Making a BIG splash in the franchising world!
Read how parents Jess and Paul Thompson have made a successful franchise business from their baby swimming classes...
Name - Paul Thompson (co-founder)
Location - Water Babies UK Ltd; head office in Devon; thirteen individually owned swim schools in locations throughout the UK and Ireland.
Family - Two children: Imani and Jai.
What is your background?
Paul was originally a chartered surveyor. I was a teacher and also worked in fundraising and PR. When Imani was six months old we decided to 'live the family dream' and move to the Caribbean for a year, where Paul taught diving and home was a stilted house in a tiny bay with sea lapping at the door. However, day to day reality was quite different to the original fantasy and after six months of struggling to make things work, when an out of season hurricane destroyed half the island (including the road to our village) we returned to the UK. I went back to work and Paul took charge of Imani, creating an awesome schedule of daily activities for her.
What inspired you to set up Water Babies?
One of the activities Paul did was baby swimming and he was so impressed with it that he decided to retrain as a baby swimming teacher and set up his own school. Deciding that we'd never lived in the North and should try it, we moved to Yorkshire and set up Water Babies in 2002.
How did you arrange your first class? Was it hard getting a swimming pool to allow you to run the class?
We arrived in snowy Yorkshire in January - having just returned from spending three humid months backpacking with Imani around Australasia. We had arranged to completely renovate the house we bought and arrived to find no top floor windows and frozen pipes. We moved in anyway and set up Water Babies amidst heaps of dust and rubble, using the top of a fridge for a desk. The house continued to look like a builders yard for the first six months of starting the company - by which point I was also pregnant with Jai!
Frighteningly there is no legislation governing baby swimming (nor swimming in general) so creating our first classes was a simple matter of phoning around all the local pools. The response was fantastic and within a matter of weeks we'd not only secured five venues but had over 100 clients booked on and ready to start.
Do you and Paul still teach classes yourselves, or are you more hands-off and focused on the business side of Water Babies?
Very early on I made the decision not to be an instructor - working and living with Paul I felt there had to be at least one area of differentiation between us. Paul spent a huge amount of the first year in water - and it was his unbelievable energy and enthusiasm that made us grow as quickly as we did. For instance, every Saturday he'd do a four and a half hour run of classes and be as fresh for his last lesson as he was for the first. Now the only time Paul spends in the pool is when he trains new instructors - and we do that about four times a year and when he swims babies for photoshoots (he's due to swim about 12,000 this year!). The rest of the time we work full-time running head office, which means not actually run any classes ourselves any more.
How did you find your first staff to work for you?
A local paper did a feature on us and I deliberately mentioned that we were looking for instructors. Since we started Water Babies we've been slightly spooked by how lucky we've been at every juncture. It just so happened that the perfect swimming teacher happened to read the article, rang us, joined us and is now running her own Water Babies franchise in Norwich. Coming from a family of swimming teachers, with nine years experience behind her and a real passion for baby swimming, Kim has been really influential in shaping the development of the Water Babies course.
Through our designer we were really lucky again and met both our business manager and chief underwater photographer (a hugely meticulous retired bank manager from Harrogate.) Like Kim, Janice (our business manager) has also been incredibly important to the evolution of Water Babies - and I think she'd say it's played a pretty major part in her life as well. Within three years joining Paul and I, not only had we rapidly expanded across the country but Water Babies locally had grown to having more than 800 clients. At the end of 2005 Janice decided that running her own business had to be infinitely easier than helping run everyone else's, so she and her partner Arran trained as Water Babies instructors and made us extremely proud when they bought Water Babies Yorkshire and became our tenth franchise. (Incidentally, this also enabled us to relocate to Devon, having spotted a fantastic cliff top house on the internet, once again, prompting the decision to move...)
How did you know you were ready to branch out into having franchisees?
We never actively set out to franchise nor find any franchisees - they've all found us! My sister in Bristol and friends in Edinburgh took a keen interest in what we were doing, and at exactly the same time approached us to see if they could do their own Water Babies classes. Without knowing anything about it we decided to help set them up using franchising as the business model. Again we were lucky enough to be put in touch with a really excellent franchising consultant (www.howarthfranchising.com) and through him we made sure we had all the right systems in place.
Incidentally, I think that franchising is a term that gets bandied about quite a lot these days and you must be really careful that any 'franchise' you buy into is properly set up. After Edinburgh and Bristol started we were approached by Tamsin from Milton Keynes, who'd done baby swimming with her daughter and had always wanted to run her own classes - so she was our first non-related franchisee. Since then all our franchisees have either been clients or instructors. We're really pleased that the company has grown so organically as it means that everyone's come on board because they're passionate about swimming as opposed to seeing it as simply a good business opportunity.
How many Mums (and Dads) do you have working for you now?
We now have about fifty people working with Water Babies across the country. Most of these are ex-clients and therefore mums, doing anything from three to ten hours teaching a week. Once you're trained it's a fantastic job to have. We pay well (about £20 an hour) and work really hard to make sure that everyone feels like a valued part of the team. It's very important to us that everyone works 'with' us as opposed to 'for us'. We believe that no matter how little or how much you do within Water Babies, everyone's equally important in creating the company as a whole.
Also we never forget the fact that, as mums, most of our teachers have had to be incredibly dedicated in order to complete their Water Babies training. Given there is no legislation governing swimming, we decided to invent our own strict criteria. So all our teachers first have to train to become fully qualified mainstream swimming instructors with either the STA or ASA. They also have to complete a lifesaving qualification which is then renewed every two years. Then they have to come to Devon and complete their Water Babies training, which is about 150 hours work spread over a ten day period (not easy when you've also had to sort full-time childcare back home).
We do have some dads working with us but they are admittedly quite thin on the ground! Hugh obviously runs Water Babies in Edinburgh and Mark joined his partner Kim in running Water Babies in Norwich, plus there's the lovely Arran in Yorkshire - but we'd love to have some other male instructors join us too.
Why do you think you became a national company so quickly?
Probably the incredible enthusiasm and dedication of everyone involved and the fact that everyone's inspired to work with us because of how great baby swimming is as a concept. I think we're all fired by the knowledge that not only is what we do great fun but it's so amazingly beneficial for the children we teach. Without exception all our franchisees are absolutely committed to running their businesses. Quite frequently I'll send out an email at 10.30 at night and instantly received six replies from across the country!
How did you finance the initial company?
We were very lucky in that the start up costs for Water Babies were minimal: mainly the cost of creating our branding. This is one of the reasons why we were rather casual in our research for setting up Water Babies in Yorkshire - unlike our franchisees these days, we didn't even have a business plan when we started. However, (again) we were really lucky in that we chose an area of the country where there was no baby swimming but plenty of clients who'd heard about the concept and were keen to give it a go - which is another reason why it took off so quickly
What was your first piece of marketing activity?
Apart from pounding the streets giving out leaflets and putting up posters, I did get in touch with the local press, not thinking they'd be particularly interested in doing a piece without any actual photos of underwater babies. However, we got some fantastic coverage right from the start and since then press relations have always been a key part of our marketing strategy.
What is the best free bit of PR or Marketing the company has had?
Our best pr's are our mums on the course. We've never done any advertising and about 90% of new business is through word of mouth. Any local press coverage is also brilliant as far as I'm concerned. We've been fortunate enough to be on tv all over the country but always find that we'll get far more response from local newspaper articles.
What has been the biggest hurdle to you've had to overcome in terms of business success?
Tiredness! For three years we were running two major companies with just three full-time staff. At one stage Paul was classed as having gone 'beyond' clinical exhaustion but still went on regardless. Having responsibility for the children has always kept me a bit more grounded, but there's nothing quite like the pressure of having your own business, where you're constantly aware that absolutely every last buck lies with you.
How did setting up the company fit in with your own family life?
It was very hard, and I did feel really guilty that my children became very good at playing quietly in the corner whilst mummy was on the phone. Within a week of giving birth to Jai I was back at work, taking him to talks and traipsing him from pool to pool. Once, when he was a bit older, I was giving a talk and a very kind lady fed him three chocolate and caramel biscuits. By the end of the talk he was literally climbing the velvet curtains hanging in the room and when we left I stood by my car and burst into tears with the stress of it all.
Working with your partner can again be quite hard. When the going's good, there's very little that beats contentedly working alongside one another, both feeling so proud of what the other's achieved. But there is always the danger that your work life will consume every aspect of your relationship. Good advice is to give yourselves regular time out together when you quite literally go on a date and make a solid pact not to talk about work. Then again there are many moments when you really appreciate the fact that you work from home and are completely your own boss. Paul just happened to nip out with the kids one lunchtime and watched Imani ride her bike without supports for the first time and, when work will allow, there's nothing to stop us all suddenly deciding to take off as a family for the day (or five weeks backpacking around Mexico as we did a few years ago). It's certainly much easier now that we're only running head office and we can actually take some time off and appreciate everything we've worked so hard for.
How do you separate working time and family time?
Quite simply, we don't - and I don't think we ever will whilst we still work from home. It's now five forty-five pm and my three year old is swinging on the back of my chair as I type. Unfortunately the habit is now too ingrained in that I'll work until 3.00pm, go and pick up the kids, feed them, play with them, put them to bed and then go back down to the office and do a few more hours work. However, things have got better at the weekends when, very occasionally, we don't even turn the computers on for the two days.
What has been the biggest benefit of you being self-employed to your family?
The sense of freedom in being able to appreciate (occasionally) that there's no-one to answer to (not even the bank as we never had to borrow any start-up finance) and the knowledge that our children are growing up feeling fully involved in our lives as they know exactly what it is we do. And they have grown up being hugely confident with all adults as they're so used to having so many different people staying with us all the time. Also, because the company is very much a reflection of Paul and I, the kind of people we've attracted to work with us have all come from a very similar mould. So we now have the lovely situation where we work on a daily basis with at least twenty other people, all of whom we're really fond of, really enjoy spending time with and would count as friends in any other situation.
What is the best bit of business advice you've been given?
Make sure that, right from the start, your company has a really strong, easily recognisable identity (funnily enough, a piece of advice given by our design agency!) My advice to anyone starting their own business would be to immediately get a separate phone line put in place - it's amazing how much difference something so simple will make to your life!
Any other comments/advice you think would be useful to Mums thinking of starting in business?
Being a mum teaches you so many skills that transfer brilliantly to the workplace: infinite patience, multi-tasking, organisation and negotiation tactics to name but a few. So many of our clients radically re-evaluate their lives once they've had children, with many never returning their original jobs but finding something equally rewarding but very different to do. However, if you decide to start your own business and are very successful in whatever that is, then you'll soon find yourself being torn between your business and your family life. It's generally a bit of a battle between the two, and you'll constantly find yourself doing everything at 90 miles an hour, so you can do a full day's work and still feel like a reasonably good mummy too!