My Business Life: Karen Clince, Tigers Childcare

Tigers Childcare CEO and founder Karen Clince shares her life and business lessons.

Tigers Childcare was founded by Karen Clince in 2003. Today the business operates 22 childcare facilities in Dublin and one in London. It employs over 200 people and provides childcare services to more than 2,000 children. It is the third largest childcare provider in Ireland by the number of sites.

Before starting Tigers Childcare, Clince worked as a special needs teacher in north Dublin and then in software. But she always wanted to start her own childcare business.

“It has been a long journey but I have loved it and have learned every step of the way”

Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?

My background was not straightforward. I always loved working with children. It was a passion from a young age. I love everything about them, their openness, their lack of judgment, their honesty. However I decided to apply for business courses when leaving school. I was very good at business studies in school and so decided to study marketing.

I also thought that it would be much more financially beneficial to go into the world of business rather than teaching or childcare. I started working in a software firm after college and while the salary was fantastic for a young girl, I just didn’t have the job satisfaction. I was made redundant in the first dot-com recession. I was only 20 years of age and pregnant with my first child Ella Bleu, and so I made a decision to retrain and do something that I enjoyed more.

After qualifying as a resource teacher I got a job in a primary school. I just loved coming to work every day. It was then that I saw the lack of good quality school age childcare options available to families and children. It was a gap in the market that I believed I could fill and so Tigers After School Care was born. I still remember my first three children, Adam, Andrew and Matthew in St Vincent’s primary. It wasn’t long until we were expanding and offering afterschool services in a number of schools in Dublin.

As I worked my passion grew. I returned to do a degree in Early Education and Care during which time I expanded to opening full-time creches. We have 22 sites now around Ireland and in the UK after 21 years in the industry. It has been a long journey but I have loved it and have learned every step of the way.

“We’ve cultivated a team that is not only aligned with our mission but also deeply committed to the best interests of the children under our care”

Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?

I am deeply passionate about elevating the quality of services for children and their parents an am firmly convinced that exceptional early years education and care can be transformative, not only for individual lives but for society as a whole. My belief in the profound impact of what we do on the ground is unwavering.

At Tigers Childcare, our Unique Selling Proposition lies in our commitment to maintaining and enhancing the quality of care, even as we expand. I am proud that our growth has not compromised the excellence of our services; rather, we are continually evolving and strengthening. This resilience comes from our profound sense of purpose and a set of core values that guide our every decision. Unlike many companies that merely list their values, we live and breathe ours, ensuring they translate into tangible actions.

As the leader of the company, my dedication extends to every child under the care of Tigers Childcare. Their well-being and developmental outcomes are my driving force. Despite our substantial growth, I remain personally invested in addressing the needs of each child and family. When assistance is required, I consider it my responsibility to be present and actively work towards improvement. Supported by a dedicated team of colleagues who share the same passion for the well-being of children, we are united in our singular focus.

Moreover, my concern extends to the well-being of my colleagues. I recognise that the success of our business is intricately tied to their happiness, drive, and ambition. In fostering a supportive environment, we’ve cultivated a team that is not only aligned with our mission but also deeply committed to the best interests of the children under our care.

This commitment to both children and colleagues, I believe, is the cornerstone of our success and what distinguishes us from other growing childcare companies. Our unwavering emphasis on quality care and education, with financial success seen as a byproduct, underscores our priorities and sets us apart in the industry.

How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?

Our company’s journey began with humble origins, fuelled by a modest €5,000 loan. Since those early days, we’ve undergone remarkable growth, with 22 services today and a new site in Dodderbrook, Dublin to open soon. Our expansion strategy is dynamic, encompassing both greenfield sites and strategic acquisitions.

Just two years ago, we welcomed BGF as equity investors, a partnership that has been instrumental in supporting our ambitious growth plans. This has empowered us to acquire four new sites this year, including two after-school facilities, with another deal set to close before the year concludes.

We assert our standing as the industry’s best. Our aspirations extend beyond mere expansion and we aim to amplify our impact, making our mark on a broader scale. By continuing to grow strategically, we aim to increase awareness of our services, ultimately fostering positive change in the industry and beyond.

“My business studies skills were also not wasted in the end and have helped me take my passion and drive it forward as a business”

What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?

I think being resilient, determined and passionate are key qualities for this business. You need to have compassion and understanding and values. You have to be strong enough to always stay true to our purpose and these values no matter what is going on around us.

I think being in the industry through a huge amount of change has been incredibly beneficial to me. I have been able to watch and participate in policy formation and funding change, alongside improvements to quality and upskilling of the labour force. It has given me an innate understanding of the sector, what it needs and what changes need to continue to happen to see an industry that impacts children for the better but also supports society.

My business studies skills were also not wasted in the end and have helped me take my passion and drive it forward as a business.

“Above all, my ultimate inspiration is my mother—a resilient single parent who, through retraining and unwavering determination, successfully balanced work and family”

What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?

I have been so lucky to have so many teachers and mentors.

I think on a practical front I learn every day from and am inspired by the children who attend my services, from my families and from my colleagues and team. Things change and needs change and I have to be close to the ground to witness these and continue to evolve the business.

Several individuals have played pivotal roles in my journey, and I owe my current position to their unwavering support. Peter Mulumby, my principal at St. Vincent’s Primary, deserves special acknowledgment for enabling me to launch my business. In a generous gesture, he provided a complimentary room for the first year, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Theresa Heaney holds a significant place as she, recognised potential in me when I first joined a government board. Her encouragement and belief in my capabilities pushed me to pursue the chairperson role when the opportunity arose. A great friend and businesswoman, Louise Phelan, has been a guiding light in navigating the business world with integrity. Her influence has been invaluable, and I consider myself fortunate to have her as one of my closest confidantes.

Above all, my ultimate inspiration is my mother—a resilient single parent who, through retraining and unwavering determination, successfully balanced work and family. Her example propels me to emulate her path, striving to overcome challenges and, in turn, support other families on their unique journeys.

What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?

The very clever Dan Kiely once told me to jump out of the plane and build the parachute on the way down. He was spot on. Seize the opportunity first and figure out the details later. Imposter syndrome can creep in occasionally, causing us to question our abilities and ponder “Can I really do this?”

Yet, virtually everyone who achieved significant success began their journey from a modest starting point. There is nothing that can’t be done with hard work and a good team around you.

“Adaptability and resilience are paramount. The trajectory of businesses is seldom a straight line and bumps along the way are inevitable”

What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?

Adaptability and resilience are paramount. The trajectory of businesses is seldom a straight line and bumps along the way are inevitable. The key is embodying the kind of mindset that confronts challenges head-on and actively seeks solutions, regardless of their complexity.

In my line of work, where we care for the most precious members of society—our young people—maintaining transparency and addressing issues openly and honestly is non-negotiable. Trust is the foundation, and once broken, rebuilding it demands substantial time and effort. Therefore, facing challenges directly is not just a strategy; it’s a fundamental principle.

It’s crucial to have the foresight to anticipate upcoming challenges and be prepared to pivot the business accordingly. This adaptability is particularly needed in response to state funding changes and evolving family needs. the business’s sustainability.

Embracing failure is equally important. It often serves as a powerful learning experience. I firmly believe there’s no such thing as failure; it’s a matter of either winning or learning. Accepting when you’re wrong can be the most enlightening curve on the path to success.

What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?

Securing funding has always presented challenges. The transition from a steady pay cheque to the uncertainties of entrepreneurship, especially during the initial stages, can be daunting.

Navigating growth in a tough funding environment becomes even more intricate when business owners lack comprehensive knowledge about various options, such as debt versus equity.

In my experience, crafting a robust strategic plan serves as the cornerstone. Three-year plans provide a clear roadmap—where do I envision the business in three years, and what steps are necessary to reach that point? Breaking down this vision into a one-year strategic plan allows for quarterly measurement and adjustments, providing a detailed understanding of the financial requirements for each stage.

Maintaining a commitment to quality and vision amid growth, especially when additional stakeholders enter the picture, poses its own set of challenges. Staying true to your beliefs demands conviction, yet it’s essential when steering through expansion. While investors seek strong leaders, particularly those with a resolute sense of purpose, my advice is to stand firm in your convictions. If investors fail to recognise the value in your vision, they may not be the right partners for your journey.

“I am a great believer in ‘everything happens for a reason’ and I truly believe that on a business front”

How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?

The sudden shutdown brought our operations to a standstill with no immediate clarity on government support. Recognising the pivotal role of my colleagues in the daily lives of the families we serve, my immediate priority was preserving our team. Despite the lack of fees and funding, I committed to sustaining payroll for as long as our financial reserves allowed—initially estimating around 3 to 4 months.

Fortunately, the Government stepped in with funding, alleviating the need to charge parents upon reopening. We understood the significance of personalised support during this challenging time. Adopting a flexible approach, we addressed individual predicaments, ensuring that our response was tailored and empathetic.

As we prepared to reopen, we actively collaborated with the government, sharing insights on the safest and most effective practices to ensure the well-being of children, families, and colleagues. Our detailed reopening plan served as a foundational document for the industry’s resumption.

Turning the enforced shutdown into an opportunity, we invested time in training and upskilling ourselves and our colleagues. We pledged not to profit unfairly from available funding. Swift occupancy recovery, coupled with ongoing government support, led us to pioneer the country’s first pay scale for early years colleagues, a decision aligned with our commitment to prioritise the people who drive our business—the colleagues.

While the pandemic wrought challenges for businesses, we chose to see it as a temporary pause—a period for introspection, improvement, and readiness for the eventual return to normalcy. Our approach was not just to weather the storm but to utilise the time productively, ensuring that we emerged stronger and better positioned for future growth.

How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?

Digital transformation has been integral in my businesses growth. In order to scale we needed systems. We needed to be able to have information at a senior level at the touch of a button. The information also had to be able to be accurate and reliable. We couldn’t have done that without intelligent technology systems.

I think Ireland is lucky in so far as we have so much technological innovation in our country and we embrace it.

However in my industry I think we are only scratching the surface. We haven’t even started using technology as well as we should. I have so many ideas on this front and find it so exciting.

If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I don’t think I would change any of it. There have been so many high points but also so many challenges – all building blocks and learning experiences. I am not sure the business would be where it is today if I didn’t go through some of the challenges I faced.

I am a great believer in ‘everything happens for a reason’ and I truly believe that on a business front.

Who inspires you in business today?  

There’s something extraordinary about our nation that breeds strong female trailblazers and disruptors in the business world. One such figure is Linda Kiely. Like myself, Linda embarked on her entrepreneurial journey as a single mother, and alongside Dan, she nurtured her venture from modest beginnings. Linda’s direct communication style and her enthusiasm for supporting and advising fellow women entrepreneurs resonate deeply with me.

Breege O’Donoghue, a former Board Member at Primark, stands out as a driving force behind the incredible success of this major Irish international story. Her enduring style alone is inspiring, but it’s her pivotal role in Primark’s triumph that inspires me. My close friend Louise Phelan is another beacon of inspiration. Having ascended the ranks in a predominantly male-dominated industry, Louise exemplifies that female leaders excel when they bring qualities such as composure, bravery, and logical thinking to the table.

Equally, I draw inspiration from the younger generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. The dynamic teams behind Riley and Griolladh, both of which emerged during the Covid lockdown when many were grappling with unemployment, have crafted something truly special. Their resilience and creativity serve as a testament to the potential for innovation even in challenging times.

What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?

Our induction processes is one of the most important opportunities for us as employers. This is a time when you can really set the tone for new employees and get them to buy into our culture. We have spent the last year developing the process so that it becomes more than a tick box health and safety exercise and more of an opportunity for us and them. It now forms a four week programme filled with talks, learning, shadowing and mentoring and support with plenty of opportunities for feedback and discussion to inform us. Our continual supervision practices mean we continually and formally link in with all colleagues regularly.

We also carry out exit interviews to try and understand what is behind people’s decisions to leave – again this is valuable in continually evolving the business.

We have found in the last year,  as salaries stabilise, people are not leaving for financial reasons. Their needs are evolving. They want flexability and work life balance and so this information informs us and helps us to meet our colleagues needs.

What business books do you read or would recommend?

I hardly ever get to read these days. My mum bought me a Kindle last Christmas which has yet to be opened. I find podcasts great. I listen to “ Ask my Mentor”, “Business Matters” and “Down to Business”

What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?

I would be lost without my phone. It enables me to stay connected and informed regardless of my location—a convenience that is both a blessing and a curse.

What social media platforms do you prefer and why?

We have a content creator for all of our online Tigers platforms across Instagram, Facebook Linked in and X. Personally I shy away from making my private life public as it is a double edge sword, so I keep my own social media very private and personal.

What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?

Technology, particularly when it simplifies tasks, is fantastic, affording us precious time in our busy lives. Regarding my business, I believe we have only begun to explore the vast potential on tech. My mind is abuzz with ideas, and I foresee exciting developments on the horizon. Watch this space.

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.