The Business Innovation Zone (BIZ) and BIZ Executive Director Mike Colwell are helping Monica transform Camp in a Can from a hobby business into a full-fledged company.
“BIZ has helped in so many ways,” said Monica, founder and owner of the business.
The company, based in the Pleasant Hill area, provides the curriculum and materials needed to conduct educational nature programs for students in grades one through five. Camp in a Can kits provide supplies for separate courses about insects, birds, and reptiles and amphibians.
“With Camp in a Can teaching guides and materials, class leaders don’t have to run all around town finding the right size cork or purple pipe cleaners,” Monica said. Courses are designed for classes that run for two-and-a-half hours each day for five days.
Born and raised in Nebraska, Monica got a biology degree with a minor in psychology from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb., and set out to be an education director for a zoo.
She spent 18 years as an educator in three zoos across the country, including 13 years as the education director at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines. In 2001, she started MPR Museum Consulting, which she still runs, acting as a consultant to museums and science and nature centers across the country. In 2005, she founded Camp in a Can.
“Museum consulting is fun, but there is little room for creativity,” Monica said. “Camp in a Can allows me to be creative. You’d be surprised by the number of days I spend testing some gooey substance or trying different ways to make (mock) frog eggs.” (Her solution: Tiny amounts of powdered gelatin mix moistened with water from an eyedropper.)
Monica originally expected that her main customers would be zoos, nature centers, and science centers that wanted a day-camp program, but didn’t have the staff to create the curriculum or to purchase and prepare the materials. However, she said, most of her clients are now after-school programs for school districts. “We went from selling one or two kits for a zoo to 40 kits for a school-district-wide program,” Monica said. Each kit contains enough materials for 12 students.
Monica found that many school districts in other states are using after school programs for expanded learning opportunities, but most class leaders aren’t trained in science or are afraid to leap into it.
“Camp in a Can provides all the background and materials that these leaders will need. We’ve taken the fear out of leading science activities,” Monica said.
Monica markets her materials through the company’s website, campinacan.com, fulfilling orders by mail. The work is done by Monica and two independent contract workers.
“We hope that as we grow, we will be creating more jobs for Iowans,” Monica said.
Monica turned to BIZ for business advice—from getting set up with an accountant to finding a website developer and experts for marketing advice.
“But the number-one hurdle we had to overcome was inventory,” Monica said. “A Camp in a Can kit has over 300 parts and pieces. Some of the inventory items are shared between kits and some are specific to each title. We have three titles now and are working on number four.
“Inventory has been a nightmare,” Monica said. “Mike at BIZ built an inventory program for us that, at this point, seems to be working great.” Colwell created a software program that calculates how many units of a certain item are needed for each order, and keeps a running total so Monica knows when it’s time to re-order.
BIZ continues to help Monica and her business. “We are thinking about taking an abbreviated version of Camp in a Can into retail stores. BIZ will be our guide into that new realm,” Monica said.
“Camp in a Can is moving from a hobby business to a real business,” she added. “We couldn’t do that without BIZ.”