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The Golden Ticket

Can a franchise hold the key to your dreams? Meet 3 people who took a chance on franchising and changed their lives.
January 1, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/81712

When life throws you a curveball, you can either step aside or attempt to hit it straight on. Here's an inside look at two people who took aim and were able to find success even when faced with life's most challenging adversities, and another who managed to dodge the ball completely. Their stories are unique, yet one common thread runs throughout: For all of them, salvation came in the form of a franchise. Read on to find out how these franchisees were able to find hope and help through franchising.

Life After a Layoff
Sometimes it takes getting laid off from a job to realize what truly matters in life. At the age of 40, Ythan Lax is doing handstands and cartwheels--literally--but it wasn't so long ago that he was struggling. Having devoted 18 years to various marketing and PR jobs, his final payoff was being laid off in 2002. He was faced with the daunting task of finding another job when the job market for his industry was at an all-time low. That year was filled with dead-end interviews, as one company after another decided they didn't have a position to offer Lax after all. He attempted to start his own business, but found he lacked the direction to strike out on his own. His year of searching and having to rely on his wife's teaching salary was taking its toll. "I was getting very depressed," recalls Lax. "For me, that's a very noticeable change in my personality. I'm always up, always in a good mood. I see the bright side of just about everything."

So when his sister suggested purchasing a franchise from The Little Gym, which is focused on developing children's motor skills, Lax considered it even though he knew little about franchising and nothing about gymnastics. Armed with an endless list of questions, he and his wife, Beth, 37, met with the franchisor, spoke with several franchisees and researched the business before making the ultimate decision to invest their life savings and put their house against a loan. And when they gambled it all and purchased the Perinton, New York, territory in March 2004, the only question that remained was whether Lax would enjoy working with kids.

The couple opened the doors to their franchise on October 25, 2004, and in doing so, unexpectedly opened a door to Lax's soul. "I [had] never realized that I'm one of those people who just can't get enough of kids," says Lax. "They're wonderful and imaginative, and there is nothing more gratifying than putting a smile on a child's face and seeing a look of happiness on the parent's face, knowing you've done something for their child." Lax prides himself on personally knowing all 465 children enrolled in the program at his franchise. Lax and his eight employees take turns teaching some of the 39 classes they hold each week. Says Lax, "Is my life so bad? I wake up in the morning, I put on a pair of shorts, I walk around barefoot, and I play with children all day."

The franchise generated several thousand dollars of operating profit in the first year, though the Laxes had expected a loss of about $17,000. The couple recently purchased a second territory in Greece, New York, which they expect to open this spring, and Lax is upbeat again. "A lot of people ask me why I wanted to be in business for myself," says Lax. "It wasn't necessarily money motivation or the fact that I wanted to be the boss. The truth of the matter is, I wanted, for the first time in my life, to have control of my life--to know that if I failed, it would be my own fault, and if I succeeded, the credit was mine. That's something this franchise gave me: the true feeling that my life is my own."

Going Solo

Pam Brown, 41, tells her story just like it is. There's nothing glamorous about it, she says. She's just a single parent trying to survive. Three years ago, she was confronted with a major life challenge when her marriage of 15 years came to an end, making her a single mother to three children: Janelle, 21, Gatlin, 15, and Savanna, 12. With the divorce came a need to drastically change the way she had been living her life. Instead of being able to stay at home with her children, she was forced to re-enter the work force and face the pressure of securing a brand-new future for herself and her children. "A lot of women aren't taught about the stability of a 401(k), retirement and building for themselves," she says. "And you don't expect to get divorced after 15, 20, 25 years."

Following the divorce, Brown went back to work as a visual merchandiser but felt limited by the lifestyle her job afforded her. Financially, it was not enough to get ahead, and as the mother of three, she needed to have a flexible schedule and wanted something in which she could involve her family. Two years later, another opportunity presented itself, and she embraced it. A friend who knew about her situation introduced her to the CEO of Snappy Auctions, an eBay consignment outlet/drop-off store. Brown had limited knowledge about eBay, but being part of a franchise system appealed to her. Says Brown, "When you're a single parent, your time is mainly focused on trying to make a living and take care of your kids, so to be able to go out and start a business from scratch on your own is very difficult."

Researching the franchise, Brown determined that the concept was stable and the potential for growth was great. She also believed the franchise would provide her with the support she needed. So after discussing her decision with her children and preparing them for the long hours sure to come in the startup stage, she celebrated the opening of her Hendersonville, Tennessee, franchise in November 2004. She was leaving behind health insurance benefits and a stable paycheck, but she was taking her first step toward true independence and a better future for her children. "I just jumped," says Brown. "There were times when I really prayed. I said, 'Lord, I'm jumping off the cliff, and I hope you're at the bottom to catch me.' What else are you going to do except try?"

Someone was listening. Brown's franchise brought in over $300,000 in sales in its first year. But the true rewards for her leap of faith are her freedom to set her own schedule and involve her children--Janelle works full time in the business--as well as the opportunity to be a role model to her children. Brown is confident that by providing them with an upfront view of what it's like to raise a family and own a business, her children will be better equipped to make the right decisions when facing their own crossroads in life. And she is especially proud of the example she can set for her daughters. "You always see the father in the traditional role as breadwinner," she says. "It helps them see how strong a female can be."

A Slice of Life

Ask any college graduate what the future holds, and you'll find that a lot of them have no clue. Sure, they may have mastered the rigors of academic life, but when faced with the daunting challenge of finding their path in the real world, they are helplessly lost. Yet if you had asked Jason Shifflett that question when he graduated seven years ago, he wouldn't have even hesitated. Thanks to a franchise, he had already found his way--his response would have immediately and adamantly been "pizza."

At the age of 22, Shifflett became the proud owner of his first Domino's Pizza franchise in Olive Branch, Mississippi, and he was confident in his potential for success. After all, he had been absorbing everything he could regarding the Domino's Pizza system ever since he started answering phones there at the age of 14. With hard work and dedication, he had worked his way up to assistant manager, a position that he continued to hold even after he left for college. And at 19, when he was presented with the challenge of managing a struggling Domino's Pizza store, he had such a good handle on the system that he didn't even flinch. In less than a year, he was able to turn the store around and triple its sales. He strengthened his track record by repeating the success with a second store. Domino's Pizza branches were thriving under his leadership, and Shifflett had found his niche in life before he even had to look. Says Shifflett, "When you have 30 to 40 team members working with you, and you have the rush of selling pizzas and getting them out the door, it gets in your veins, and you become passionate about it."

Now, at the age of 29, Shifflett has become a powerful presence in the pizza world. He owns seven Domino's Pizza franchises (three in Mississippi and four in Tennessee), his 2006 projected sales are in the seven figures, and he has received numerous prestigious awards, including Domino's Gold Franny Award, given to the top 1 percent of all Domino's Pizza franchisees worldwide. Shifflett is on a roll, and he's nowhere close to slowing down. In less than five years, he expects to grow his empire to 20 Domino's franchises. And he has never had to convince others of his potential despite his age. "Talk is cheap, but when people start seeing action and results, that speaks volumes," says Shifflett. "I haven't been a guy who talks a lot. I have just shown people what can happen."

So how did Shifflett find success at such an early age? He doesn't credit it to his intelligence, his entrepreneurial spirit or his youthful energy. He credits it to a 45-year-old company that allowed him to spread his wings and fly. "[The Domino's Pizza system] is easily reproducible, but it's also easy to master," says Shifflett. "It's kind of like an athlete training for an Olympic sport--when you do the same thing over and over again with passion, energy and dedication, you get really good at it."

Perfect Match
Finding the right franchise can make a world of difference.

For Ythan Lax, Pam Brown and Jason Shifflett, franchising offered a solution just when they needed it most. But as each of them will attest, it takes more than just signing up with a franchise system to find success. Their stories are great because they found the right franchises for them. So how do you follow suit and find the same success? We asked Michael H. Seid, managing director of Michael H. Seid & Associates, a West Hartford, Connecticut-based management consulting firm specializing in the franchise industry, to give some pointers on how to narrow down the choices. Here are some tips that will set you on the right path to finding the perfect match: