Franchise the Unexpected: 4 Franchisors Thinking Ahead In an industry of copycats, fresh ideas can stand out.

By Jason Daley

This story appears in the March 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »


Walk through a franchise convention, and most of the reps manning the booths might as well be shouting, "Me, too!" Franchising is all about replication, after all -- and franchises are experts at replicating the same types of concepts. But amid the modern scrum of "better burger" joints, burrito restaurants, permutations of oil-change places and riffs on the 24-hour gym, a few new interesting concepts are rising up. They're driven by technology, mobile franchising and the fading hangover from the debt crisis. Some are on the wacky side -- like a potato-based fast casual brand or burrito vending machines -- but some seem like potential winners, just at the beginning of their long journey upward. Here are our picks for four of the most interesting newcomers in the franchise game.

1. Franchise Lifesquire Pitch | Personal assistants in a pinch

For the busy professional who can afford it, a personal assistant is one of the easiest ways to free up hours for family and relaxing. But a good one is hard to find -- and outside major cities, very few companies place them. That's the opening Valerie Riley saw. She was an assistant in Dallas; when that job ended, she moved to Oklahoma City and started a firm called Riley Group to match, train and administer assistants. In 2014, she rebranded as Lifesquire and began franchising nationally.

She now has four locations, with another five expected this year. Her staffing concept is unusual for the franchise world -- a very personal, luxury service. "We're really looking for owner-operators, not just investors," she says. "To have a robust business, a franchisee needs about 60 clients. They have to hire the right staff and find assistants willing to take a text at 10 at night and work on holidays. They need to be house or life managers. The schedule looks different every day."

Lifesquire is now busily crafting itself to be more than just a niche employment agency. It uses proprietary software, almost like an online dating site, to match the right assistant to the right client. And to build the brand's credibility and visibility, Lifesquire is launching a "personal assistant academy" this year -- a teaching program to help everyone in the field improve their skills and service, regardless of whether they're placed through Lifesquire. "We want to position ourselves as the leader in this space," says Riley. "If anyone has experience in any service-based business, I think I can teach them."

2. Franchise Growler USA Pitch | Craft beer's megabar

Dan White has launched many businesses -- his last was an outdoors retailer called Trap Happens -- but until recently, he had no knowledge of brewing. Then he noticed something special happening in the beer world. "Craft brewing is one of the fastest-growing industries we've seen in our lifetime," says White. "As a serial entrepreneur, that catches my eye."

It also caught his imagination, so he began developing a concept for a brewpub specializing in American-made beers and ciders (along with American coffee and kombucha tea). The first test unit, called Growler USA, opened in 2013 in Eugene, Ore. After a few years of perfecting the concept, White franchised it to owners in Charlotte; Austin; Centennial, Col.; Seattle; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Honolulu and five cities in Texas.

The concept is simple on paper but difficult to manage in the real world. Each Growler USA will have 100 taps. All bartenders are required to become certified cicerones (the beer equivalent of wine sommeliers). The brewpub uses a state-of-the-art tap system that can be adjusted to the exacting standards -- volume, amount of CO2 and temperature -- of each beer it serves. "We took the idea of the pub, of a public gathering space, and interjected it with cool technology and amazing food, all designed to enhance the experience of handcrafted beverages," he says. "There are almost 4,200 microbreweries in the U.S., and each of those produces 15 to 20 styles of beer. We have a database of 70,000 American beers alone, and my staff is determined to try all of them."

And despite being a franchise, White says, each unit will focus on its local brewing scene. "You know, in Eugene we'll have these guys pull up in an old truck with a mason jar of beer, and they'll pour it for our customers. And if they love it, I'll say, "Great; we'll take two kegs,'" says White. "We love the entrepreneurial spirit of brewing. You meet these guys who say, "I started brewing in Uncle Goober's barn, and now we have 80 employees.' That's inspiring."

3. Franchise StoneCoat Pitch | Stone homes at light prices

Medieval lords and Harry Potter set designers agree: Stone buildings look awesome. They're also expensive; even a few chunks of fieldstone or granite on a house or office building can bust the budget. What's more, the rocks add so much weight that they also require industrial-strength engineering.

Still, in the HGTV era, people want to get their stone on -- and that includes Dallas entrepreneur Ken Morrison. In 2005, he wanted to add some stone accents to a house he was hoping to flip. But after a consultation, he learned that the rocks were too heavy to incorporate into the remodel. Surely, he thought, this can't be the only kind of stone available. So he began researching after-market applications and came upon something called hydraulic limestone.

Found only in a few quarries in Europe, hydraulic limestone can be powdered and mixed with water to form a slurry, which can then be sprayed onto almost any surface. Because it takes two to four hours to dry, it can be colored, carved and shaped into practically any pattern -- chalk, cast stone, marble and more. When it dries, it turns into actual limestone that won't crack or chip. And because the layer is relatively thin, it doesn't have the weight problems of cut stone.

Morrison spent several years experimenting with processes for applying and shaping the hydraulic limestone. Then, in 2010, he launched a company called StoneCoat. After five years of good business, Morrison hooked up last year with Sam Hance, a veteran franchise developer who helped grow 10 other brands, including Curves. After one month, the company sold four units.

"What makes us novel is that we are a low-cost franchise -- it usually takes $75,000 to $155,000 to open, and our pipeline is very short," says Hance. "From the time a franchisee signs the paperwork, they can be up and running in less than 60 days."

But the biggest selling point, says Hance, is the product itself. "Stone is messy -- you deal with mortar, there's a rubble pile when you're done and it takes a long time. We come in, blow it on and we're gone."

4. Franchise Hotel Makeover Pitch | Room service for hotels

joe aiello and his wife, Debbie, bought into a high-end timeshare in Texas in the 1990s. And then, to their great displeasure, the condos were remodeled in 1997. "It was just a horrible job," remembers Joe. The couple happened to install industrial kitchens and build restaurants for a living, so Debbie approached the condo board and said she'd like to take a crack at redesigning the units the next time around. The board agreed -- but said they also wanted her to manage the painting, install the carpet, buy the furniture and coordinate the whole process. Debbie did just that. Then some nearby condos asked the Aiellos for help. And then some hotels along the Gulf Coast did, too.

Debbie saw an opportunity -- to make a company solely focused on hotel renovations, called Hotel Makeover. Most franchised hotels have "brand standards" that require certain furniture, decor, locks and so on, all of which is replaced every six to seven years. This can be a painful, costly thing, which is why the hotels asked Debbie to create a one-stop, turnkey affair. "Refreshing a hotel is very complicated," Joe says. "Even for a 70- or 80-room hotel, there are well over a million elements to deal with. Hotel owners often can't manage that. There's a reason no one had built a company like this before."

By 2005, Joe had joined the company full-time, and the Aiellos spent the next decade preparing to take the brand national -- and now the couple is beginning to franchise, and plan on having six to 10 units operating by the end of the year. Hotel Makeover's business arrangement is built to make franchising less intimidating. It keeps all the complex design and procurement duties at its home office; the local franchisee's role is to serve as a liaison and partner with the hotel owners, and establish relationships with local tradesmen and other subcontractors.

Most franchisees will manage five to eight renovations a year -- and given the hotel industry's rapid expansion in the past few decades, the Aiellos aren't concerned about drawing in business. "Industry sources estimate there are 20 million hotel rooms in the world," says Joe. "And remodeling is a huge problem in the industry that we can solve. It's a great business. In the U.S., it's $14 billion. That's roughly the size of the global music industry and 50 percent larger than the NFL. And it's an industry with no leadership. We hope to be the first one." 

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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