Franchise Players: One Woman's Long Journey to Become a Sylvan Learning Center Franchisee

Franchise Players: One Woman's Long Journey to Become a Sylvan Learning Center Franchisee
Image credit: Hillary Malone Tilton
Hillary Malone Tilton and her husband, franchisees of 13 Sylvan Learning Center

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Franchise Players is Entrepreneur’s Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. This week, we’re getting a head start on Women’s History Month early, profiling female franchisees that everyone can learn from. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email

For Hillary Malone Tilton, Sylvan Learning Center is more than a business. Tilton’s long history began as a child, when she was a student at the learning center and her mother was the first franchisee in the state of Michigan. Since then, Tilton has been a tutor, a franchisee and is now a multi-unit franchisee. Here’s what she’s learned on her long journey in the franchise.

Name:  Hillary Malone Tilton

Franchise owned: Sylvan Learning of West Michigan & Minneapolis, 13 locations.

How long you have owned the franchise?

Sylvan Learning of West Michigan has been family owned & operated since 1985. My husband and I purchased Sylvan Learning of Minneapolis in November 2013. 

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Why franchising? 

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Owning your own business provides a certain level of independence. Franchises can provide support and experience so that even when you open a business, you are not starting from scratch. A franchise brings brand recognition, advertising and marketing opportunities, operations support, research, and product development to your business. When you join an established franchise, you can focus on certain important aspects of the business and don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” in everything. The support I receive as a Sylvan franchisee has allowed me to focus on reaching more students and the overall growth of the business.       

What were you doing before you became a franchise owner? 

Before joining Sylvan, I worked as an elementary resource room teacher at a charter school. In college, I studied both Education and Business. My studies were a great foundation for being in the Business of Education. 

Why did you choose this particular franchise? 

I was naturally drawn to Sylvan by the educational service it provides and its strong business model. Having grown up with Sylvan as the family business, I witnessed the positive effect Sylvan’s programs have on students of all ages. Sylvan’s mission has always resonated with me.  Sylvan creates life-long learners, and inspires students. I wanted to help students and families reach their educational goals. Additionally, I have a business mind and wanted a company that has a good business model and opportunities for growth. Sylvan met all of my requirements and has proven to be a great choice. 

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

The cost of opening a Sylvan Learning Center can range from $151,000 – $268,000, depending on the size of the territory and start-up costs for your retail location.

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

With nearly 30 years in the business, my parents have provided ample guidance and advice over the years. In addition, the Sylvan franchisee system brings a community of business leaders who are always willing to listen, guide, and provide feedback to other owners. I regularly attend Sylvan franchisee conferences and have developed a network of other franchisees to contact when I have questions. I believe that having a strong peer group is important and has helped my business grow.   

What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise? 

When we purchased the six Minneapolis centers, we doubled the size of our business overnight, with half our centers being several states away. The opportunity to purchase the centers was unexpected. We learned that the centers were for sale two weeks before our wedding and the process moved quickly. We were nervous about expanding to a new region; however, Minneapolis is my husband’s hometown and the expansion made sense. Aside from our personal interest in the area, Minneapolis is a strong market and we’re excited about the challenge and opportunity expanding will bring. Sometimes you just have to make the leap when an opportunity presents itself – and we did!

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

Owning your own franchise is like owning any business. It is a rewarding experience, but you have to be dedicated, and invest your energy in it every day. It really isn’t a job – but a lifestyle.    

What’s next for you and your business? 

With 13 centers currently under our ownership, we are committed to increasing our enrollments and community involvement at those locations. That being said, Sylvan has undergone a digital makeover, and is now more portable than ever. We’ll continue to work with schools and other community organizations to bring Sylvan out of our traditional bricks-and-mortar locations to convenient locations across our territories. Sylvan can go wherever we are needed. That flexibility brings new business opportunities and a convenience factor unlike ever before.   

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