Elizabeth D’Angio didn’t set out to create a successful business.
She just wanted to hang out with other moms.
The 41-year-old accidental entrepreneur ended up doing both, building a play group that grosses more than $300,000 a year while caring for her children and meeting fellow parents.
The Lemon Tree Playgroup in trendy Northwest D.C. is one of the hottest neighborhood meetup places in a growing niche industry. The demand is so great that potential clients are put on a wait list for several months.
It may be a small business, but Lemon Tree, whose 52 families meet on the third floor of the Augustana Lutheran Church, fills a key niche for parents with children who are 6 months to 4 years old and who want to meet other parents.
“I was really hungry for community in my neighborhood,” said D’Angio, who launched a monthly coffee-and-doughnuts session on Saturdays for her member moms and dads. “There’s a whole parenting-network component to play groups. It’s a social club in an old-school sense. Instead of virtual meetings, it’s personal engagement with other families.”
This isn’t day care. Lemon Tree is open from 9 a.m. to noon every weekday. Some parents and caregivers are there every minute it is open, while others just check in for an hour or so a couple of times a week.
D’Angio sold Lemon Tree in the summer to two employees who are figuring out how to make it even more profitable and replicate the model around Washington.
“We want to perfect this, then we would like to do one in another neighborhood,” said Whitney Marsh, one of the new co-owners. Marsh said many of her customers eventually buy larger homes in Tenleytown or Chevy Chase or on Capitol Hill, which would make logical locations for expansion.
Marsh said the key is preserving the personal and “neighborhoody ” feel to the business.
“It’s really hard making new parent friends,” Marsh said. “It’s like dating.”
Members pay $1,950 per child for four months.
Children must have a parent, nanny or au pair supervising while the toddlers do their thing. At the risk of sounding callous, this reporter (who doesn’t have children) is reminded of the dog park, where adults converse while their pups exhaust themselves.
“It’s socialization for kids,” D’Angio said. “If it’s a first or only child, who don’t have socializing at home, then they don’t see other kids.”
Lemon Tree sees its mission as encouraging and enhancing friendships among children, parents and caregivers (nannies and au pairs).
The program includes summer field trips to the zoo, parks and nearby fire stations. Children sing, play with trains, play in the kitchen, do science experiments, paint and learn how to interact with other kids. There’s even a Tippy Toes Dance time for future ballerinas.
“Little ones learn how the world works through play,” Marsh said. “It also helps bridge the transition from being at home with their caregiver to going to preschool on their own.”
The new owners have smartly piled on more offerings while utilizing the same space, adding to the bottom line. The additions include soccer lessons ($300) and yoga classes ($16 each) for kids and new-mom classes ($320 for eight weeks) and more yoga for parents ($75 for three classes).
“We are trying to be a one-stop shop for the neighborhood and offer as much as we can in our space,” said Sarah Rudolph, Marsh’s co-owner. “We like to be looked at not just as a play group but a resource for families in the community.”
D’Angio was a new, 38-year-old mom and living with her husband in a house near Logan Circle back in 2013. (She still lives there.)
She took her 1-year-old daughter to a playground in Georgetown in the summer of 2013 and loved it. But she wanted something closer to home where she could meet families in her neighborhood.
“I was really bored out of my mind,” said D’Angio, who was taking a break from her residential real estate broker business to raise her child. “It’s sort of a black hole where you are wandering the street with sort of a pathetic look on your face, trying to meet other parents to share your experiences.”
Later that summer, she suggested to her husband that someone should create a similar playground close to home.
“I didn’t realize that somebody was going to be me,” she said.
Like a reporter sniffing out a story, she started talking to people in her neighborhood, looking for friendly faces on the street, in the checkout line at the P Street Whole Foods or even approaching mothers and fathers in the pool at the Y.
“Where I saw a parent with a stroller looking somewhat friendly, I would approach them,” she said. “You can tell when someone wants to engage. I am not afraid. I work with the general public on a daily basis.
“I would just say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about putting together a play group for kids. Is that something you are interested in?’ Then I would do a mini-survey of each person.”
D’Angio collected business cards and addresses until she had a list of 15 or so names interested in putting together a meetup group for them and their toddlers.
Around the same time, she had lunch with a friend of her mother and heard about the space at an auxiliary building near Augustana Lutheran Church. She got a number, called and got her space, a 40-by-40-foot room on the third floor.
”It was very grass roots,” D’Angio said. “It was baby steps.”
She signed a month-to-month lease for four hours each morning and told the pastor, “I have no idea if this is going to work.”
Lemon Tree opened in May 2014 with eight families. D’Angio juggled the fee structure until she got it right, working with a co-worker at her real estate firm who lent moral support and expertise on how to manage. She moved a lemon tree from her home into the new space, providing decoration and a name.
D’Angio eventually went on Craigslist and found her first employee, Rudolph, who is now co-owner with Marsh. Rudolph lived near the church and could play the guitar and sing for the kids.
The early months were characterized by sleepless nights, financial worries and brainstorming. D’Angio figured her break-even point was 15 families, so she had to make the math work.
Even a tiny business was stressful, and she put more than $20,000 of her family’s money into her new venture. D’Angio, whose husband works at a computer software firm, had never been a manager or owned a business.
“I had days when I didn’t know if this was going to work,” she said. “It was about floating it until the enrollment grew enough.”
Thanks to word-of-mouth, mostly from caregivers, the company hit its break-even point and became cash-positive.
Some new revenue streams, such as an afternoon play group, fell flat. But enough worked that by early 2015, the Lemon Tree Playgroup was the place to go. D’Angio wanted to get back to real estate, so she sold to her two teachers, Marsh and Rudolph, in 2016.
D’Angio is glad she tried her brief foray into entrepreneurship but is happy to return to real estate.
“I was made whole on my investment, and the experience was infinitely more enriching than the money could have bought,” D’Angio said.
Running your own business “is like childbirth,” she said. “The saying is, ‘Childbirth is terrible, but the minute it’s done, you forget it.’ ”