Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in education but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Tecla Kalinda, Founder of ZalaSmart Inc., located in Ottawa, ON, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
ZalaSmart is an organization that teaches kids and teens between the ages of 5 to 19 the essential life skill of financial literacy via storytelling, experiential learning, and games. Our fun and interactive programs cover all the key fundamentals, from understanding credit scores, debt, budgeting, savings, and investing for the various age groups in our target market. Due to demand, we have also expanded our target market to include those in their 20s.
Our main customers include other organizations who want to provide meaningful programming to their audience. For example, a library, private schools, banks, governments, kids camps, daycares, after-school programs, etc. Our customers have multiple services/products to choose from, and we usually tend to customize something that suits them and their budgets since their needs can differ.
Our most popular product is our Train-the-Trainer program, where we train the client on how to teach our programs and once they pass the training program, they become certified to license out and use our materials and our ZalaSmart online platform to teach as many students as required. Our customers also include parents who want to enroll their kids directly into our programs.
Tell us about yourself
I have a masters in financial economics, and by day I am a Senior Financial Data Analyst at the Bank of Canada. It is my day job that inspired me to start ZalaSmart. One of my many tasks at work is to publish Canada's statistics on household credit. After realizing that household debt was constantly increasing, I started wondering why Canadians are in so much debt. I also wondered if every Canadian child was taught financial literacy would the statistic look different? Could more formal education in this field reverse the statistic?
I personally didn't learn this in school. In talking to friends and family and extensively searching online, I couldn't find an existing end-to-end curriculum available for young people. That's when the idea to do something about it started brewing. Luckily I am connected with the right people and have a team to help bring our Money-Smart kids, tweens, teens, and youth programs to where it is today.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
Moving our in-person programming to online during the pandemic. It is something I have always wanted to do but the pandemic expedited this process. This a big challenge for me since our program is fun and interactive. During an in-person class, it's easy to move the students around the room and play various games. Converting them digitally required a lot of creativity. The exciting thing about developing a digital/virtual business is going online allows us to scale easily. Some of our clients we have never even physically met as we trained them online, and they have their students logging in online as well while they teach them.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
When you start your business, you wear multiple hats. You are the marketer, bookkeeper, administrator, CEO, front person, back person, etc. This can be tough for those who want to turn something they are passionate about into a business because you end up spending a lot of time on things you are not passionate about but are essential to run a business. For example, for me, all I want to do is develop as many money-smart young people as possible so that they can avoid various problems such as maxing out a credit card at 18 years old, ruining their credit, and not being able to purchase a home at 25. There are so many financial hurdles adults face that could completely be avoided if they learned all the key principles and fundamentals when they were younger.
In order to fulfill this passion, renting out a room to teach a class costs money. The teaching materials, website, development of the programming, etc., also have fees associated with this. You then have to charge for your services to cover these fees, and then you have to market and consult experts to help you build a strong product, bookkeeping, etc. Perhaps all these new hats you wear don't interest you at all, or some of the tasks you find daunting. It can be discouraging when you suddenly find yourself doing a lot of tasks you didn't initially imagine signing up for. As a founder, if you don't have the funds upfront to hire a marketing firm, tech team, etc., you find yourself doing many of these tasks until you are generating enough funds to hire the right people to help you. This makes being a business owner pretty hard.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Based on my answer to the question above… It is very important to be so passionate about your business that even if wearing all of the other hats doesn't interest you much, you are willing to still do them in order to meet your goal. When you love your business so much, it becomes like your child, and like many parents, even when your child can be difficult, you push through due to the love you have for your child, so it can continue to grow and prosper. This type of love and passion will be vital to the success of your business and give you the strength to push through the many challenges you will face.
- Build something quick, test your prototypes and let the feedback from your audience help you refine your product. Waiting until everything is perfect is a disservice. For example, even though I have a great product that my clients enjoy, I am constantly updating it, improving it, and ensuring that my material stays relevant. There is always room for improvement, so releasing your prototype can save you a lot of headaches and save you from going in the wrong direction too deeply, especially since your target market knows what they want and need better than you. They know what they are willing to pay for. So do a soft launch and let them help you build the perfect product for them.
- Just do it. Don't overthink it. Start with what you know and go for it. It's not a perfect straight line for any entrepreneur, you will have low moments, and that's okay. Get up on your feet, learn from it and do better.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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