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2017 is a milestone for Kathy Doolan – it’s the year she celebrates the 21st anniversary of her business which started as music and singing classes for young children and is now a franchise with nearly 40 businesses across the country – most of them run by mums.
Kathy was head of music at a school in Glasgow, but had always wanted to run her own business. “I didn’t like being tied to one place,” she says.
It was when she moved to New Zealand, where she had her daughter, that she got the inspiration for what would become the Rhythm Time franchise. She took her daughter to music and singing classes and was impressed by how it helped her development.
When she moved back to Berkshire she decided she didn’t want to return to teaching in a school. She wanted to run a business and do something she was really passionate about – not just something musical, but a business that could make a difference in people’s lives.
She started writing her own programme and hired a church hall to deliver her classes in the family then moved to the US where she continued her research. By the time she moved back to the UK and with two young children in tow, she started her classes in Solihull. That business is still going today as a thriving franchise. In fact Kathy was still running it while franchising until three years ago.
She says she had had franchising at the back of her mind, but launched sooner than anticipated when one of her first employees moved to Cheshire in 2000 and asked if she could buy a franchise. Kathy put together a manual and training programme and the Cheshire franchisee is still running her business, which caters to 1,500 children, including Coleen Rooney’s three sons. Meanwhile, Kathy now has a national network of 38 franchises across the UK and Ireland.
The franchise grew organically through word of mouth, initially in the Birmingham and Chester areas. Kathy didn’t do a lot of marketing at first as she wanted a steady, slow growth while she was still managing the Solihull business.
She says the biggest challenge in developing the franchise has been learning to delegate, finding the right employees and franchisees while keeping them motivated. That means engaging and listening to franchisees to see what improvements they would like. Kathy travels around to visit franchisees and runs regular, ongoing training sessions.
Childcare and elder care
She says it has also been difficult growing the business while looking after her own children. Her husband was often away working and there was no family nearby. In the early days, when her children were little she would pick the children up from school and then go back to work at 9pm when they were in bed. Technology has made a big difference, she says. Her husband now works with Rhythm Time and built its administrative and booking system which made life much easier. Nevertheless, Kathy is keen to retain the personal touch and still speaks to parents and franchisees on the phone rather than sending texts or emails. She is a big believer in the power of determination. She says: “If you enjoy what you do and are organised and determined you can do anything.”
That was particularly the case when her parents got ill. “That was the hardest time. People need to know that when their parents become elderly it can be a real challenge. For me this was more difficult than running a business and having small children,” she says. Kathy had to fly regularly to Aberdeen to see them and says without her husband’s support and the support of her team at Rhythm Time she would not have been able to keep everything going.
The personal touch is very important to Kathy and she meets all potential franchisees and does a presentation about how the business works. She advises potential franchisees to bring a friend or relative with them to the meeting as two heads are better than one. Franchisees need to be able to sing in tune and have a level of musicality. They also have to like children, want to run their own business and have the financial backing to get started. They see classes and are introduced to other franchisees and Kathy also takes up references.
Next comes the legal part – signing up for the franchise agreement. Franchises cost £7,500 plus VAT. Then Kathy works with the franchisee on a business plan. Training lasts three days [these don’t have to be consecutive] and there is ongoing face to face and on site training three times a year. All lessons plans are on video and there is support available 24/7. Support calls can be done in the evenings and at weekends to accommodate the fact that many franchisees are mums with young children. Several have had children after becoming franchisees and Rhythm Time provides advice on how they can handle that, for instance, by getting class leaders to take their classes. The franchise HQ can also help out with covering administrative work.
Kathy says it can be difficult to be sure you have the right person to run the franchise and admits she has misjudged this in the past. She adds that people can be nervous about buying a franchise, even though the well known brand and the support they offer makes it much more likely such businesses will succeed compared with someone just starting up on their own.
Kathy’s target is to hit 50 franchises and she has recently taking on a training manager. Now that she has stepped down from the Solihull business, she is also focusing more on the business’ strategic development and has been creating partnerships with organisations such as the Strings Club and will soon be starting classes at the London College of Music.
The franchise has won and been a finalist in many awards and, having worked with over 200,0000 children since her business opened its doors in 1995, Kathy is looking to celebrate her achievements and continue to drive the business forward.
She says: “I am so proud of our franchise family and have been overwhelmed by their support, enthusiasm and ongoing success. To nurture young children’s musical development is an honour, and I hope that families in the UK continue to enjoy attending our classes for another 21 years to come!”