What makes for a family friendly franchise? It’s not just flexibility and support. Franchises also need to be good business propositions.
One franchisor who knows about the benefits of offering a viable family friendly model is Anne-Marie Martin. She set up diddi dance, a franchise which teaches dance to preschoolers, and it recently won Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Family Friendly Franchise Award. The judges praised it for “presenting a strong case for family friendly working backed by an inspirational and extremely supportive franchisor who made a good business case for family friendly businesses”.
The idea for the business came about by chance. Anne-Marie studied dance at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, graduating in 1997, and has performed all over the world. After several years she found that she was teaching more and more between jobs, to children of all ages and then worked for an under fives play company.
She was asked by parents attending those sessions if she knew of any dance classes for children under five which were not ballet. She had never thought about it, but there weren’t any she could recommend. She says the next thing she knew, “they literally booked me a venue in Islington and told me to turn up”. Anne-Marie put on a class and sought to make the class creative, adding things such as animal moves and the like. It proved quite popular and planted a seed in Anne-Marie’s mind. “I hadn’t advertised, but the class was busy and, although the creative things I added didn’t work, over the weeks I developed different things, dance streamers, hula hoops and the like,” she says.
The classes, called Funky Feet, caught on quickly so she tried other venues in London to see if the concept worked outside Islington. The children learned a lot and Anne-Marie found she really enjoyed the classes. She got leaflets and t-shirts printed.
By 2006 she had a couple of dancer friends helping her out and covering her classes when necessary. She started to think about franchising the business and did some market research. “I felt there was something there. There were no preschool dance classes. There were music and movement classes, but no dance except ballet. I felt there was a niche in the market,” she said.
She was aware of other franchises. When she went to a franchise consultancy, however, she found that even though she owned the trademark on Funky Feet, too many people had used the name before she bought it so she was advised to change it. “I was devastated,” she said. The diddi dance name came to her within five minutes.
Soon after Anne-Marie handed in her notice at the play company. She spoke to friends outside London who were dancers and did some free pilots. Anne-Marie gave those taking part lesson plans and they videoed her in action. At the time she was working five days a week on diddi dance and then teaching her other classes at the weekend.
She decided she would launch the franchise after a year of doing the pilots, but life got in the way. She fell pregnant and her son was born in early 2008. “Everything went on the back burner,” she says. “I focused on the administrative work and had some teachers covering lessons. I didn’t go back to teaching until September so the business was just ticking along.”
It was not until 2010 that she had the operations manual and her franchise agreements ready and was able to launch the franchise properly.
Since then she has grown it organically, in line with demand, with no investment or loans. She now has 42 franchisees, each costing £4,995 + VAT. She says franchisees can make between £2k and £4k a month, depending on the hours they put in.
Anne-Marie admits that running a franchise is a lot of responsibility and that she has to make sure her head office team are on top of everything, from changes in health and safety rules to early years legislation. She has developed diddi dance’s recruitment and training processes, has built a strong team, built a web to print system for branded materials, has taken on an early years consultant and has Anne-Marie has also recently invested in a children’s centre in SE London, a new venture for her outside of diddi dance. “I never sit still,” she says.
diddi dance has also created its own music and recorded its third album of original material three years ago in collaboration with a friend of Anne Marie’s – James Moriarty, who is a music teacher. Other developments include creating a two-year programme to retain children, ensuring the dance programme is updated often and creating dance charts covering the different dance styles so that children can map their progress. It is about to launch diddi dance characters and video stories to put on a new Youtube channel.
Anne-Marie says one of the biggest challenges for diddi dance for the future is preserving the franchise’s values and personal level of support as it grows. What has helped the franchise to develop is that at its centre is a very supportive network. Every success is celebrated and that success is not just about monthly turnover. “We share news and feedback and celebrate each other’s success through our newsletters,” she says.
Most of the franchisees are parents and the business offers a very parent-friendly model. Franchisees can take their own children to classes and, diddi dance provides after hours customer service and support if franchisees are ill and there are no targets set by the franchisor within their first year – franchisees can choose their own timetable and can, for instance, elect to close over the holidays, although the franchise encourages them to keep a skeleton timetable over the summer so the business continues to tick over and responds to demand.
Several parents started as franchisees before they had children. That has inspired diddi dance to create maternity guidance and provide administrative support to help people keep their business going while they are on maternity leave. “I really understand the challenges they are facing because I’ve been there myself,” says Anne-Marie, who also has a four-year-old daughter as well as her eight-year-old son. “It’s always fresh in my mind. I always advise franchisees who tell me they are pregnant to plan ahead, to look at increasing their profit margins beforehand and to consider how many teachers they might need to take on board to cover their leave. It’s all about forward planning.”
diddi dance also provides ongoing business support in the form of a business consultant who gives one-to-one tailored advice and there is a PR officer who helps with social media as well as webinars on issues such as customer retention.
Anne-Marie sees the franchise as being more than just a business. She is passionate about the links between physical activity and children’s health. She was asked to become a founding member of the Children’s Activities Association and has been on its steering committee and regulatory boards for preschool classes. Through the association she has helped lobby the government about setting healthy habits in early years settings.
She is also keen to encourage more women into franchising and is regional chair of Encouraging Women Into Franchising and a volunteer mentor for franchisors and franchisees.
Franchisee Louise Martin says simply: “Anne-Marie is not just a name that we know as the creator of diddi dance and nothing more – she is the soul of diddi dance and is contactable at all times for any questions, advice or words of wisdom. The support network that has been created for us as franchisees and teachers is remarkable. We share experiences, frustrations, funny moments and all work as a team to help grow diddi dance.”