Lessons From The First Year in Franchising
Lessons From The First Year in Franchising

Franchisees from four brands on what they learned early on.

Franchisees come to brands from a variety of backgrounds. Some have a wealth of experience in their segment but have never before owned a business, others are experienced entrepreneurs but are new to the product or service their brand offers. But regardless of a franchisee’s prior experience, every franchise operation has a learning curve.

 We talked to five franchisees from four franchise brands to find out what they learned in their first year of franchising. Each faced different challenges, but all of them said that their franchisor was there to help them get and stay on their feet.

Josh Bergeson owns a number of MOOYAH Burgers, Fries and Shakes locations throughout Wisconsin, including one in Fitchburg, which was the town’s first. Bergerson said it took some time to learn the finer points of the market.

“The lack of firsthand knowledge about the market can be a challenge,” he said. "There can be a bit of a learning curve to understanding the labor pool, occupancy cost as it relates to potential sales and target demographics.”

Bergeson recommends franchisees entering a new market take the time to learn as much as they can about the market before opening.

“Go to your competitors and take notes,” he said. “Learn what they are paying their new hires and figure out what you think is working and not working from a customer’s perspective. Use that information to build your crew and establish your culture.”

Mike Mary, a Lawn Doctor owner in Tennessee, worked in the book-and-magazine business for 34 years before joining the lawn-care franchise. Mary had no illusions about his lack of experience in lawn care, and he says he spent much of his first year learning about the service and hiring qualified employees.

“I spent the first year listening, reading and studying,” he said. “Once I felt I had a strong command of the operations, I started hiring people who I felt were well-suited to run the business.”

Mary said that by establishing a set of values and policies in his first year, he was able to build a strong business even as he learned the finer points of the service.

“One of the first things I did was put together a company policy manual,” Mary said. “That was essential in establishing the culture that our company has now, and it provided a set of guidelines that even I’m held accountable for, which helps me lead by example. My goal from day one was to create a place where my employees could be happy and thrive. I believe that’s my primary responsibility as a boss, to serve my staff.”

Another Lawn Doctor owner, Dave Satcher, came to the brand with a wealth of business experience, having worked his way through the ranks of the manufacturing industry and eventually becoming a business consultant for manufacturing companies. Still, Satcher said he had a lot to learn in his first year with Lawn Doctor.

“That first season was a whirlwind,” Satcher recalled. “Having the background that I have, I thought moving into a small business would be a breeze, but I had a lot to learn.”

To learn the ropes, Satcher made sure to involve himself in every aspect of the operation.

“During my first two years, I lived in the field,” he said. “I was on the truck, servicing customers, working on lawns. I believe that time getting my hands dirty right off the bat is what made me successful as a Lawn Doctor owner. You’ve got to know your business inside and out.”

School of Rock owner Mark McKibben brought a life-long love of music to his career with the music-education franchise, but he had no prior experience in education. But it wasn’t teaching that McKibben had to wrap his head around, it was selling the brand.

“I was never an educator before this,” he said. “I hired some great instructors, so it wasn’t a problem in terms of teaching students, but I had to learn to communicate the educational value of what we were doing to parents. Most people can see that value, so it doesn’t take a lot of convincing, but it was a language that I wasn’t used to.”

A career teacher and school administrator, Jinu Mathew came well prepared to work closely with his clients at supplemental-education franchise Tutor Doctor, but running a business presented a new set of challenges.

“In terms of consultations and working with families, I took to that immediately. That’s essentially the work I was doing in the school system as an administrator, and I enjoy working with families to develop strategies that are going to help them and their kids,” he said. “There was a bit more of a learning curve for the business components. I don’t have much experience with marketing and running a large business, and I’m still learning that stuff, but Tutor Doctor has helped me every step of the way.”

Though each had their own hurdles to clear, Mathew, McKibben, Satcher, Mary and Bergeson’s experiences are by no means anomalous in the franchise world. Any prospective franchisee considering any brand should expect to spend much of their first year learning the ropes. What’s important is finding a brand that you can stay personally invested in, and one that will have your back while you get your footing