A child-focused franchise: the story of Mini Monkey Gym


Penny Holbrook’s soft children’s gym franchise business was born partly from passion and partly from a desire to find a career that worked around her children.

She has always loved gym fitness and has worked for years with children so when she returned from living in Germany to the UK as a single mum in 2008 and needed to find a career that combined her skills, interests, a family interest in entrepreneurialism and a need to work flexibly to set up her Mini Monkey Gym business for 0-5 year olds. Last year she launched it as a franchise.

Penny has had years of experience working with children, from professional nannying to working in crèches and nurseries and pre-school teaching. Her first daughter was born in 2007 when she was living in Germany. She had been there for 10 years, teaching in an international school and had planned to be a stay-at-home mum for the first few years. However, within a year of having her daughter she was back in the UK. “I had never contemplated being a single parent,” she says. “I had to think how I could work flexibly around my daughter and offer us a sound financial future. My whole life had been looking after or teaching other people’s children, but I didn’t want to be away from my own child from 9-5 five days a week.”

Penny started researching and attending different preschool activity classes around the UK. This allowed her to spot a gap in the market for something different to other gym classes aimed at children which tend to feature wooden equipment. “The equipment used in other classes tended to be wooden so when children fell they would land on something hard which could affect their confidence around exploring new skills. Soft equipment gives them free rein to explore and be creative at a young age and parents, who are encouraged to support their children’s development, feel more reassured,” says Penny.She found a UK-based manufacturer who could develop her designs for soft climbing equipment made of foam. She then created her own gym classes in line with the Early Years curriculum and the emphasis on getting babies and young children moving and practicing physical skills in a fun, colourful and safe environment.

Penny invested her own savings in the business and started to grow it locally, sourcing venues for classes, advertising locally and starting with private classes. Very quickly she started worked with children’s centres and local nurseries. She had always thought it had the potential to be a franchise so she made sure all the materials were very professional, including glossy leaflets, branded t-shirts and good quality equipment.

She took several years to test the business model, trial the equipment and songs and perfect the lesson plans before launching as a franchise in 2014. “We have made all the mistakes so our franchisees don’t have to. That’s the benefit of investing in a tried and tested business model,” she says.The most challenging time she faced was when she had her second daughter, who is now three. She was setting up the franchise model when she was pregnant and when her baby daughter was born. “I was attending meetings with franchise consultants and lawyers in between feeds when my daughter was first born and it was a bit crazy.” she says. She didn’t have any maternity leave, but employed class leaders to run her Norwich classes whilst she worked from home so she could be with her daughter and adds that the pregnancy meant it took slightly longer to get the franchise off the ground.

Creating a lifestyle

Many of Penny’s franchisees are mums and dads and she says it is a good fit as from her experience with her daughters, Penny understands the challenges they are facing around running a business with having young children and is on hand to advise and support her franchisees. “I like the fact that I can draw first hand on my experience as a mother to help my franchisees as they juggle family life and work and therefore can offer both support and guidance in every aspect. I think it also reassures them that I have been in their shoes and know what works and what doesn’t.”

Penny says she has a lot of family support. Penny’s mum helps out with childcare, but Penny mainly works around the children, doing lots of early starts and late nights and says she makes very efficient use of the time she has. “I’d rather have extra time during the day with my daughters, fitting in toddler groups, time at the park and doing the school run,” she says. “It’s about creating a lifestyle.”Penny says the franchise suits parents as it can be run on a term-time only basis, although franchisees can choose to run holiday workshops.

Personality is important in a potential franchisee. “They must have a passion for working with children, be organised and driven,” she says. Once Penny speaks to potential franchisees, she puts them in touch with other franchisees so they can tell them how it works on a day to day basis. They can then attend a discovery day where they learn about everything in depth. They also get extensive information about child development and have three days of training covering running a business, observing classes and practical training.

The franchise package costs £14,995 which includes all the training, the equipment, props, music, online marketing and a DVD with songs and activities. There are different classes for different age ranges, for instance, more sensory-based classes for babies while classes for older children are more similar to PE. The first franchise launched in North East Yorkshire, the second in Croydon and Beckenham, and this month another franchise launched in Essex. Penny now focuses more on the franchise management side of the business, though she still covers in Norwich if class leaders are off sick or away and likes to keep in touch with Mini Monkey Gym Norwich members.The new Essex franchisee is former teacher David Hann. He says: “My professional background is in teaching and lecturing and I’ve taught at all levels from Year 7 to postgraduate. I’ve also been involved with some postgraduate research of my own and there’s no doubt that any child’s developmental potential is greatly influenced by the experiences they have when they’re young. I’m very excited to be joining the Mini Monkey family and look forward to helping some local Mini Monkeys get an active start in life.”

To find out more about becoming a Mini Monkey Gym franchisee, click here.

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