Franchise Players: How This Entrepreneur From a Franchising Family Chose to Open Her Own Signarama
Maggie Harlow knew plenty about franchising before becoming a franchisee. But, she didn't want to take over the family business.
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Franchise Players is Entrepreneur's Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email email@example.com.
Maggie Harlow has been involved in franchising as long as she can remember. Her family ran an automotive franchise when she was growing up, and she worked at the franchise until she was in her early 30s. However, when she had the chance to take over the business from her parents, she decided that she wanted to find her own kind of franchise. That was when she found Signarama. Here's what Harlow has learned in the course of her franchise-filled life.
Name: Maggie Harlow
Franchise owned: Signarama Downtown in Louisville, Ky.
How long have you owned a franchise?
It has been 11 years with my husband as a partner, but my family was in franchising my entire life.
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I grew up in an automotive franchise and learned the business from the inside out. I was very comfortable with the business model. I understand that it isn't "perfect," no matter how good the franchisor is, and that sometimes you have to give and sometimes you have to take. I also love the collaborative nature of franchising. I have developed deep friendships with other franchise owners to whom I turn when I need advice, help, or just a shoulder to lean on.
What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
I grew up working for my family in our dealership, starting with answering phones as a teenager to becoming general manager in my early 30s. My parents encouraged me to assume ownership of the business, but I could see the business model was not an easy one. Not only was the industry was moving away from the "mom and pop" dealerships, but I never found tremendous joy in the business. I loved my customers and employees, but the culture of the franchise model in this case was not something I found compelling or motivating. So, I encouraged my parents to sell the business, which they did, and I forged out on my own.
Why did you choose this particular franchise?
I wasn't sure what I wanted when I started looking, but I did have a list of what I did NOT want… I didn't want a luxury product, I didn't want retail hours, and I didn't want minimum wage employees, among many other things. I started online, perusing franchise sites and requesting information. My husband helped me – he was the devil's advocate, questioning each one I looked at. Signarama was the first franchise he couldn't see a reason to talk me out of, and the list of things I didn't want were nowhere in sight.
How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?
Between cash and financing, we spent about $170,000. We used our home equity and savings to make it work. Our franchise fee was $40,000, the equipment was around $150, and we had build-out costs built into our rent payments. We kept about $30,000 of operating capital, but we ended up needing more in order to finance some large clients we landed.
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Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
Truthfully, we sought very little advice. Isn't that alarming? I did spend a lot of time thinking about what the business needed to feel like day to day to make sense. I had a clear vision of the life I truly wanted, and I took time to be sure the franchise model was a match for that. For example, it was important for me to make my own product and decide my own pricing. Signarama gave me that. Additionally, I wanted to be able to be flexible for family needs, which Signarama also lets me do. My clients need me, but typically not at a certain time of day – I can make my own schedule most days.
I talked to several Signarama owners before I bought, and that was highly illuminating. Hearing from owners that life isn't perfect, but that the franchise was reliable and trustworthy was very helpful. I was used to dealing with automotive franchises, where dealer relationships are often combative. It was refreshing and thrilling to consider a franchise where I would find a true partner. I also was delighted to find the other franchisees were transparent and willing to share information – that was also deeply encouraging.
What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
My first surprise was that I would be busier than I had ever been in my life and that working really, really hard was not very difficult when I was working for myself! Getting used to prioritizing my time and resources was tough, but ultimately we figured it out, even with lots of mistakes. For the first year we alternated working late into the evenings just to get ahead of the business and learn the ropes. Having the little kids at home at the time ended up being a blessing. Kids forced us to find balance in our lives. There wasn't an option to work all night long, which we were sorely tempted to do on several occasions!
What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?
KNOW THYSELF! I have spent a lot of time reading books about leadership and business and I have studied my own choices and strengths and figured out where my time is best spent in the business. If you have a clear, uncolored picture of your strengths and abilities, you can leverage those to tremendous benefit. Letting yourself get spread too thin or thinking that you are the only person who can do things will burn you out. I'll never forget my father's advice – "Charge what you are worth. You are probably worth $200 per hour to the business, at a minimum." That advice helped me make decisions on pricing of product as well as hiring help for things that weren't highly skilled.
What's next for you and your business?
We are excited to consider the next three years. I'm writing the business plan now for 2015-2017 and figuring out where we want to end up and planning our resources and staffing to make that vision a reality. We see growth in the business revenues, but we also see our staff maturing and developing, giving us more freedom to spend time doing other things. I find tremendous satisfaction in developing my staff and watching them learn and grow.
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