Dancing feet

Fancy running a dance franchise for toddlers? Anne-Marie Wilkins and Arabella Gunn tell Workingmums.co.uk how they set up the Diddi Dance franchise and what they look for in new franchisees.

Anne-Marie Wilkins is a dancer. Trained in ballet and contemporary dance, she has done street dance, been in pop videos, danced on Top of the Pops and at the Brit Awards.

Now she is bringing that dance experience to toddlers. Anne-Marie is the founder of Diddi Dance, a dance franchise aimed at two to four year olds. She says it’s the perfect business for a working mum. She should know. She continues to teach and once a week takes her three-year-old son along to a class.

“He starts pre-school in September, but he has been attending classes since he was a tiny baby,” she laughs.

Anne-Marie started the business well before having children, though. As a professional dancer, she had been teaching a lot of older children at dance schools and other organisations and she was asked by many mothers if there were any classes for their toddlers. “There wasn’t really anything around at the time,” she says. “There was ballet, but it mostly started at three and they wanted something a bit funkier.” She started one class in Islington in 2003 and called it her funky feet class. The class was full within weeks. She started more classes and branched out across London, including to Blackheath where she lives.

By 2005 she had honed her lesson plans and began to think about franchising the business. She started up a few pilots with ex-dancer friends outside London to test the waters and decided on a name change to Diddi Dance because some dances schools ran what they called “funky feet” classes.

By 2006, she had got all her licensing in place, approached a business consultancy about franchising the business and as running three pilot schemes in Woking, Chester and Twickenham.

However, by 2007 she was pregnant and due to a lack of time the franchising side of the business was pushed to one side.

When her son was born in 2008 she returned to teaching and again franchising took a bit of a back seat.

“I was very conscious when I started the franchise that I wanted to get it going very quickly,” she says, “because it was unique at that time, but I’m glad it was a gradual process as we were able to iron out any teething problems.”

Business partner
It was not until early 2010 that she finally took the plunge and employed Arabella Gunn to be her franchise director and deal with franchisees and business support. By then she had six franchisees, but they were still working as pilots.

Arabella’s background is in business development. She was working for a US pharmaceutical company, but, after having her second child she felt she could not bear to go back to the 9-5 commute. She wanted to spend time with her children, who are now aged two and four.

She knew Anne-Marie through a contact, but it was only when she attended a Diddi Dance session with her older son Bracken that she realised what a great business she had.

“My son was really engaged and came out of his shell. He would play out Diddi Dance sessions at home. It was 45 minutes of non-stop fun and entertainment and really unique. I told Anne-Marie I thought it was fantastic,” she recalls.

The two spoke and Arabella, who was offered voluntary redundancy from her job, said she was interested in finding out more about Diddi Dance. Anne-Marie suggested her skills were perfectly suited to running the business side of the franchise. It was a good decision – in just over a year the number of franchisees has doubled and Diddi Dance is also doing appearances at major festivals like Bestival and the Brighton Baby Show. It was also featured on one of Louie Spence’s Showbusiness programme.

Arabella’s involvement frees Anne-Marie up to focus more on the creative side, which is her first love.

“I like to be hands on and devise new dance styles and check that they work,” says Anne-Marie.

The mixed age Diddi Dance classes include hip hop, salsa, country dancing and rock and roll air guitaring. This year Anne-Marie plans to add Bollywood, flamenco, Irish dancing, ballroom, reggae and hula dancing.

Anne-Marie says the most important quality a franchisee needs is enthusiasm, a love of children, ambition and good rhythm. They don’t need to have a dance background, but they do need to be fit enough to last the 45 minutes of a class. “Having the right personality is vital,” she says.

Franchisees run everything from regular classes to parties and workshops. The franchise costs £6,400 in all, including comprehensive support and guidance, a week’s training with Diddi Dance classes and in the studio in London, business training which is done mainly on Skype and regular annual reviews. There is a management fee of 10% of profits, but not annual franchise fee or renewal fee. Over the summer from 18 July to 5 September, Diddi Dance is having a summer sale and offering franchises for £4,995.

Arabella says the first point of contact is usually via the website. Potential franchisees are sent a prospectus with basic trading projections for the first three years. The areas they sell are huge so Arabella says the potential for growing a good business is good. The next step is to fill in an application form or send a cv and then come to an open day to see classes in action and talk to Anne-Marie and Arabella to see if it is the right business for them.

Anne-Marie thinks the economic downturn is unlikely to affect the popularity of the classes as she thinks parents will be reluctant to cut back on something their children enjoy so much. “They are more likely to make cutbacks in other places,” she says.

Plus the Government’s concerns about obesity in children have given a big boost to physical movement classes aimed at toddlers and Diddi Dance is doing a lot of work with Sure Start centres and nurseries.

“We want to show that to be successful you don’t have to do the traditional 9 to 5. We’re in a new age where you can have the flexibility to enjoy work and spend a lot of time with your children,” says Arabella.

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