How I turned my business into a successful franchise

Paul Thompson of Water Babies explains how he grew his business from a local firm teaching babies to swim at the local pool into an international franchise

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Water Babies, national baby-swimming class franchise with headquarters in Devon.

Background

“My wife, Jess, and I started Water Babies in 2002 in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. As a stay-at-home dad, I’d really loved taking our baby daughter, Imani, swimming. I ended up becoming an instructor, which inspired me to want to start my own business. So we spent time creating our programme, did a leaflet campaign and within months had hundreds of customers signed up. It cost about £5,000 to launch the business. While babies and toddlers gain confidence and learn to swim in a structured and safe way, parents really enjoy the experience too.”

On becoming a franchisor

“We didn’t plan it - we were happy running our own successful small business. But after about six months, Jess’s sister asked us about starting a Water Babies business where she lives in Bristol. The same week, friends in Edinburgh phoned us to ask the same, which is when we realised Water Babies’ franchising potential. By that point we had professional branding, but we needed to bring in a consultant to help create our franchise, including systems, procedures, operating manuals, agreements, etc.”

On business growth

“Within 28 months we had 14 franchisees, operating in many other parts of the UK and Ireland. Now we also have franchisees in The Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada, with plans to expand into Europe. More than 40,000 babies and toddlers are currently learning to swim with us. We have 54 franchisees and they employ 350 instructors.

“We’ve never advertised for franchisees – we’ve grown organically as a result of people approaching us. We’re very particular with regards to franchisees; as well as the obvious safety considerations, we want to protect the reputation we’ve worked so hard to establish.

“Diversification has also enabled us to grow. We also offer customers high quality photography of their babies and toddlers swimming underwater, as well as wetsuits, swimsuits, swimming nappies and accessories, which we sell online. And we’ve just introduced a new franchise business called WaterBumps for pre- and post-natal women. We have great ambitions for that.”

On values, standards and quality

“We’re guided by our values. Yes, we’re a business, but people always come first. We believe in the very highest standards, which is why, for example, our programme’s endorsed by the Amateur Swimming Association and our teachers are the only ones with a nationally recognised diploma in baby swimming, approved by SkillsActive [the sector skills council for sport and recreation] and accredited by Ofqual [Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation]. No other baby and toddler swimming school can say that.”

On managing a franchise network

“The support we offer to our franchisees is second to none. At our head office in Devon we have 28 staff available to support a network of 54 franchisees. Each Water Babies franchisee has a team of 12 people dedicated to supporting their success. We provide advice on everything, from HR, IT, marketing, tax and VAT to training and equipment. Franchisees also benefit from our proven systems and established brand.”

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 yourself. Finally, you must protect your brand, so be very discerning when growing your network. Joining our network is a rigorous process, deliberately so.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the HSBC Group.

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