Franchise Players is Entrepreneur’s Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email ktaylor@entrepreneur.com.

After more than 20 years as an executive in the pharmaceutical industry, Melanie Kittrell wanted to own her own business. With a simple and well-loved product, Doc Popcorn was the perfect way for her to do precisely that. Today, Kittrell owns four Doc Popcorn locations and plans to open six more. With only three years of business experience under her belt, Kittrell is just getting started.

Name: Melanie Kittrell, Ph.D.

Franchise owned (location): Four Doc Popcorn locations (three PopKiosks and one mobile PopCart) in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

How long have you owned the franchise?

Almost three years.

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Why franchising?  

More turnkey operation, established brand, training and ongoing support, etc.

What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?

Mid-level executive in the commercial area of a very large pharmaceutical company. No small business experience.

Why did you choose this particular franchise?

Simple product, simple operation, easy to learn and operate. Low labor requirements. A good “starter” business for someone like me without small business experience. Enjoy bringing a good-tasting relatively healthy snack to the shopping public. Enjoy employing and mentoring young people who are my employees.

How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?

About $225,000 total before my first PopKiosk unit opened, which included the $59,500 franchisee fee to open up to 10 units.

  • About $160,000 each for the other three PopKiosk units I opened [one of Kittrell's PopKiosks has since shut down]
  • About $25,000 for the mobile PopCart. 

First unit breakdown:

  • Franchise Fee—Empire Builder level (for up to 10 units for 10 years): $59,500
  • Real Estate Fee: $10,000
  • Kiosk and all Equipment: `$85,000
  • Construction, Permitting, Security System and Installation: approximately $20,000
  • Electrical upgrades: approximately 18,500
  • Opening Supplies, Storeroom Set-up and Smallwares: approximately $20,000
  • Professional Service fees (Accounting, legal, architects): approximately $5,000
  • Insurance: approximately $5,000
  • Miscellaneous: approximately $2,000

Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?

1. Online research, such as Entrepreneur.com and other sites about franchising in general. Also, I used a franchise broker from The Entrepreneur Source to look at a variety of franchise options

2. I called all existing franchisees to get their perspectives. There were not a lot of them at the time I joined, but I called them all.

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What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?

1. The Unknown, Unknowns in getting up and running. Opening a business is very complex. There are lots of moving parts and critical dependencies you don’t control. So I had to stay on top of everything and push hard and find win-win solutions for a multitude of obstacles that popped up every day.

2. Finding and keeping good employees was harder than I realized. Turnover rates in retail are high. We are lucky to have 3-4 months of stability in any one location, so we are constantly looking, hiring and training.

What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?

1.Take your time and do your homework! THIS IS CRITICAL!

  • Really stop to consider what kind of lifestyle you want to lead and then find businesses consistent with that. Then find the exact product or service. Maybe spend some time with an actual franchisee and participate in a “day in the life” kind of experience. Retailing is tough. Maybe B2B services is a better fit? Think about it.
  • Call and speak with a large number of existing franchisees that are positive about their experience and those that have less positive things to say or who even might have left the system for various reasons. You need to hear a BROAD range of opinions to get a full picture so don’t rush this step. 
  • Understand how your franchisor makes their money: Off of royalties?  Or also off your supply purchases and other fees they put on their franchisees?  Are they incented to help you be profitable or do they get all their money out of you upfront?   Are you clear about their financial model and how it impacts you?  Are you ok with that?
  • Understand the numbers. Determine what your financial goals are and which franchise is most consistent with helping you achieve them. How much will your initial investment be? How much operating capital will you also need? How long before you may be profitable? What are the major cost-components of this business? What is a typical 1-year operating P&L for this business? Be overly conservative in your revenue projections and profitability estimates.

2. Expect the unexpected and have additional funds and time built into your plans. Accommodate the inevitable surprises or delays that can happen.

3. Keep your sense of humor, be flexible, opportunistic and resilient. Everything will not go according to your plans all the time, but sometimes new options or opportunities will come along and present even better possibilities. You have to not get too stressed by every set-back. Keep plugging away and trying new things to see what works best.

4. Be realistic and patient!  It takes time to grow and build a business, especially if you chose one that is new to the general public. Remember that creating a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint. Plus, it takes time to understand your local business climate, local supply options and competitors, etc. You will gain experience over time that will be invaluable but you won’t necessarily hit the ball out of the park your first time at bat.

What’s next for you and your business?

Continuing to work on expanding and growing my business through:

1. Finding alternative venues to malls.  Malls have their place but also their limitations. Many other options exist like military bases, universities, hospitals, shopping centers, transportation hubs or events, etc. There are lots of possibilities that I am just starting to explore.

2. Develop a stronger, more vibrant wholesaling business with caterers, party planners, fund-raisers, schools, corporate gifters, etc. Popcorn is loved by many. I just need to find more ways to get my delicious popcorn into more hands!

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