“Let us be your 25th hour”. That is the strapline of Pink Spaghetti, a personal assistant and virtual assistant services for small businesses and the home. It’s something many parents long for and the two women, both mums, behind Pink Spaghetti were quick to spot a good business opportunity.
That business has grown and is now a franchise with franchisees across the UK. The support Pink Spaghetti offers to its franchisees is part of the reason for its growth and recently won it the Workingmums.co.uk Supportive Franchisor Award. The judges praised it for its clear sense of commitment to franchisees and the comprehensive support it offered.
The Cheshire-based business was started by friends Caroline Gowing [pictured right] and Vicky Matthews [pictured left]. Caroline was a retail IT consultant and Vicky was PA to the CEO of a major bank when they met through baby swimming classes. Both had busy lives, but were very good at organising themselves. In 2009, Caroline’s contract was coming to an end and Vicky had an opportunity to take voluntary redundancy. “We hadn’t thought about running our own business,” says Caroline. “We started talking about ideas.”
Finally the time came for action. “We spent New Year together. We’d been talking about the idea for Pink Spaghetti for a while. We thought we should stop wittering and start doing it,” says Caroline.
Through January, they looked at what else was available in the marketplace, did a SWOT analysis and considered issues such as who they would target and pricing. They decided they had a viable business idea and should go for it and draft a business plan.
They knew there were high-level concierge services on offer to more well off parents, but they wanted to aim their services at the average parent. Initially they offered services such as booking parties or doing dry cleaning runs for nurseries. They noticed that a lot of their customers ran small businesses and needed help with all sorts of things, from organisational issues such as filing to gift wrapping and doing a holiday search. One businesswoman told them she had not been on holiday for years simply because she hadn’t had time to organise one. Pink Spaghetti found her a holiday in the Caribbean.
It was clear that SMEs were where the more profitable side of the business lay rather than with domestic PA services for parents so their focus switched after the first year.
The business was self funded and didn’t have huge costs to cover. Both women had young children at the time the business started. Caroline’s were aged five and 18 months. They would work on the business at each other’s houses, their laptops open while the kids were playing.
They offered their customers a flexible service with no fixed contract, meaning they did not have to use the service every single month.
Caroline says the business grew mainly through networking and through learning what did and didn’t work.
She and Vicky soon realised they had a good business model that was earning money and that they could grow the business by offering it to others through a franchise agreement. “Most of our franchisees are parents who would have done it anyway. We just helped them get a couple of years ahead,” says Caroline.
She and Vicky went to The Franchise Show in Birmingham in October 2011 to check out if franchising was a realistic option. They took part in workshops, spoke to a lot of people and came away with a clear idea that the business was franchisable. They were lucky to find a lawyer who said they could pay them when they sold their first franchise. The first franchisee got in touch within two hours of them putting an item in their newsletter and the first franchise launched in September 2012 after Caroline and Vicky had written the 200-page franchise manual [now 300 pages] and devised a training course.
The pilots went very well. They have learnt over the years what skills franchisees need to be successful and have made changes to the training process which takes place at head office and in the franchisee’s home. “We need people who can network and are confident. We can train them to do the work, but unless they can deal with people confidently they will not be a good franchisee,” says Caroline.
Pink Spaghetti has a website, but hasn’t had to do much advertising for franchisees as 80% of them have found their website on the net. They now have 19 franchisees, with another starting in September. The franchisees are based across the UK. Caroline says the biggest challenge now is managing growth and supporting and communicating with franchisees who all have different needs.
To do that they have a private Facebook group, an annual conference, regular video calls via Zoom and their newsletter. On Zoom they can screen share which makes it much easier to explain how things work. They have just launched a new map technology which makes it easier for people to find a franchisee. They use video for social media, are keen to harness technology to stay ahead of the game and they do regular sessions at their conference on technology issues, such as how to use video effectively.
Caroline says the aim is to offer “unlimited support” to franchisees. “Anything they have a query about we will provide additional training on,” she says. They are able to support people out of hours so if it is easier to do a call in the evening after children are in bed then that is fine. Sometimes franchisees’ children are around when they call and Caroline says she and Vicky are comfortable with that.
The pilot franchises cost £2K, but now that the model has been proven to provide franchisees with good earnings, the franchise costs from £3995+VAT Caroline says franchisees can earn up to £3K a month, depending on how much work they put in. Most are mums who are working around the school run. Some only work a couple of days a week.
Caroline says the partnership with Vicky has worked well and has provided mutual support. Over the years, they have come to realise that they have quite different but complementary skills. Caroline looks to technology for answers whereas Vicky prefers paper lists. Her skills are in marketing while Caroline’s are in training. “Having two franchisors means we offer our franchisees a wider range of skills and a shared vision,” she says. Having shared core values is vital, she adds, saying the two have never fallen out.
The plan for the next two years is to grow by 10-12 franchisees a year. “We have to be careful that we can continue to offer the same level of support to everyone,” says Caroline. She and Vicky recognise that they may need extra support and have been working with a business coach who specialises in franchising. The coach’s services are also offered to franchisees.
Caroline says she doesn’t miss her old working life at all and that her children, now aged nine and 12, don’t yet realise how lucky they are that she has been able to do every school run and can take them to after school clubs. “I would never go back to corporate life,” she says.