Franchising your business for long-term success (part 1)
2007-07-05 15:21:23 -

 Founder of O’Briens Sandwich Bars, BRODY SWEENEY, continues his series on how to cope with the stresses and strains of starting a new enterprise 

‘An iron fist in a velvet glove’

In 1993, five years after starting O’Briens, we felt ready to take part in our first franchise exhibition in Dublin. If you’re trying to build a franchise network, there are a number of tried-and-tested ways of exposing your business opportunity to prospective franchisees. Along with trade-press advertising, PR and exposure through our existing network of three stores (the internet had yet to take off as a marketing medium), franchise exhibitions were considered one of the most successful mediums for attracting potential franchisees. Because Ireland is a relatively small market, only one such exhibition is held here each year, so this was an important launch pad for the business.

We had prepared long and hard for our debut in the franchising world. We had almost broken the bank getting our beautiful, glossy full-colour brochure together and had invested heavily in lawyers’ fees, getting our franchise agreements prepared and having our trademarks registered. I had personally written out our first operations manual, presenting O’Briens’ business know-how and procedures, so that new franchise partners would know the detail of how to run the business successfully. Most importantly, the retail stores themselves had begun to turn the corner and were starting to make some money, so people who were interested in buying an O’Briens franchise could see that they were getting involved with a successful business.

Our exhibition stand was a work of art. On a limited budget, we had made it look very professional by dressing it with green-and-white-coloured balloons – our corporate colours; this display had the advantage of being both cheap and visually attractive. My assistant Pauline Sexton and I were decked out in our best bib and tucker. When the doors opened at 10am sharp on the first day of the exhibition, I was nervous, but confident that we would be okay.

The actual exhibition surpassed our greatest expectations. We were mobbed. People queued four-deep to get to talk to us. Even though there were only three O’Briens stores open at that time, everybody seemed to know about us. We quickly ran out of brochures and had to send back to the office for more. I was ecstatic; even though I didn’t get a break all day, I was on Cloud Nine.

When I eventually got home that evening, tired but very happy, I became quite emotional with Lulu. Here at last was vindication for all the hard work, the sleepless nights, the stress, the financial mess we were only slowly climbing out of. I was almost in tears. I explained to Lulu what had happened that day, how busy we had been, and how we had been the most active exhibitor there. We were on our way at last.

Six months later – and it usually takes that long in franchising for an enquiry to develop into an actual sale – I analysed the results of the exhibition in terms of the number of sales we had made. It was easy to calculate: the number was a single digit – nil, zero, nothing.

These emotional highs and lows characterised our move into franchising, both at home in Ireland and in the UK. We learnt that everyone at these exhibitions was a buyer on the day but that, when reality set in, they weren’t ready for us, or us for them.

On a positive note, our experience at the exhibition injected a sense of pragmatism into our operation which has served us well. Now, when we embark on an exhibition or an advertising campaign, we make a realistic assessment of what we can do, rather than a wish list of what we would like to happen.

I have been involved in franchising for 25 years at the time of writing this, both as a master franchisee (with Prontaprint) and, latterly, as a franchisor. The more time I spend at it, the more I realise how little I really know about it. The advice below comes therefore from a self-confessed amateur who still has much to learn about getting it right.

I was very lucky to have eight years’ experience in another franchising company – Prontaprint – before I started O’Briens. Those eight years were tough, but I learnt a lot from them. My experiences at Prontaprint meant that, when it came to starting O’Briens, I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to do it – or, more importantly, how I didn’t want to do it. I set myself some simple guides which I knew, through bitter experience, would mean the difference between short-term success and long-term viability for the business.

I have seen many franchise start-ups get things spectacularly wrong after franchising only a couple of units: companies that took on the first person who showed them a chequebook, that thought franchising was a quick-fire way to make big profits, and that tried to franchise their way out of a business that was doomed. In fact, really successful franchising requires a long-term commitment to getting it right, often at the expense of the company’s profitability in the early years.

People often ask me: ‘How do you know you’re not being ripped off by your franchise partners? How do you keep the standards up?’ I answer that if you get the right people as franchisees, you won’t have to worry unduly about these things.

Next week: Franchising your business for long-term success continued

n Taken from Making Bread – The Real Way To Start Up and Stay Up in Business by Brody Sweeney, published by Liberties Press – buy at and get a 10 per cent discount
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