Road to Ambition

What's it really like to buy a franchise? Read part one of our ongoing series following one couple's exciting trek to entrepreneurial success.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the February 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

With all requisite apologies to songwriter John Mellencamp, this is a little ditty about Jack and Diane--two American kids growin' up in the Heartland. Jack wants to be a franchise star--Diane will keep her job so he can change oil in cars. Yes, there are millions of franchise stories in the naked city. This is just one. Reality TV has transcended its boundaries, and now we'll deliver the play-by-play of what it takes to investigate, purchase, open and run a franchised business. Step right up, folks, and feel their pain.

The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but the hopes and dreams of the franchisees we're following for this column, Jack and Diane, are no different from the hundreds of other franchisees I have worked with in my 14 years as a franchise attorney/consultant. Believe me, they're just like you: chasing the American dream of financial independence armed only with limited resources and the gumption to persevere. Indulge yourself as we unpeel the onion over the next few months and examine what happens to Jack and Diane--in franchise land. We don't know where this trip will go, but please put your chair in the full and upright position, because Jack and Diane are going to encounter a little turbulence.

Paying Their Dues
Jack and Diane are both college grads in their early 40s who have spent years working for corporate America. Jack is a marketing and sales guy who is extremely outgoing and routinely calls on small businesses to sell advertising media. Every day of his "real job," Jack can see the prosperity that comes from owning a business, and like a burr in the saddle, it hurts him to work for someone else. Diane, on the other hand, is conservative by nature and prefers the solid foundation of her substantial duties in software and computer systems consulting for one of the nation's larger consulting firms. The couple is very well-spoken, intelligent and hard-working. They've built what it takes to be entrepreneurs, but it's Jack who's the driving force in finding a franchise. "In the back of my mind, I have always wanted to be my own boss," he says. "I want to be successful enough to be able to control my own destiny--I get frustrated at work." Married for 15 years with no children, our couple has been able to salt away some cash. If only they could find a good business to spend it on.

Jack Misses the Subway
Franchising works, in part, because of our insatiable need as humans to be in familiar surroundings. The fact that a Big Mac is a Big Mac everywhere you go eliminates stress from our lives. "Thank you, drive through" is now ingrained in our collective psyche. Because fast-food establishments dominate our landscape, it's typical for nouveau franchise shoppers to begin their quest for a franchise in this domain. Ten years ago, Jack tried to make the leap and catch a Subway franchise. To his credit, he first visited with a number of Subway franchisees. When some of these youngsters arrived at the meetings in new BMWs, Jack's interest was piqued. "I was excited about the opportunity, but when we took a step back to look at it, we did not have the dollars to move on it," he says.

That's the problem with dreams--they often check out when reality knocks. This couple might have made a go of it with Subway, but it would have stretched them to the breaking point if anything less than the best-case scenario transpired after the purchase. Jack and Diane had the foresight to know that buying a franchise is like buying a boat--it's not the initial cost, brother; it's the upkeep that kills you. So, wisely, they passed. But the fire was still in the belly.

Teeing Off as Entrepreneurs
When you're in your 30s, you still have plenty of time to experiment with finding your dream, and once you've cast your lure into the glimmering pool of opportunity, trying to land the big one becomes a compulsion. Jack and Diane are golfers, so it makes sense that Diane had an entrepreneurial flash of brilliance while in a pro shop. "All the golf apparel for women looked like it was made for old ladies," she says, "and I thought we could certainly do better." Jack needed no further encouragement, and a new business was born making mock turtleneck golf shirts for women.

Let's call this new affair the "sideline" business. A sideline business is an idea that appeals to the entrepreneurs' belief that if they just work a little harder, they can start a business while keeping their full-time jobs. It's the lure of the ads that say something like "work at home part time and make hundreds a day." On the surface, the concept makes sense, because you can retain your base income while you launch missiles at the moon.

My personal experience (see is that running a sideline business has about the same effect as drilling a hole in your submarine for some fresh air--pretty soon, you're just swamped. The experience for Jack and Diane was no different; they created letterhead, made banners, prepared artwork, sewed mockups, conducted focus group studies, bought fabric, found a sweatshop, rented a display, attended trade shows and took orders. At night, after working all day, commuting and inhaling their dinner, they created invoices, set up accounting and packaged orders, until late one night, they looked at each other and said, "Now what are we going to do?" before falling into dreamland, totally exhausted without a whole lot of new money in the bank.

Making the Dream Real
It takes sacrifice to realize a worthy goal--so stay tuned when next month, our intrepid couple searches for a franchise, argues about pledging their home as collateral and writes a big check to pursue their American dream.

Todd D. Maddocks is a franchise attorney and founder of Write him at


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