Fiona Simpson’s children are the inspiration for her award-winning kids art business, ARTventurers. It was having them that gave her the impetus to leave the world of law behind and embrace her creative side.
Fiona has built her franchise over the last two years being careful to try and test her model. That care and attention to detail has been recognised with two awards at this year’s Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Franchise Awards: Overall Top Franchise 2017 and Supportive Franchisor 2017.
The judges praised Fiona for her clear sense of commitment to her franchisees and the comprehensive support offered, including HR support, training, mentoring, maternity support and the flexibility it offered from day one.
Fiona has always been creative, but she went to a traditional school where creative skills were not encouraged. So she ended up training to be a solicitor, although she says she always knew it was not something she wanted to do for life.
She had done ceramics classes with Girl Guides and Brownies before she had children, but it was having children that was “the game changer” for her. “I didn’t want to go back to the legal profession,” she said, adding that she doesn’t regret having done law since it has proven very useful in setting up her franchise. “I decided I wanted to work with children,” she says.
She had her two children, now aged 11 and nearly 10, within 20 months of each other and did an early years qualification when they were very little, working in local nurseries. There she spotted a gap in the market for art classes for children. “I was doing a lot of messy play at home, but in the nurseries there was nothing art-based,” she said.
She set up a class when her youngest child was one with a baby and toddler in tow. She did that for a year before her husband was made redundant and the family relocated from Leeds to the North East where their families were based.
Growing the business
In 2011, soon after moving, Fiona started ARTventurers. She began with a couple of classes a week in Sunderland and grew the business around her children, then aged three and four. Once they both started school she was able to expand the range of classes she offered, to organise parties and creative events and extend classes to babies. She increased her hours to full time, breaking off to do school pick-ups and doing paperwork and administrative tasks in the evening.
She knew the business needed to grow more. She had two requests from people wanting to be franchisees in late 2013, but was not 100% sure that was the right route for her. She wanted to be sure before she invested any money in franchising the business that her model would work for other people, that it was not just working because of her. She was also keen to explore whether she would enjoy the role of franchisor. “It’s my baby and it’s a different role being a franchisor,” she said.
Having been a lawyer, she was able to devise a licence model and test if for 12 months on three guinea pigs. “I tried and tested everything and created an operations manual,” she said.
By summer 2015 she was ready to launch. She has learnt a lot over the last couple of years and has had to be an expert in many things, including recruitment. “Doing this business comes naturally to some people and not to others. People needed a lot of support with things like marketing and how to run a business,” she said. So she divided the training programme into three parts: two face- to-face sessions and one online covering running a business, customer services, marketing, product delivery and work life balance.
Fiona says she has learnt from experience about the latter. “It can be all-consuming running a business and it’s important to have energy reserves and not to burn out,” she said. Franchisees also sit in on classes; there is an independent mentoring programme; and bimonthly team webinars on issues ranging from blogging to using Mailchimp as well as a closed Facebook group where franchisees can swap tips and advice.
Business development and maternity support
The test period also showed her the importance of administrative support and back-up, including allowing franchisees to divert calls to head office when they are on holiday or on maternity leave. If franchisors become pregnant Fiona chats to them about the kind of support they might need as she says each woman will have her own plans. One woman last year employed freelance class leaders to cover her classes and head office did her administrative work; another is taking a total break, stopping her classes, but has asked head office to cover her administrative work.
ARTventurers now has 24 franchisees in the UK and one in the US. A couple more are about to launch in the next months while there are plans to develop one in India over the next 12-18 months. The US franchisee is originally from the North East and heard about ARTventurers on social media. Fiona granted her a licence and says it would not have made sense to pass on the opportunity. Marketing in the US is different to the UK where there is less emphasis on community classes with parents and more on summer camps and parties.
Fiona has also employed an administrative/business development manager at head office to provide support such as information on insurance, DBS and safeguarding and merchandise ordering. In addition, ARTventurers is developing regional franchise leaders who can provide frontline support and coordinate local franchisees for marketing initiatives, such as attendance at baby shows and large events.
Fiona is keen that the business builds in a steady, gradual way so that quality is maintained. “There are so many classes for children. It’s a competitive market and we need to stand out from the crowd,” she says. That means investing heavily in the website so that all franchisees have their own customer-friendly site which they can control. The website includes a booking system. ARTventurers is also an accredited member of the Children’s Activities Association so it can keep up to date with latest developments in the industry.
Fiona says one of the key benefits of taking on an ARTventurers franchise is the different income streams for franchisees, from baby classes so franchisees can get parents interested in the benefits of creative play from an early age and regular classes for toddlers to family ARTventure clubs in the holidays and at weekends for toddlers and primary school-aged children.
She says getting the right franchisees on board is crucial to ARTventurers’ success. Franchisees have to be outgoing, lively and engaging if they want to run the classes, but they also need to have the drive and ambition to build a business. Several are ex-teachers who are keen to work in schools and nurseries. “A lot of people say they would love to run classes, but the business part is more and more important. Running a business is not for everyone. It can take over your life so it is a big decision,” says Fiona.
It’s a decision that has worked for her and Workingmums.co.uk’s judges agree. In awarding it the Overall Top Franchise Award, they praised its family friendly, supportive business model and said it had performed strongly across all the categories it had entered. They singled out its support for maternity leave, which was something many self employed women struggle with. “We feel other franchises could learn from the kind of engaged, flexible business model it offers,” they said.