Learning From College-Age Franchise Owners

These enterprising students made the smart choice to pursue franchise ownership. What can they teach you?

By Devlin Smith Originally published Nov 23, 2004

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

College has long been a time to drink in knowledge, growpersonally and begin exploring career options. It's still that,but something about the college experience is shifting. With theastonishing business successes and media exposure of their peers,many college students are realizing they don't have to walkdown the job search road. Today, some form of entrepreneurshiptraining is available at more than 1,500 colleges and universitiesnationwide, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Andthe Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization, a Chicago-basedorganization that supports college students who want to startbusinesses, has grown from zero to 14,000 members since itsinception five years ago, with entrepreneurship clubs on 120university campuses nationwide. College students are purchasingfranchises, too-and while some feel students might be too "wetbehind the ears" to helm franchises, college franchisees arefinding that ambition and effort, not candles on a birthday cake,determine success.

While practically everyone has heard of Subway, not many peopleknow that its founder, Fred DeLuca, started the sandwich juggernautas a 17-year-old college student in 1965. Nearly 40 years later,he's inspiring other young people to choose their owndestinies. Working at the local Subway has become almost a rite ofpassage for teenagers, as it was for Jeff Smith back in 1994. He,like DeLuca, was 17 when he began his relationship withSubway-Smith worked there part time during high school and collegebefore graduating to the next level at Subway: ownership.

Smith isn't the only early achiever looking beyond thecorporate path. Brandon Gough, president of Juice It Up! FranchiseCorp., notes a recent increase in younger applicants interested inthe smoothie franchise. Gough says that while just "ahandful" of the existing franchisees are college-aged, JuiceIt Up! is very receptive to taking on more youthful franchisees."College students who don't have the business backgroundto be successful on an independent level are able to take advantageof the opportunity that a franchise provides," he says.

For two years, Smith dedicated himself to sub sandwich artistryat the Subway in Cypress, California, before moving to the nearbyGarden Grove location while attending college. But Smith realized adegree wasn't what he wanted. He was ready to start acareer.

Idle chitchat with the Garden Grove franchisee led to biggerthings when Smith said he was interested in purchasing a Subway.When that owner found out the Cypress franchisees wanted to selltheir location, he told them of Smith's interest. "I waslooking [for an opportunity], and this was the only job I had hadin my life," says Smith, now 27. "It all just cametogether at that point."

Higher Power

If cramming for finals is the most pressing item on your agenda,don't automatically rule out becoming a franchisee. Goughexplains, "For Juice It Up!, if franchisees have the financialcapability and broad business experience, that's good. Wedon't expect any industry-specific experience." The mostimportant factors for promising Juice It Up! candidates are theright background and attitude.

Gough says someone can learn how to manage the finances of afranchise like Juice It Up! without a business degree or anaccounting background, but he recommends that franchisees have alegal representative as well as some kind of financial consultantor accountant. The biggest challenge for younger franchisees whodon't have a lot of experience is working with employees."Managing people is critical," says Gough.

Smith was only 21 when he purchased the Cypress location in1998; he had his father and his father's wife sign on aspartners, though he was the owner/operator. His father, who hadrecently retired as president of a shipping and transportationcompany, helped Smith handle the paperwork and some financialaspects of the business. "I was good at running theoperations," says Smith, "but I wasn't educated in[those areas]. He made sure everything was in order."

While working at a location of the franchise you'reinterested in does provide experience, be cognizant of theincreased responsibilities that await you as owner. When Smithfirst ran the store as an owner, he had to make a few adjustmentssince he no longer had a superior to turn to. "I had to takecare of any situation that arose, from the time I opened to thetime I closed," says Smith. That included the unpleasant taskof firing employees. His Cypress location employed many people whowere either relatives or friends with each other, and Smith himselfhad worked with some of them as an employee. Though he admitsfiring someone for the first time was strange, he says, "Itdidn't really bother me. I knew it had to be done."

While Smith's operational challenges have been minimal, thework hasn't. Smith, with his partners, purchased a secondlocation in Orange, California, in 1999. He's since hired amanager for his Orange location, but still spends time at bothlocations seven days a week. And even in his off hours, Smith is oncall. "When someone calls in sick and it's a Friday night,I can't go out. Sometimes you have to sacrifice."

And when it comes to vacationing, Smith warns other young,would-be franchisees, "It's definitely hard to do. Youhave to have people you can trust to take care of your businesswhile you're gone. If something goes wrong, you need to havesomeone there who can handle it, or get back in time to take careof it."

And don't let your youthful appearance fool anyone. AdvisesSmith, "Be firm, and stand up for yourself, because peoplemight try to walk all over you."

Winging It

Another franchise that welcomes the college-aged set actuallyoriginated from that demographic. Wing Zone, a takeoutand delivery Buffalo wing chain, was started in the fraternityhouse kitchen of founders Matthew Friedman and Adam Scott. When hefirst arrived at the University of Florida in Gainesville, nativeNew Yorker Friedman loved everything about the region but noticedone omission-Buffalo wings were nowhere to be found. "I feltchicken wings and college students were a perfect match, so I cameup with a takeout and delivery restaurant primarily based aroundcollege markets," Friedman says.

Friedman, now 33, and Scott, now 31, got permission from theirfraternity to use the house kitchen at night, installed a separatephone line, and began handing out menus around campus. For sixweeks, the pair tested their concept and quickly realized they hadhit on something. Says Friedman, "We were very fortunate tohave immediate success for a lot of reasons. We were definitelyundercapitalized and needed to do business right off the bat inorder to pay bills."

As word spread, it became obvious the fraternity kitchen couldno longer contain Wing Zone, so in 1993, with profits from thebusiness and loans from their parents, Friedman and Scott openedthe doors to their first restaurant. They also earned businessdegrees. Today, the company has more than 70 locations.

Though they faced challenges in starting the business, andFriedman and Scott's grades and personal lives may havesuffered in the process, they believe college was the right time totake the leap. "Being young and starting a business, youdon't have the pressures you do when you get older. You cansurvive a financial fall," Friedman explains. "If we hadfailed back in 1993, we would have recovered without aproblem."

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