Karen Borchert knew that teachers spend lots of money out of their own pockets on supplies for their classrooms. As a mother of three, she wanted to find a way for parents to help support teachers.
“I’ve always had a love for the profession of teaching, but I’ve noticed that the past several years have been a challenging time for teachers,” said Borchert, Alpaca CEO.
The business, which resides in Millwork Commons, launched in January. Her friend and colleague, Drew Davies, has spearheaded the branding and designed the Alpaca mascot, a cartoon alpaca.
How it Works
For a small monthly fee, parents can subscribe to a specific school. Subscriptions for each school are combined, and Alpaca delivers a pack of supplies and appreciation to every teacher in the school.
The company is currently only working with elementary schools, but Borchert hopes to expand into junior and senior high schools soon.
Because teachers have different needs or work in different ways, the contents of the packs vary.
Sometimes they contain things students use — pencils, notebooks, paper — and sometimes they contain things teachers use, like dry erase markers and Post-it notes.
“[The packs] always have a handwritten thank-you note from the parents at their school, and they always have some level of teacher appreciation gift,” Borchert said. “Packs are a little different based on the size of the school and the things teachers at that school say they need, and the items change a little every month. They all get delivered on the same day, and the principal passes them out.”
A monthly newsletter informs parents what teachers got in their packs, the teachers’ reactions and gives suggestions on how parents can support their teachers.
“It doesn’t take a lot to put our packs together and make a big difference,” Borchert said. “We need 15 to 20 subscribers to every school in order for it to work for our current schools right now [although] there may come a day when we’ll need more subscribers in a school with more teachers.”
“Parents are our primary customers,” Borchert said. “They pay for our subscriptions, but it’s not like a typical subscription because the person who pays for it isn’t the person who gets it. Our other customers are our teachers who receive the packs. We must understand and balance what the parents want with what the teachers want and need.”
Alpaca relies on word-of-mouth promotion through the parents, including parent-teacher organizations who have shared the opportunity with other parents in the schools.
Interest is high, for instance, within two days of launching its website, the company had 100 nominations for new schools to receive packs.
Although Alpaca started with only parental support, it has received interest from the business community, which could lead to business-level subscriptions in the future.
“Right now, the businesses that are interested are often companies that are somehow associated with the parents of a community or school,” Borchert said. “For instance, a parent who owns a business may want to support a school.”
Local companies have donated items like gift cards as teacher appreciation gifts.
“These types of sponsorships from businesses mean that we can pack more value into [the packs],” Borchert said. “We’ve been delivering the packs ourselves. Probably in the new school year, we’ll reach a point where we’ll have to ship a lot of our packs and work with more people who can deliver.”
Alpaca has two full-time employees, including Borchert, and a few part-time employees.
Some parents volunteer to help assemble packs. It has also hired some local high school students to help out after school.
“We enjoy doing that because it helps create a cool opportunity for students to engage with teachers in a different way,” Borchert said.
Expanding to Other Communities
Currently, Alpaca is working only with Omaha Public Schools but plans to expand to secondary schools and to other communities.
“We want to get Alpaca to every school that wants and needs it, but we want to make sure that we know how to support the teachers in the Omaha area first,” Borchert said. “We want to know how to deliver to a community well, to become good at that.”
Borchert started a nonprofit organization, The Campus Kitchens Project while earning a degree in secondary education from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After graduating in 2000, she took the organization nationally, scaling it to different college campuses around the country. The organization focused on students delivering meals to their communities and recycling unserved food from their college cafeterias.
After eight years she moved into technology, spending about five years helping grow Flywheel in Omaha. She then moved to Austin, Texas-based ROKA, to gain experience in e-commerce before starting Alpaca.