Christine Kelly’s franchise Little Kickers has spread across the world and she has just won a prestigious award recognising her success in business.
When Christine Kelly set up toddler football classes for her son back in 2002 little did she know that that would be the start of a multinational franchise business spanning over 34 countries. Her success has led to her winning a 2020 NatWest everywoman Award in the Aphrodite category for women who found their business whilst raising a child/children aged 12 or under.
Christine’s background is in finance. After her son was born she returned to her job full time and found it exhausting. She moved jobs to get a better work life balance, but her new job was in risk management at Enron. It was four months before the company went under.
In the next months Christine spent a lot of time with her son. He liked football so she looked around for a class where he could learn some skills. There wasn’t anything for very young children at the time. So, having always been interested in business ideas, Christine decided to set up a class herself so her son would have someone to learn with. She did one pilot which was oversubscribed. Talking to the parents, she asked if they might be interested in a 12-week programme. All of them said yes. Christine started to think that there were the seeds of a viable business. The more she researched the idea, for instance, how it could be linked to toddler health programmes, the more it made business sense. Little Kickers offers football classes to children aged 18 months to seven years and demand took off fast.
It was only when Christine was looking to grow her business after getting enquiries from across the country that she started investigating franchising. The business’ rapid growth meant she was in danger of losing her hard-won work life balance and she was keen to maintain the quality of the business while expanding. Franchising seemed a good solution and also meant she could offer other mums the opportunity to run a business and get some much needed work life balance.
Christine offered discounted rates for her first franchisees as she was still learning the ropes after running the business for a year beforehand to show that it was a solid proposition. “It was fantastic to have them as sounding boards,” she says. Those first franchisees are still with her today and have played a crucial role in encouraging others to get on board through speaking to them about their experiences. “Those first franchisees are critical,” says Christine. “Talking to them often closes the deal for those considering becoming a franchisee.”
The first franchise was launched in 2004 and by the end of the year Christine had sold 25 more. In 2005 the first franchise outside the UK, in Ireland, was sold. The following year South Africa joined the Little Kickers empire.
Most of the franchisees have come through word of mouth or friends. Master franchisees who control a particular location, such as South Africa where there is now a network of around 30 franchisees, have to do a six-month pilot. Christine says the master franchisee knows better how things are run in their patch, what the regulations are and what will work. In Brazil, for instance, Little Kickers has teamed up with Cambridge University to offer English skills alongside football. In China, where many parents put an emphasis on academic development, Little Kickers had first to change perceptions about the importance of sport for young children. They developed a badge programme where children get recognition for the skills they learn, such as confidence and team working. “It’s really important to show the skills they are learning through imagination-based play,” says Christine.
In 2018 she took on a CEO and is now Chair of the organisation. That means she can focus on vision and strategy rather than the day to day running of the business. For instance, during Covid she has been working with The School Food People to provide Christmas hampers for families who have been hard hit by the pandemic. Franchisees will be going into schools to hand hampers out. Little Kickers also provided free online courses during lockdown to build a sense of goodwill. Christine’s son Lucas, who is now 20, did the coaching, Christine dressed up as a lion and her daughter did the filming in their back garden. Other Little Kicker coaches produced videos too.
Christine says the biggest challenge she has faced in her business career is imposter syndrome. She didn’t expect the success she had or think she deserved it. Over the years, however, she has realised that she is doing just as good a job as anyone else. Now she mentors others and says she is really enjoying it. Her hard work is also being recognised externally.
She is really honoured to have won the Aphrodite award. Firstly, because about half of Little Kickers franchisees are women and many have children. “It’s a huge honour to be considered for an award that recognises women entrepreneurs and whose message is that women can run businesses as well or better than men,” she says. “One in three entrepreneurs is female. We really need to see more.”