Channel Your Inner Pioneer and Sign Up With an Emerging Franchise Even McDonald's started as a new brand. Entrepreneurs who get in on the ground floor of a growing chain can potentially reap great rewards.
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In 1955, multi-mixer salesman Ray Kroc saw the future in hamburgers and opened the first McDonald's franchise location in Des Plaines, Ill. Today, more than 80 percent of McDonald's 36,000 worldwide locations are franchises.
The lesson: Every superstar franchise starts as a new brand. Entrepreneurs who get in on the ground floor can potentially reap great rewards. "Think of it like the stock market," where early investors can score big, says Brent Dowling, chief operating officer at RainTree, a franchise consulting company. "Imagine being one of the first 20 McDonald's franchise owners. When the smaller franchises become big, that's where we see 1,000 percent returns."
Related: Top 120 Restaurant Franchises
Beyond the money: input and influence
An often-cited benefit of early ownership is the chance to influence the franchise systems. "Established brands just want you to follow the program," says Terry Powell, whose company, The Entrepreneur's Source, helps individuals find the right franchise concept for themselves. "Early franchisees get to be part of the development and have their ideas listened to."
Serial entrepreneur Amy Lewallen has more than 10 years' experience as an early owner in three different emerging wellness and fitness brands -- Fitness Together, Elements Therapeutic Massage and her current Iron Tribe Fitness center in Redmond, Wash. She's drawn by the opportunity to influence the rollout of new concepts as the franchise grows. "I saw the chance to help steer the brand," she says. "You just have to know there will be growing pains."
Franchisors know how important this input and influence can be. Anna Phillips, CEO and founder of emerging brand Lash Lounge, actively looks for franchisees who are "team players, flexible with change and able to help provide solutions to gaps that will improve the overall franchise organization." She views her franchisees as "contributing pioneers" who benefit from prime territory selection and lower franchise fees. RainTree's Dowling notes that early owners also receive direct support from founders eager to prove success in new markets, along with the chance to be involved in "decision-making for the entire franchise brand, from new products or services to systems and processes."
Mitigating the risks
As with any investment, there are liabilities to being an early adopter. "Without a track record of success in different markets, there is the risk that the brand just isn't as replicable as predicted," says Dowling. Success may not be immediately apparent either. It can take a while for emerging brands to reach what Terry Powell calls the stage of critical mass, when growth begins to happen more rapidly and exponentially -- from his perspective, that's around 75 units. And franchisor Phillips is frank that emerging franchises are still building brand recognition and growing their internal team with systems that don't always provide the smooth-running support owners expect from more established franchises.
Powell's 32 years' experience in matching entrepreneurs with franchise opportunities has also taught him that prospective franchisees can sometimes be their own greatest danger. "People think it'll be like falling in love, but it's better not to think of a right fit in purely emotional terms. A franchise is a vehicle to accomplish your lifestyle, wealth and equity goals."
How do you decide if an emerging franchise is right for you?
In the absence of an extensive track record of financial performance, entrepreneurs need to dig deeper and research creatively. Focus on the business model, the direct experience of owners already in the system and the values and culture of the franchise.
Business considerations include:
- Is there a clear demand for the product or service offered by the emerging franchise?
- What key differentiators does the franchise bring to the market?
- Is the franchisor team professional and experienced?
- What is the performance track record within existing units?
- How many units have closed and why?
- Are the current operations, marketing and training systems understandable, usable and streamlined? Lash Lounge CEO Phillips says, "If the early systems look organized and well-developed, it is a fair assessment that they will continue to grow and provide great support as the franchise becomes more established."
- Does the business model meet your income and lifestyle goals?
- Do you have the marketing and sales skills to help build brand awareness?
- If the emerging brand is a new concept, how comfortable are you with being a pioneer?
Make sure you talk to as many current owners as possible. Amy Lewallen advises that you insist on being put in contact with struggling owners as well as successful ones, so you can gain insight into the real challenges of the business and evaluate your own ability to respond to them.
"This will likely be the most important part of your research process," says Brent Dowling. "In addition to asking [existing owners] about their profits and losses, timeframes and milestones, the most important question is, "Would you do it all again?'"
Finally, it's vital that you're comfortable with, and excited by, the vision, values and culture of the franchise. Your success depends on your long-term engagement with the brand. Amy Lewallen's approach is to ask herself, "Is there anything about this brand that I wonder if I can live with that or not? Because when you buy in, you're married to that brand, and what they believe in, you have to believe in."
Pioneering pays off.
There's no doubt that franchising is a model that works. Predictions for 2015 indicate that franchise businesses will outpace the overall U.S. economy in employment growth and contribute 3 percent to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Part of that contribution will come from dynamic emerging franchise brands.
If you're looking for a way to exercise your pioneer spirit and impact a brand's direction while also reaping the benefit of corporate systems and support, then there's an emerging brand looking for you to help it be the next big thing.