employee, covers the family's living expenses.)
Although the success of Our Kids reflects an abundant interest in children's activities and entertainment, Amy advises her members not to over-schedule their youngsters. "Keep it simple," she says. "Pick one activity for the day, come home and chill out."
While her own children partake of the activities featured on Our Kids, Amy says she also makes sure they have plenty of time for reading and make-believe in the back yard. "There's something to be said," she says, "for just being outside."