On FindandGoSeek, choosing family fun is child's play
Andy, Flynn, Dana & Callahan Freeman
Dana Freeman is a compulsive fun seeker. As cofounder with her husband, Andy Freeman, of a Vermont family activities website called Find&GoSeek, she spends nearly every waking hour tracking down new, exciting and unusual things for parents and children to do together. That is, when she’s not with her own family testing out a newly discovered sledding hill, swimming hole, dance class, summer-camp — in short, any activity within an easy drive of their Williston home that gets kids off the couch and away from video games.
Find&GoSeek’s origin is, in Dana’s words, a “born-of-frustration story.” In February 2006, Andy came home from a business trip to find his wife seated at a dining room table littered with newspapers, calendars and summer-camp brochures. Dana, a self-described “type A, spread-sheet-organized, color-coded-planner type of person,” was trying to find summer camps for their kids. It was an exhausting, time-consuming process, especially in the dead of winter.
The Freemans, who both spent years in the computer industry before moving to Vermont from Austin, Texas, in 2000, were surprised to discover no one had ever created a website that lists and rates summer camps. Recognizing an unfilled niche — and not wanting all their research and social networking to go to waste — Dana and Andy conceived the idea of a one-stop web resource where parents could find family-friendly activities in the greater Champlain Valley.
“You’d be surprised how many things there are to do around here,” says Dana. “Who knew Vermont had so many wonderful things to do with families?”
Initially, the Freemans wanted Find&GoSeek to include only events, businesses and services within a 30-mile radius of Burlington. As time went on, however, they realized that many parents, like themselves, will drive two or three hours to do something truly special with the family. So, they expanded Find&GoSeek’s range to encompass opportunities several hours away, such as museums in Montréal, children’s shows at New Hampshire’s Lebanon Opera House and summer camps in the Adirondacks.
The Find&GoSeek database includes a few listings even farther from Vermont — like, across the Atlantic. One is the 15th Annual Father and Son Golf Tournament in Doonbeg County Clare, Ireland, which Andy once attended with Dana’s father. But the overwhelming majority of listings are short day trips or overnighters in the 802 area code. Nearly all include a map, directions and links for more information.
Most of Find&GoSeek’s listings of businesses, places or events are there for free; if Dana discovers it and thinks it’s “family friendly,” she’ll add it to the site within 48 hours. The Freemans do sell advertisements and “enhanced” listings similar to those found at the top of search-engine results. However, they only include one display ad per page, to keep it from getting too visually chaotic.
Since the site went live in 2008, Find&GoSeek has expanded its offerings to include other child-related services, such as preschools, special-needs programs, dentists, pediatricians, lactation consultants and birth doulas. Andy admits, “I didn’t even know what a doula was before we started this.”
One popular feature on Find&GoSeek is “Miss Magpie Pick,” a regularly updated spotlight on a new business or must-attend event. Named “after a chatty little bird,” Miss Magpie is actually Dana’s online avatar. Like a bird herself, Dana is constantly moving, shooting pictures and sending herself emails via her BlackBerry. She’s reminding herself to do additional research on some obscure festival or indoor aquatic center she has never heard of till now but wants to introduce to the entire world. She won’t put a number on how many hours she puts in each week. “I work a lot,” she admits, with an embarrassed smile.
For his part, Andy is the tech guy for the website, making sure it’s working and search-engine optimized. Although he still has a job with Unicast, a New York City-based media company, as well as his own consulting firm for local clients, Andy commits a portion of his work week to site development, advertising and promotions.
Dana and Andy, both 42, have the wholesome, outdoorsy good looks of athletic parents. Dana is tall, slim and tanned, and has a warm, engaging smile; Andy is shorter, with boyish but rugged features. On the day we meet, he’s sporting a two-day beard. All four Freemans are active skiers or snowboarders in the winter, and into sailing and other water sports in the summer.
It’s not surprising to learn that the kids are no couch potatoes. Flynn, 11, likes rock climbing as well as competitive sports, such as baseball, football and lacrosse. Callahan, 8, is an artsy animal lover and less competitive than her older brother, according to her mother. Though the children have different interests and tastes, Dana says they’re always up for trying something new.
“If you talk to our kids, they say they’ve been to almost everything” there is to do in Vermont, she goes on. “We quite often hear, ‘Are we going to that for Find&GoSeek, or are we going to that just to go to it?’”
Andy insists their kids are actually the business’ most valuable asset: They not only test-drive most of the activities, they evaluate them. “We don’t have to ask for their feedback anymore,” he says. “They just give it to us.”
So do the site users. Find&GoSeek has a user-generated component that adds to its hyperlocal appeal: It features upward of 1500 ratings and reviews written by other parents, babysitters and caregivers who’ve tried the activities themselves and feel compelled to weigh in.
A typical review includes an assessment of an activity’s pros and cons: Does a restaurant offer diaper-changing tables and children’s menus? Is a museum accessible to strollers? Is parking gratis and hassle free? Should parents pack snacks or lunches for a day hike?
While some reviews are sharply critical, the Freemans say they always try to be fair in their own evaluations — without omitting negatives. That holds true for both free and enhanced listings. “I have to be honest,” Dana insists. “We’re not living in Shangri-la or some Pollyanna town that people won’t believe exists.”
Find&GoSeek also includes kid-friendly restaurants and eateries — because, Dana believes, people shouldn’t have to compromise on the taste or quality of meals simply because they have children. “What bugs me the most is when families think they’re pigeonholed into having to eat at Appleby’s or Friendly’s — not that there’s anything wrong with those places,” she says. “We’ve been taking our kids to L’Amante [in Burlington] and Café Shelburne since they were born, and we will never stop. We enjoy good food, and so do our kids.”
While Dana and Andy don’t review the food, they go the extra mile to highlight restaurants with amenities parents seek out: large booths, dedicated play spaces, game rooms. Many Vermont establishments that don’t have children’s menus or actively promote themselves as kid-friendly eateries are still well-suited to families with children, Andy points out.
It appears that thousands of parents, in Vermont and elsewhere, have grown to trust Find&GoSeek. The site receives more than 13,000 visitors each month, with about a third coming from outside the state. Andy emphasizes that the latter aren’t just tourists and travelers visiting family here. Nearly 1000 businesses and organizations have a Find&GoSeek link on their website, including the Vermont secretary of state and Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty, which directs its clients with kids there. Find&GoSeek has also been featured on family travel websites, such as CiaoBambino.com, and in major newspapers.
Part of Find&GoSeek’s appeal is its consistency, says Elaine Young, assistant dean of the division of business at Champlain College. Young, an expert in e-business marketing, says the site is colorful and attractive, with good branding, user friendliness and simplicity.
“But what they really have is good content,” says Young, herself the parent of a 13-year-old girl. “Because Dana has kids, she’s seen as a knowledgeable person because she explores these things herself. That has real power.”
Young’s senior marketing class at Champlain College helped the Freemans do preliminary marketing research before launching the site. Young says the design of Find&GoSeek hasn’t changed much since, and that’s a good thing.
“In this day and age, people are busy, and they want familiarity,” she says. “So, if you keep the design clean and simple, [users] can come in, get what they want and move on.”
Businesses with free listings on Find&GoSeek recognize the site’s power to drive customers their way. Tricia Becker is owner of Cookiedoodlez of Milton, a business that provides custom-made decorated sugar cookies for children’s parties. About a year and a half ago, a friend who uses Find&GoSeek suggested Becker connect with Dana. Within a week, Cookiedoodlez had four or five bookings for children’s parties.
Find&GoSeek itself, however, has yet to turn a profit. It’s a labor of love the Freemans say they’re willing to nurture patiently, expecting the site will eventually pay off. They’ve already talked with prospective clients interested in launching a Find&GoSeek site in other cities and states.
Even if the site never makes a dime, Dana likely will keep at it, knowing what a resource it is for local families — including her own. “I love my job, and I love what I do,” she says. “We’re with our kids doing kids’ stuff all the time. It’s a match made in heaven.”