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Think You Don't Have What It Takes to Run a Niche Franchise Brand? Think Again. Three brands break down what they really want when it comes to potential franchise partners.

By Britta Lokting

This story appears in the September 2022 issue of Start Up.

Pete Reynolds

When a franchise brand tries attracting new franchisees, they often run into the same problem: Potential franchisees think they're not the right fit when in fact, they might be perfect.

Why? Because oftentimes, people assume they need a certain kind of background to run a niche franchise brand. They think they need an education background to run a school, for example, or they need a blue-collar background to run a ­cleaning business. This often isn't the case, though: Brands want franchisees who understand the business opportunity first, and who are willing and able to learn everything else.

So how can a brand get that message across? "You have to make sure your brand is attractive and constantly letting them know why you should be a part of this," says Celebree School founder and CEO Richard Huffman. "If you can't answer that question, then why would they?"

Related: Don't Go It Alone: How to Use Partnerships as a Growth Strategy

To appreciate the challenge, we asked three specialty brands to explain the biggest myth people have about their franchise, the reality of who they're actually looking for, and how they've worked to recruit the right people.

Image Credit: Pete Reynolds

Myth No. 1: PuroClean Wants Franchisees Who Love Standing in Dirty Water

PuroClean cleans up buildings' biggest messes, including water damage, smoke and fire damage, mold, and biohazard removal. Because the labor is hands-on, potential franchisees often presume that they'll be the ones performing messy tasks themselves. This in turn leads some of them to believe that PuroClean wants owners who have a significant background in blue-collar work.

Reality: PuroClean Wants Former High-Level Corporate Executives

The company likes franchisees with corporate backgrounds, usually (though not exclusively) in sales or finance. In fact, about 65% of its potential franchisees have a business background. Those folks don't generally get their hands dirty on jobs. They hire and train teams to operate PuroClean's equipment, which does a lot of dirty work itself.

To overcome the myth, PuroClean began to promote success stories from its white-collar franchisees. "As we started to have white-collar people have substantial success," says Bud Summers, the company's executive vice president of operations and training, "we had them provide testimonials and examples of how they started the business." PuroClean highlighted ways that these owners built their units to be self-managed, and made a conscious effort to educate both existing and future owners about work that went beyond typical blue-collar tasks.

PuroClean's marketing materials also stress things like clear career paths, the reward of flexible working schedules, and the power of working together as a team. That's for a very particular reason: PuroClean is working to attract millennial franchisees. "Culture, mission statements, training programs, those are things that have value to millennials," says Summers. And, he says, these are things that aren't talked about as much in blue-collar fields.

But, of course, PuroClean is still happy to talk money with potential franchisees, and that includes all the different ways that its equipment can be used to generate ancillary revenue, such as pandemic-related decontaminations. This often helps people with white-collar backgrounds appreciate PuroClean's scalability. "Once they learn that it's mostly the equipment that's doing the work for them," says Timothy Courtney, vice president of franchise development, "they really begin to understand what the business is."

Related: How to Use Strategic Partnerships for More Explosive Growth

Myth No. 2: Happy Cat Wants the 'Crazy Cat Ladies'

The Happy Cat Hotel & Spa is just what it sounds like — a place where cat owners can drop their kitty off for an extended stay or a little pampering. The company often hears from self-proclaimed cat enthusiasts who assume that a love for cats is the primary requisite for being a franchisee. Conversely when the company comes across people who don't love cats (or at least, don't loooove them), they usually assume the brand isn't for them. Wrong and wrong!

Reality: It's Customer First, Cats Second

Happy Cat's franchising team prefers people who like cats but aren't overly attached. The issue, says CEO and founder Chris Raimo, is that a love for cats might cloud a person's business judgment. "Some of these extreme cat enthusiasts are great people," says Raimo, "but they don't see eye to eye with how somebody else might take care of their cat." For instance, if a cat enthusiast prefers one brand of cat food and the customer prefers another, conflict might arise.

The brand makes this clear in its marketing materials. Rather than focus on a franchisee's love of cats, for example, it mentions all the celebrities who like cats (to emphasize their cultural relevance). It even notes that franchisees can be allergic to cats — just like its CEO is! Raimo tells people that he still manages to go into work despite his allergy and that he didn't even set out to start a cat brand. "We came from a dog business, and it evolved into a more generalized pet business," he says. He compares normalizing cat ownership to how nerd culture evolved—and now, he says, people who were thought of as nerds "run half the entertainment industry."

So what does the company value, aside from a mild attachment to cats? Raimo says that Happy Cat is particularly appealing to corporate expatriates, and that the greatest skill required is open-mindedness. The company does a lot of franchisee education, which includes a 123-page feline behavior manual. One protocol involves using a secure towel wrap during grooming instead of leashes or tethers. "People who are coming in most likely have not been exposed to these ideas and techniques and philosophies, so the most important thing is that they're open to learning more about it," says Raimo. "That puts them in a category where they don't have to be a cat enthusiast necessarily."

Myth No. 3: Celebree Wants People With Educational Degrees

Celebree School is a brand of child-care centers with many services, ranging from infant care to summer camps. But potential franchisees sometimes assume they'll flunk the first test if they don't have a background in education. They also imagine that the work involves being in a classroom with students, and maybe even teaching?

Reality: You Can Leave the Teaching to the Teachers!

When people tell Celebree founder and CEO Richard Huffman that they don't have an ­educational degree, he says, "Neither do I. Welcome to the club." Then he pivots the conversation to a discussion about the benefits of owning a Celebree School, which includes an average revenue of $1.4 million and a $372,000 return. At Celebree School, teachers are the ones designing lesson plans and helping children meet developmental milestones — which means that as long as a franchisee can build and coach a team, Huffman says, they can succeed without a formal background in education. "They're like, "OK now you have my attention.' They don't correlate that pre-K and early education can be that rewarding financially," says Huffman.

Related: Does Your Franchise Need a Workforce Management Partner?

Celebree School tries to correct these misconceptions on its website, and with videos and other marketing materials. The company also saw the pandemic as an opportunity to tap into a broader market of franchisees who are looking for community, as well as more meaning in their work. "We have franchisees that worked for 20 years at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, those that are getting off of Wall Street, getting out of insurance companies," says Huffman. "COVID has allowed people to sit back and say, "What do I want the second chapter of my life to look like?' They're interested in giving back, creating an impact, and building a legacy for their family."

But that's not to say franchisees can't become ­teachers of a different sort. Huffman always stresses that education is a two-way street at Celebree School: He wants franchisees to learn the brand's systems while bringing their own wealth of experience to the business. That way, everyone learns something new.

Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her features have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere.

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