How to build a successful franchise business

Paul Thompson

Water Babies is the world’s largest specialist baby and toddler swim school. Established in 2002, this hugely successful franchise business now teaches over 42,000 babies and toddlers to swim a year and has a total of 58 franchisees across the UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and The Netherlands.

Water Babies grew out of an idea conceived by Paul Thompson when he gave up his job in property development management to be a stay-at-home dad. After taking his daughter Imani swimming he was surprised at the lack of professionally taught lessons on offer for babies. Paul explains “I realised that the baby swimming realm was a very amateur landscape. The quality of teaching was really variable and people were working without qualifications.”

His vision was to start a business that offered swimming classes to small children on a fully professional basis, using well-qualified staff to provide the instruction. Paul very quickly became aware of the franchising potential of the business. He continues, “We didn’t plan for our business to turn into a franchise, as we were really happy just running our own successful small business. However after six months, we had a number of friends ask if they could be part of the business, which is when we saw that the company had franchising potential. We had finalised our professional branding by that point, so we just needed to bring in a consultant to help create our franchise system, including procedures, operating manuals, agreements, etc.”

Since then Water Babies has grown by an average of 10% year on year. With a Head Office turnover of £4,625,000 for 2013/2014 compared with £3,549,000 two years earlier, revenues are continuing to demonstrate healthy growth and from its base in Britain, the business has now expanded to Ireland, New Zealand, The Netherlands and Canada.

Paul’s advice to other small businesses: “Think carefully before becoming a franchisor – managing a franchise network involves completely different challenges. It won’t be something that conveniently ‘bolts on’ to your business; the network will be your business and your time will be taken up with supporting your network members.

“Secondly, seek expert professional help when creating your franchise, because many things will need sorting out, including processes, systems, paperwork, etc - you won’t be able to do it all yourself.

“Finally, you must protect your brand, so be very discerning when growing your network. Joining the Water Babies network is a rigorous process, deliberately so.”

Case study
Helen Pennington, from Sheffield, is the proud owner of the Water Babies South Yorkshire franchise and runs classes out of 11 pools across Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster. She bought the already established business last August.

Her journey began when she began taking her first child, Amy, to Water Babies classes when she was just ten weeks old. Helen explains: “By the time we had finished the beginners course, I was already loving it and was looking into become a franchisee. Although there wasn’t a franchise available at that time, I took the first step anyway and trained to become a teacher. Fast forward six years and the opportunity to buy the franchise I was working for came up and I grabbed it with both hands.”

Helen came from a business environment, as she worked as a recruitment manager for 11 years. With a degree in psychology, she also has a comprehensive understanding of child behaviour and development, as well as having the means to manage her teams effectively. Helen explains, “all roads have led me to where I am now, my skills are all vital to running a successful franchise.”

Having a franchise business that wasn’t a brand new start-up meant that Helen already had an infrastructure to work with, which offered both benefits and challenges. “My biggest challenge was learning how to relinquish control,” she explains, “as although I have a fantastic team, I wanted to do everything. I soon realised that I needed to delegate and let people do what they do best.”

A big benefit of having her own franchise is that she now has a healthy work- life balance. Helen continues: “When I was a recruitment manager, I ran two mini businesses from the ground up, which meant I had to work long, inflexible hours. There is no way I could have done that job with children. I work just as hard now, but I’m working for me and my family. I also work from home and I choose my hours. It means the world to me that I’m not missing out on my children growing up.”

Aside from the pride she feels for her business, Helen is also proud that she is responsible for helping to tutor new Water Babies teachers for the whole Water Babies network. “At Water Babies, we set the standard really high, which is why it is important for me as a tutor and franchisee that we do things properly and that my teachers are excellent at what they do.

“The development of teachers and my franchise’s infrastructure is at the heart of the business, which is why it is my main focus for the future. I plan to invest in my team and get them training to keep them motivated and professional.”

Helen’s advice for anyone looking to buy a franchise business is:

  • Use the franchise network for support and listen to other franchisees’ ideas. I would never run a stand-alone business as I’m passionate about the franchise model; it has a proven track record and having a network of support allows you to be more professional as whatever you go through, it’s likely someone has been through it before
  • Choose a business that you are proud of – as I couldn’t do what I do without the knowledge that we are setting the standard in the industry. Water Babies is continually moving to better itself, which is something I believe in and that I find really exciting!

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