If buying an existing business doesn't sound right for you, but starting from scratch sounds a bit intimidating, you could be suited for franchise ownership. What is a franchise--and how do you know if you're right for one? Essentially, a franchisee pays an initial fee and ongoing royalties to a franchisor. In return, the franchisee gains the use of a trademark, ongoing support from the franchisor, and the right to use the franchisor's system of doing business and sell its products or services.

In addition to a well-known brand name, buying a franchise offers many other advantages that aren't available to the entrepreneur starting a business from scratch. Perhaps the most significant is that you get a proven system of operation and training in how to use it. New franchisees can avoid a lot of the mistakes start-up entrepreneurs typically make because the franchisor has already perfected daily operations through trial and error.

Reputable franchisors conduct market research before selling a new outlet, so you'll feel greater confidence that there is a demand for the product or service. Failing to do adequate market research is one of the biggest mistakes independent entrepreneurs typically make; as a franchisee, it's done for you. The franchisor also provides you a clear picture of the competition and how to differentiate yourself from them.

Finally, franchisees enjoy the benefit of strength in numbers. You'll gain from economics of scale in buying materials, supplies and services, such as advertising, as well as in negotiating for locations and lease terms. By comparison, independent operators have to negotiate on their own, usually getting less favorable terms. Some suppliers won't deal with new businesses or will reject your business because your account isn't big enough.

Franchise or Business Opportunity?

Business opportunities are less structured than franchises, so the definition of what constitutes a business opportunity isn't easy to pin down. In essence, a business opportunity is any package of goods or services that enables the purchaser to begin a business and in which the seller represents that it will provide a marketing or sales plan, that a market exists for the product or service, and that the venture will be profitable.

Here are other key factors:

  • A business opportunity doesn't generally feature the seller's trademark; buyers operate under his or her own name.
  • Business opportunities tend to be less expensive than franchises and generally don't charge ongoing royalty fees.
  • Business opportunities allow buyers to proceed with no restrictions as to geographic market and operations.
  • Most business opportunity ventures have no continuing supportive relationship between the seller and the buyer; after the initial package is sold, buyers are on their own.

Find more information on the differences between franchises, business opportunities, MLM programs and licensing agreements in the following articles:

The Pros

The greatest strength of franchising is its ability to bring independent retailers together using a single trademark and business concept. The benefits of this affiliation are many: brand awareness, uniformity in meeting customer expectations, the power of pooled advertising and the efficiencies of group purchasing.

For the individual owner, there are several advantages to franchising. The ever-present risk of business failure is reduced when the business program has already proved to be successful in the marketplace; the use of an established trademark saves the business owner the cost of creating and advertising a name that customers will recognize; and the advantages of group advertising and purchasing make operations more profitable. In addition, ongoing training creates an instant operational expertise that would otherwise need to be acquired through trial and error. Also, with franchising, expansion seems to come more naturally. Operating a successful franchise may quickly lead to building a second and then a third business, and so on. Fortunes have been built this way.

The Benefits

  • Reduction of risk
  • Turnkey operation
  • Standardized products and systems
  • Standardized financial and accounting systems
  • Collective buying power
  • Supervision and consulting readily available
  • National and local advertising programs
  • Point-of-sale advertising
  • Uniform packaging
  • Ongoing research and development
  • Financial assistance
  • Site selection guidance
  • Operations manual provided
  • Sales and marketing assistance

The Cons

Franchising, however, is not for everyone. Fiercely independent entrepreneurial types (you know who you are) may chafe under the strict operational requirements and specifications of a franchised business. If things have to be done your way, you may want to head in another direction.

Also know that some franchise systems are better than others. A weak franchise program will not train you well to handle the challenges of the business, will not do a good job of assisting you when problems arise, and will not make the best use of your advertising dollars.

The Downside

  • Loss of control
  • A binding contract
  • The franchisor's problems are also your problems

If you're considering buying a franchise, don't let wild expectations influence your decision. While franchising is designed to put people into business who have never owned a business before, the excitement of ownership can create an impulse to move forward without proper planning. If you rush headlong into buying a franchise expecting to boost your current working salary, but the earnings don't allow you to pull out more than half your former salary, you will be one unhappy camper. Work with a good CPA to prepare a cash-flow projection for the business before you take the plunge. Know how long it will take to break even and turn a profit, as well as the amount of salary you'll realistically be able to pay yourself.

Associated Costs

In terms of capital investment, your franchise fee will be determined by the profitability of the business. Most companies have a scale when it comes to franchise fees. They can have varying ranges, anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000+, depending on the size of the system. In addition to this front-end franchise fee--the one-time charge that a franchisor assesses you for the privilege of using the business concept, attending their training program, and learning the entire business-there will also be an ongoing royalty fee, typically ranging from 2 to 10 percent, or a monthly figure.

Some of the other costs associated with a franchise include:

Facility/Location
In some cases, you may also have to buy land or a building, or you may have to rent a building. If you rent a building, you'll be responsible for not only the monthly lease but for the one-time security deposit as well. In addition, you'll have to pay for leasehold improvements. In some cases, the owner of the building will put these in and factor them into your rental, probably charging you a small additional fee. The franchisor might provide you with an allowance for leasehold improvements that runs in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $35,000 for your average franchise. Most franchisors will tell you what their estimated leasehold improvements will be.

Equipment
Different types of businesses will need various pieces of equipment. There are generally long-term payments available for most equipment purchases. Fortunately, most banks will provide loans for equipment because it also serves as collateral.

Signs
Outside signage can be very expensive for the small-business owner. Most franchisors have developed a sign package that the franchisee is obligated to purchase.

Opening Inventory
This will usually consist of at least a two-week supply, unless you're in a business that requires a much more complicated inventory. Most franchisors will tell you what their opening inventory requirements are.

Working Capital
For rent, you may be required to deposit first and last months' payments as well as a security fee. You'll also have to pay a deposit to the electric, gas and telephone companies (who will want deposits prior to giving you service). You'll need some working capital and money in the cash drawer to make change. You'll need money to pay your employees. You'll need money just to operate until there's a cash flow. If you're buying a franchise that relies on charge accounts, you're going to have to allow yourself some additional capital before the bills are paid by the customers and returned to you.

Advertising Fees
There is usually a fee for advertising on a regional or national basis. Most larger franchisors require their franchisees to pay a certain amount into a national fund used to advance the concept. The upside is the benefits are quite substantial in terms of the visibility you get with the type of advertising that most franchisors do.

Franchise Law

An important protection for the person planning to buy a franchise is the FTC's Franchise Rule, put into effect October 21, 1979. The rule requires covered franchisors to supply a full disclosure of the information a prospective franchisee needs in order to make a rational decision about whether or not to invest. This disclosure must take place at the first personal contact where the subject of buying a franchise is discussed and at least 10 business days prior to signing any contract with the franchisee or accepting any money. This is a "cooling-off' period intended to prevent franchisees from jumping in without carefully reviewing and considering what they're doing.

This means a franchisor, franchise broker or anyone else representing franchises for sale has to present a disclosure document-the Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD)-containing extensive information about the franchise. Furthermore, you must be provided with completed contracts covering all material points at least five days prior to the actual date of execution of the documents. Again, this provides another cooling-off period and the chance to have an attorney review the contracts prior to execution.

Visit the FTC's Franchise and Business website to find out more about the Franchise Rule.

State Laws

The FTC doesn't require franchisors or business opportunity sellers to register with it or any other government agency. However, several states do have registration rules requiring franchise sellers to register. Some of these states laws are tougher than others, but most have adopted the FDD guidelines for their disclosure requirements.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that simply because a franchise is registered with a state or provides some type of full disclosure document, you as a consumer are going to be protected from the possibility of failure or rip-off. The only thing that a state reviewing agency can do is ensure that the franchisor has responded and filed the necessary documents.

Franchise Registration States

These 15 states require a franchisor to register its UFOC and maintain a registration with the state agency indicated. If the company is authorized to sell franchises in one of these states, the company will be registered with the agencies listed here. Two of these 15 states do not require a filing of offering circulars, as noted below.
StateAgencyTelephone Number
CaliforniaDepartment of Corporations(916) 445-7205
HawaiiDepartment of Commerce, Franchise & Securities Division(808) 586-2722
IllinoisAttorney General's Office, Franchise Division(217) 782-4465
IndianaSecretary of State Office, Franchise Division(317) 232-6681
MarylandAttorney General's Office, Securities Division(410) 576-6360

Michigan (notice req'd)

Attorney General's Office, Consumer Protection Division, Franchise Section(517) 373-7117
MinnesotaMinnesota Department of Commerce, Franchise Division(651) 296-6328
New YorkDepartment of Law, Franchise & Securities Division(212) 416-8211
North DakotaOffice of the Securities Commissioner, Franchise Division

(701) 328-2910

Oregon (filing not req'd)

Rhode Island

Division of Securities, Dept. of Insurance and Finance

Division of Securities, Franchise Office

(503) 378-4387

(401) 222-3048

South DakotaDivision of Securities, Franchise Office(605) 773-4013
VirginiaState Corporation Commission, Franchise Office(804) 371-9276
WashingtonDepartment of Financial Institutions, Securities Division(360) 902-8760
WisconsinWisconsin Securities Commission, Franchise Office(608) 266-3364

Source: The Small Business Encyclopedia, Start Your Own Business, Entrepreneur magazine and Entrepreneur's StartUps magazine.


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