Angela Sterling had two children under two when she started her languages franchise Lingotot, her husband was working away from home and she had no childcare.
It is fair to say that she knows the difficulties of running a business while having a young family. That experience lies at the heart of her franchise and is evident in all the training and support it offers.
It is also the reason that the franchise, which teaches languages to children from babies up to the end of primary, won this year’s Workingmums.co.uk Family Friendly Franchise Award.
Like many of her franchisees, Angela’s background is as a languages teacher, a job she absolutely adored.
That all changed when she left her job as a secondary school teacher to move to Dubai for her husband’s work and became pregnant. The family moved back home when Angela was 34 weeks pregnant. She knew she didn’t want a full-time job and that it would be hard to get a job in any event due to her pregnancy, but she didn’t want to stop teaching.
Having worked in schools she also knew that the primary curriculum was likely to change – as it did in 2014 – to include languages and that there was a general interest in getting younger children to learn to speak another language, given the view that the younger children start to do so the easier it is.
Sure Start course
So she took a Sure Start course for women who wanted to start a business when her daughter was just seven weeks old and decided to start teaching her own classes in the meantime.
She wrote a press release which got picked up by a lot of media and ended up in her local newspaper and on BBC 5Live. “I was one of the first to do language classes for babies. It went mad,” she says.
That was in 2010. Very soon Angela was struggling to keep up with demand. “I felt I couldn’t do it any more,” she says. Franchising seemed the only solution.
So several months later, with a toddler and a newborn, she put together a franchising package with an emphasis on family friendliness. “I found I was attracting people as franchisees who were in a similar position to me and had similar challenges. I had to think creatively about how we offered training and support,” says Angela.
That meant not having too many face to face meetings, although Angela says these are vital in the early days, and holding training sessions in soft play areas.
Her first two franchisees, who lived locally, joined in late 2011 on a 12-month contract because she wasn’t sure they would like Lingotot or that she would be any good as a franchisor.
She recalls having a training session in a hotel near her home and her husband bringing her children along so she could breastfeed. Her children, now aged six and seven, came to all her early classes. She says: “I used to teach classes while breastfeeding, phone customers from soft play and type emails on my phone one handed while cuddling a sick child.”
As the franchise has grown – Lingotot now has six Head Office staff and 50 franchisees operating in 63 areas – Angela has offered more and more training via webinars. Initially she used a free service, but now she has switched to a more professional paid service. There is a weekly webinar at 8pm on a Monday when young children are likely to be tucked up in bed. All are recorded so those who can’t take part are able to catch up. Lingotot now has a huge bank of videos available for new franchisees.
Any face to face meetings are kept short, but may take place over an afternoon. “We meet for an afternoon over chicken nuggets in a cafe with a soft play area, but tend to keep the meeting part to around one hour,” she says. Not all her franchisees and office staff have children, but the majority do.
Lingotot also holds an annual Family Fun Day. This year’s is at FlamingoLand.
Angela says she is very stringent in her recruitment process since Lingotot’s reputation is built on its franchisees. They have to prove they are either a native speaker of a foreign language, have a degree in the language or are graduates with a good deal of work experience that is relevant to running a business. Many are teachers who appreciate the freedom the classes offered to teach in a different style, away from the strictures of the national curriculum, says Angela.
Training is vital, she says, to identify areas where franchisees may need more support. Many of the teachers may need help to identify the transferable skills they need to run a business. Initial training is a combination of distance learning for the franchisees to complete in their own time and a very intensive training weekend, which is easier to fit around available babysitters and the school week. Lingotot complete a personalised business plan with each of the franchisees with their personal goals put at the very heart of it.
All franchisees and Head Office staff work from home. Indeed, Lingotot won Best Home-Based Business award at the North East Women’s Entrepreneur Awards in 2014 – and best small business the following year.
Angela says support is vital. She has seen the advantages of asking for help when she has needed it – she says she knew nothing about running a business at the start. “I remember asking at the Sure Start session what a sole trader was and how I got paid,” she says.
Lingotot offers franchisees access to mentors – they can book mentor slots on the intranet when they need them. They receive bi-weekly emails from Head Office. They all have an operations manual which is constantly updated and Angela has recently invested in improvements to the back end of Lingotot’s intranet to make life easier for franchisees, for instance, to allow more automation of texts and to make it simpler for franchisees to communicate. The reboot will be launched over the summer.
The support Lingotot offers extends to pregnancy. If a franchisee becomes pregnant Angela encourages them to talk through their options with Head Office. This might be asking another franchisee to run their patch for a while, having someone at Head Office to help with administration or with hiring a maternity cover teacher or putting the business on hold for a few months. There is no hard and fast rule as it depends on the franchisee.
Angela only gave up teaching last year and now focuses on managing the franchise, which has franchisees across the UK and in Ireland and Dubai. A franchisee in Wales is likely to move to the US soon too which will open up another front. Angela is currently looking for more franchisees in Europe. The number of languages franchisees cater to has extended too – it includes French, Spanish, German, Mandarin and Arabic.
Having a great team is vital as the business has grown, says Angela, and she can delegate a lot to her deputy Helen who recently stepped up from her role as education manager.
Over the past year Lingotot has had several notable achievements, including the Workingmums.co.uk award. For one, its courses have been accredited by the national awarding body the NCFE which makes it easier for franchisees and the teachers they hire to get access to head teachers.
Angela is delighted with the Workingmums.co.uk’s award and recognition of the way Lingotot puts family at the heart of its business model. On her nomination form for the award, she wrote: “I know what it’s like to start a business with a top covered in baby vomit and I love helping my franchisees navigate the choppy waters of finding that elusive work-life balance. I think we do a great job.” The Workingmums.co.uk’s judges agree.