Our Origin Story: Tiny Trees Preschool Wins SVP Fast Pitch and a Movement is Born

On October 28th, 2014 Tiny Trees Preschool won Social Venture Partner’s Fast Pitch Competition for Best Non-Profit Start-Up (A $15,000 prize) and as a result was featured in Geekwire and by CrossCut as innovators to watch and was nominated for the Sustainable Seattle Leadership Award for Promising Upstart. It was a big win and had a big impact. For Tiny Trees our Fast Pitch story is very much our origin story. Here it is:

Six weeks ago I had the courage to leave my comfortable job to join Tiny Trees Preschool full time. Five days later I found myself on stage telling Charlie’s story and sharing our unique approach to making quality preschool more affordable, playful and available for families in Seattle and beyond. It was a heady moment and the culmination of three months of coaching and lots and lots of practice. I had worked hard to be on that stage and only made it due to the help of an amazing team of volunteers and advisors. At the start of the Fast Pitch process Tiny Trees Preschool was an idea a few friends and I shared. By the end it was a movement. Here is how we did it:

Before Fast Pitch Tiny Trees Preschool was a concept that Teddy and Annie McGlynn-Wright and I had generated in response to the steady rise in child care and preschool costs. Exploring different preschools across Seattle I came to understand the potential of the outdoor preschool model. Writing the grant proposal for SVP in June of 2014 was the first time the idea of Tiny Trees went from brain to paper. It also was the first time I had to give it a name (which is a story for another time). 100 proposals were received by Social Venture Partners Seattle. A team of 20+ reviewers read through and ranked them. Amazingly enough Tiny Trees Preschool made it into the quarter-final cut of 40 despite being the youngest of the start-ups and having no staff, website or budget to speak of. We were just an idea and SVP to their credit thought it was an idea worth exploring.

To prepare for quarter-finals I was matched with Ted Weiler a retired medical technology developer and skilled coach with a wealth of experience in crafting a great pitch. It was Ted who noticed Charlie’s story in the middle of a muddled first draft and who pushed me to bring her to the center of our work. I found rehearsals with Ted to be invaluable with specific feedback and helpful suggestions paired with an enthusiasm for good ideas and creative word play. With his help Tiny Trees Preschool came in the top two in the quarter-finals and moved along with 6 others to the semi-finals to be held two weeks later in the Columbia Tower.

In seeing my colleagues compete however I realized how unprepared Tiny Trees Preschool was for this competition. To be in the start-up category your organization needed to have been incorporated as a 501c3 for less than three years. Seeing that many organizations go for years before formally incorporating that meant that many of the challengers had been around for a while and already had well developed business models, flashy websites and a proven track record. They were fully developed organizations doing real work while Tiny Trees was just two friends, an idea and a baby. Outside of Fast Pitch we simply didn’t exist.

In the two weeks between the quarter and semifinals I scrambled to build an organization that could compete. I met with the talented Anthon Smith, ED of Seattle Education Access and they became our fiscal sponsor. In one weekend I spent 48hrs at the Seattle Give Camp where an incredible team of volunteers from UW (all 3rd year computer science majors) built this website tinytrees.org. My wife Francesca hosted a design contest online and over 120 logo designs were submitted of which we chose two. I ordered business cards. I worked nights and weekends. And when it all started to come together I talked with my employer and made a transition plan to leave a week before the final showdown.

There was one moment during this whirlwind that was critical to our win and that was meeting with Anna Bernstein from the Brain-Voice Connection. In one hour she tore apart the pitch, cut 30% and created a stronger, most emotionally rich narrative all based on speaking for the ear and to the heart. The result was a more playful and compelling story.

I shared that story at the semi-finals on the 40th floor of the Columbia Tower in Downtown Seattle. It was an intimidating venue in a conference room in a venture capital firm. Funny enough I found it more challenging to present there, among corporate displays of wealth and power than on the stage at MaCaw hall. Despite the setting we came in the top two and moved on to the final showdown at MaCaw hall on October 28th. From that point onward it was just practice, practice, practice followed by 5 minutes of inspirational terror and one big win.

One of my favorite videos on leadership is Derek Silvers’ 3 minute narration of a naked dancing guy at the Gorge Amphitheater. In his analysis of how one lone nut becomes a movement he celebrates the importance of the first follower. For Andrew, Teddy, Annie and Charlie at Tiny Trees our first follower was SVP Fast Pitch. In the six weeks since their endorsement 90+ families have enrolled online for 2016 & 17. A number of funders and a terrific team of volunteers have joined the movement and Tiny Trees is a real organization, striving every day to give every child both a great education and the childhood they deserve, one full of play, exploration and wonder.

Charlie’s big win

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