All boarding, grades 9-12 in Alexandria, Virginia

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Bobby Berna '90

Sometimes parenthood is the mother of invention. When Bobby Berna ’90 and wife Alison became new parents of twins, they quickly discovered a need for great indoor playspaces with activities, classes, wide open spaces, and child-centric services all in one convenient location. Along with another couple, in 2007 they founded apple seeds, which has grown to operate all-in-one playspaces in N.Y.C., Mumbai, and Dubai.
How did you come to discover this unmet need for all-in-one indoor playspaces?
The idea for apple seeds came about shortly after our twin daughters were born in 2005. When the girls were between 6 months and 1 year old, Alison found herself running around the city taking various “mommy-and-me” classes with them. In one of those classes, she met another woman coincidentally also named Allison who also had twins (boys) just a few months older than the girls. They soon became good friends and started discussing the need for an all-in-one play space/activity center where they could take the kids without having to constantly move from place to place.

We all live in the Chelsea neighborhood of N.Y.C., and there was nothing really like this concept that was within a convenient distance. We also saw more and more young families moving into the neighborhood due to all of the residential development happening around that time. The idea was to create a more modern and creative place than the existing concepts in the industry so after pitching me and Allison’s husband, Craig, on the idea, we all decided to take on the challenge of building a new type of play space – and so apple seeds was born.

What was your biggest challenge getting apple seeds off the ground?
We opened a very large facility of 15,000 square feet with several business drivers operating all under one roof (playground, classes, birthday parties, retail store, etc.), and none of us had ever been in the kids play space business before, so we were really learning on the fly. Our biggest challenge was probably coming up with a set of proprietary classes that we could offer our clientele. We knew that classes would be the biggest business driver, and we also knew that we wanted to expand to many locations, so coming up with our own quality curricula was critical (since we didn’t want to grow by using someone else’s programming).

That said, we started with a light offering of our own classes combined with a few outside partnership classes in order to get some traffic in the door. Over the years we’ve transitioned to almost exclusively our own class offerings (there are still one or two outside class partnerships that we hold on to), and we’ve consistently offered over 100 classes per week around N.Y.C. over the past several years.

Apple seeds is now in cities all over the world. What kinds of cultural differences have you observed with regards to parenting and play?
We actually found it more challenging navigating the business cultural differences than the parenting ones. That said, we did make a few adjustments to our offerings to better cater to other cultures/cities. One example is offering our popular preschool preparation class in Arabic as well as in English at our Dubai location. But at the end of the day, we’ve seen that kids like to play and learn in largely the same ways regardless of where they are from, so the apple seeds concept has translated well.

A newer challenge for us right now is domestically franchising the business model. We are launching two franchise platforms: the first is our stand-alone music program, songs for seeds, which just launched last month; and the second will be the all-encompassing apple seeds concept that will be ready to go toward the end of this year. We have spent several years preparing for this expansion, including a year of detailed market research conducted by an outside firm. Their findings will help us properly expand both concepts around the country. And by the way, Alexandria, Va., tests very well for our concept, so hopefully we’ll get one open there, which will be a great excuse to get back to EHS more often.

How did EHS influence you as an entrepreneur?
At EHS you really learn how to think creatively, take initiative, and get things done. Let’s remember that shipping off to boarding school as a freshman happens at a fairly young age, so despite all of the great support systems at EHS, you really do learn self-management and an ability to get things done both on your own and as part of a team. It takes a lot of discipline to put your head down, stay the course, and work hard for something that you really feel can be a successful endeavor. Of course, I also remember when Gibby Semmes ’90 and I ran the bookstore under the tutelage of Mr. Craig – that felt slightly entrepreneurial!

What is your parenting philosophy?
We’ve got this great demerit system at home, where if one of the kids racks up more than five in a week, they have to sit in their room without food or water and write out reams of really long, boring words on special legal paper… Kidding – I have two 10-year-old girls and a 5-year-old-boy, and therefore three kinds of issues at any particular moment. I find the key is to just be patient and a good listener/mediator.

Bobby was born in New York City and raised in Maryland. Bobby returned to New York in 1997, working within the Marketing division of New Line Cinema. He transitioned to a career in advertising after receiving dual MBA degrees from Columbia Business School and the University of California at Berkeley. He joined one of the pioneer online advertising firms, L90, as a business development executive. Bobby then joined the start-up team at BoxTop Media, a non-traditional advertising company, where he led all aspects of business development and served as partner. He continued to serve on the company’s Board until it was acquired by Advantage Sales & Marketing in 2013.
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1200 North Quaker Lane Alexandria, Virginia 22302 | 703-933-3000