Ellen Williams talks to workingmums.co.uk about running her Seasons Art Class franchise business, coping with a pandemic and building for the future.
Ellen Williams was working full time in army recruitment when she went to a franchise show with a friend. She wasn’t actively looking for a franchise opportunity, but the Seasons Art Class franchise caught her eye. She took some information home, did some research and launched her arts classes business in April 2018. Since then she has built it from two classes a week with 21 students to six classes a week and 116 students, weathered the worst of Covid, left the army and moved into her own premises.
Ellen, who is based in Shrewsbury, does not have a creative background, but she loves art and photography. She says she fell in love with the franchise as she was researching it and through meeting the franchisor and talking to other head office staff.
She says she has always wanted to be her own boss and to do something rewarding and was keen to have more time to spend with her children. When her eldest children, now aged 10 and 11, were little she would often be away in places such as Iraq, Kenya and the US, sometimes for two months at a time, and she didn’t want to be in that position again. She has, however, used a lot of the transferable skills, particularly administrative ones, derived from her time in the army to build her business.
Moreover, when she started she did a short training course and got a lot of support from the franchise with marketing, taking bookings, course materials, recruiting a tutor and handouts and visual aids to help the tutor. Each course is 14 weeks long and involves a mix of drawing, painting and oil pastels. All the classes are for adults – beginners and returning students who want to stretch themselves – and her students are predominantly retired. Ellen has chosen not to run classes in the school holidays, although they are open during half term. Her role involves running the business, setting up classes and overseeing the tutors, rather than teaching, but she likes to sit in on the classes and says she has learnt a lot over the years.
At the outset, Ellen, who has four children, was pregnant. Initially she rented the ballroom of a hotel and the two weekly classes she ran were both on the same day. She was granted one day off a week to work on the business and worked on the administrative side of it in the evenings and at weekends. When she gave birth, she was back to work two days later.
After the hotel closed, she moved to a church, but that got flooded and last year she took on a commercial property and expanded her classes, covering Shrewsbury and Wrexham. In June, after her fourth maternity leave, she left the army and started working full time on the business. Classes now take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Ellen, who got a loan to help develop her business, says it is a big change from what she did in the army. “You are free to be more yourself,” she says.
During the pandemic lockdowns, Ellen could have put the classes online as other Seasons Art Class franchisees did, but decided not to because, for her students, the social side of meeting up was a key reason for the classes’ success. She was also busy homeschooling her children. She says one student didn’t even pick up a paintbrush during the first lockdown because she felt no motivation without the face to face classes.
Ellen totally understands how the classes provide a sense of community. “We really get to know people during the classes. Over 50% of our students are returners. For me a big part of this is about loving what you do and meeting people,” she says. “They are here to learn, but also to have fun.” She adds that, despite teething problems, she was eventually able to get government help to see her business through the worst of the pandemic.
There’s a silver lining too: many people have taken to art over the last two years so demand for classes has risen and the business is continually evolving.
The new centre means Ellen has more overheads – looking after the building, toilets, the tea and coffee area and an area where she sells art supplies which she gets wholesale since she is an educational business. So Ellen has just taken on an administrative assistant. She has also hired an assistant tutor who used to work for the BBC and ITV doing courtroom drawings. She says a good team is crucial. She is thinking of developing the centre for other purposes too and is also working with local art students to put some artwork on the front of the building.
Ellen says you can get as much out of the business as you put in. She has paid off her loan and built a thriving flexible business which allows her to do the school run and attend school events. All her classes are full and she has a waiting list. Being a franchisee has been a great boon, she says.
“I’m getting the support of an established franchise that has been going for over 13 years. That makes me feel more comfortable and has helped me to succeed,” she states. “It’s so good to make a living doing something you enjoy.”
*Ellen is pictured [left] when she started the franchise.