Think being a franchise owner is like living in a universe where creativity is punished by an omni-present being watching your every move? You're wrong. Every day, there's a franchise owner who's bucking to become the next Picasso. But there's one central theme in being creative with a franchise: You don't reinvent the wheel. You try to make it better.
Take Greg Hund, who opened his New York City-based Mail Boxes Etc. six years ago, and with more than $1 million annually in sales, has turned it into one of the five top-selling stores in the chain. Hund, 37, invented the Virtual Doorman.
For a $10-per-box delivery fee, Hund's store--and now other New York Mail Boxes Etc. locations--accepts anything from dry cleaning to flower arrangements to parcel packages. The service allows residents of apartment buildings without doormen to receive deliveries safely.
"I came up with the idea during the Mail Boxes Etc. training program," says Hund. "I ran it by my area developer, and he was enthusiastic. If a project makes sense, they aren't going to have a problem with it. But I don't think they'd want me selling soup and salad from the back room."
"There's innovation that explores new territory, and then there's innovation that rocks the system," says T. Scott Gross, former franchise owner of a Church's Chicken and author of Positively Outrageous Service (Warner Books). "One is good, and one is not good. No matter how you do it, the last thing a franchisor wants is a surprise."
Well, that's a matter for debate. Bill Rosenberg, founder of the International Franchise Association and Dunkin' Donuts, insists that if a franchise owner wants to experiment, "try it and see what happens. If it works, we'll try it in the system."
But Russ Cooper, senior vice president and general manager of franchising at GNC, would prefer to know what the company's franchisees are doing beforehand. If nothing else, he believes it strengthens the relationship when franchisees are upfront about what they want to experiment with. For example, franchisee Michael Taylor brought the idea of a smoothie bar to GNC and, Cooper says, "It's been an outstanding partnership."
As long as an idea fits with a system's vision, innovation can work even at giant franchises. Three different franchisees came up with the Big Mac, Egg McMuffin and Filet-O-Fish. And not all McDonald's establishments look alike. In Orlando, Florida, franchise owner Gary Oerther owns what is billed as "The World's Largest Entertainment McDonald's," which caters to families by boasting a 15,000-square-foot playground, a video game arcade and a pizzeria.
Always About the Customer
Taylor, 40, says he came up with his idea because he looks at his store from the customer's perspective and asks, "How can I make this store special?"
Cooper, who has rejected other franchisee ideas such as selling athletic shoes, says Taylor's idea was appealing because "the smoothie industry is a $1.2 billion industry, but there's no real leader."
He expects 500 to 1,000 stores will eventually have smoothie bars, and GNC is now aiming to open stand-alone smoothie bars, selling blended drinks and 100 of the company's top-selling supplements. "I tell Michael that our company can never repay him," Cooper says, "to which he responds, 'Oh, yes, you can.' "
In a way, GNC has. Besides owning three stores in Tuscaloosa and Northport, Alabama, which collectively earn $1.4 million a year, Taylor acts as a consultant, helping GNC make its bid at ruling the smoothie market.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.