bannerFranchisor Stories

How Sylvan Learning Franchisees Find Opportunity Amid Crisis

The supplemental and enrichment education franchise was built to survive a challenge like this thanks to its nimble leadership team, robust focus on technology and mission-driven focus.

By Ben Warren1851 Franchise Managing Editor
SPONSORED 1:13PM 05/04/20

In recent months, the coronavirus crisis has taken a heavy toll on business across virtually every industry, but a few brands have been able to initiate strategic pivots to keep revenue flowing in an increasingly down-trending economy. One of those brands is Sylvan Learning, whose franchisees have not only remained open throughout the crisis, but have also found promising growth opportunities.

“Consumer demand is high,” said Chief Franchise Operations Officer Susan Valverde. “Schools across the country have experienced unprecedented disruption, and parents are largely on their own in ensuring that their children don’t fall behind.” 

Sylvan Learning is well-equipped to meet that demand, with almost all of its centers still virtually open throughout the crisis. In light of the social-distancing protocols that have kept consumers away from public spaces in markets across North America, Sylvan quickly made some adjustments. Fortunately, the brand had already built a robust suite of virtual services even before the pandemic arrived.

“We’ve created a foundation strong enough to weather just about any crisis, but there are three things we did that made us particularly well-prepared for this challenge,” Valverde said.

The first of those things, Valverde said, started more than a decade ago when Sylvan Learning began converting its entire curriculum to a digital platform called SylvanSync, which allowed centers to reach students off-site at convenient locations like schools or community centers, and develop curriculums around each student’s unique needs and circumstances. Last year, Sylvan built a new cloud-based CRM system that allows operators to manage customer interactions remotely. And this year, just before the full impact of the coronavirus crisis revealed itself, Sylvan rolled out a new cloud-based administration system, the final element that would allow Sylvan franchisees to operate their businesses entirely online. 

“All of this was designed to make running the business more efficient and more profitable for franchisees,” Valverde said. “These initiatives have also allowed us to move to virtual instruction literally overnight when other businesses started closing.”

Now that Sylvan Learning has gone virtual, the brand is unlikely to return to a predominantly   on-site operation, even when social-distancing rules relax and students return to schools. “Now that it’s out of the bag, it’s never going back,” said CEO John McAuliffe. “Our customers love it, so they wouldn’t let us even if we wanted to, and for franchisees, virtual operations increase their capacity and allow them to grow quickly.”

Still, Sylvan Learning has not avoided all of the challenges that the crisis has presented to businesses. As Valverde put it, the brand is “in the relationship business,” and many of Sylvan’s key partners are struggling. “We rely on our relationships to build business, and now that many of our partners have closed, that makes outreach difficult. There’s no knocking on doors and we can’t attend PTA meetings or family events — it’s difficult to engage with a new audience.”

To that end, Sylvan’s corporate team has rolled support to help franchisees navigate the new landscape. For example, the executive team has been engaging in daily communications with every franchisee, including franchisee town halls and zoom training sessions, which Valverde says have been vital.

“The training sessions include every staff member, which really builds a sense of community,” she said. “They also help us share best practices, so if one franchisee or staff member has a great idea that’s helped their center, we can quickly share that with every center.”

Sylvan Learning has also instituted a royalty deferment program, which rolled out quickly in March and provided a little extra breathing room financially for franchisees. Equally important, Valverde says, has been Sylvan’s financial guidance efforts, which have helped franchisees understand their federal and state aid programs and identify funding sources for small businesses. “We conducted a lot of research and found about 30 applicable grants for small businesses, and we’re helping our franchisees apply for those,” she said.

Those measures have helped stabilize Sylvan franchisees throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and now, McAuliffe says his team is focused on meeting the challenges that may arise on the other side of the crisis.

“Looking forward, our biggest concern is how we are going to get the word out to new parents once the country opens back up,” he said. “We’ve made some really exciting changes, which means that we have to adjust our marketing plan accordingly and make sure that we are correctly positioning ourselves to the consumer. There is going to be even more demand for our services after this is over, so we need to make sure we are putting ourselves in front of the right audience.”

In the meantime, Valverde says Sylvan Learning is doing everything it can to support top-line revenue and control expenses for franchisees. “Those are the two things that we’ve always focused on, and they are more important now than ever before,” she said. “There’s no playbook for something like this, so we’re leaning on our core values and taking each challenge as it comes. I’m proud to say that strategy is paying off for us.”

The startup costs for a Sylvan Learning franchise range from $70,270 to $163,625. The franchise fee is $24,000. To learn more about franchising with Sylvan Learning, visit

*This brand is a paid partner of 1851 Franchise. For more information on paid partnerships please click here.