Sylvan Learning, one of the first and largest supplemental education and enrichment brands in the U.S., recently announced plans to develop a number of new locations in Vietnam, including openings this year and throughout 2019 and 2020.
The new openings in Vietnam are just the latest steps in a long and successful international development strategy that has brought Sylvan Learning centers to students and families in territories across the globe, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Guam, Abu Dhabi, every province in Canada, and China, where the franchise recently inked a deal to open 200 new units with a single franchisee.
That massive multi-unit deal in China is not unusual for Sylvan, according to Georgia Chasen, Sylvan Learning’s vice president of franchise development. Chasen says the franchise typically looks for a single partner to spearhead large-scale development in each country it enters.
“We approach international development by finding the right local partner in each market,” Chasen said. “We are looking for someone who shares our passion for education and has an existing network of connections. Logistically, that allows us to get started much faster and with greater ease than seeking out individual franchisees for each center.”
That strategy may be the key to Sylvan’s success in international development, a notoriously difficult pursuit in the franchise industry. The franchise industry is built on standardization. The most successful franchises build an operational model that can be standardized and adopted by operators in disparate locations across markets, but international expansion throws a wrench in that strategy. Every country has its own legal variances and cultural norms that may or may not accommodate all the fine points of a franchise’s operational model. Therefore, a franchise set on international expansion must be flexible, and it must have the wherewithal to adapt.
By partnering closely with local experts, Chasen says Sylvan Learning is able to sidestep many of the common pitfalls of taking a business built in one country and introducing it to another.
“Our franchisee in each country is our point person,” she said. “They understand the market both culturally and from a business perspective, and they are able to take the lead in establishing an infrastructure that will accommodate our model.”
Of course, Sylvan’s success in international markets also comes down to the universal appeal of its services, something Chasen says has only increased since the brand was established nearly 40 years ago.
“A large part of our success in international markets is the same thing that has made us successful in the U.S., which is a constant need for supplemental education services,” Chasen said. “The desire for high-quality educational programs is universal, and it’s far from controversial; communities want to bring us in, and they are eager to help us make it happen.”
Because Sylvan’s programs are developed and taught primarily in English, they are often even more valuable in non-English-speaking countries.
“As successful as we’ve been in the U.S., our value proposition is often even higher internationally,” Chasen said. “Parents are looking for programs that can help their kids in all areas of K–12 education, but they are particularly interested in something that can help improve their English language skills.”
While the majority of Sylvan’s programs are developed and taught in English, Chasen says the brand’s mission of enriching each community it enters requires a flexibility that allows franchisees in every market to adapt programs to the needs of their students.
“We are an international brand, but we are built explicitly so that each of our centers supports its specific community,” she said. “Our products are designed so that franchisees can leverage them to support the specific needs of their students. That kind of customization and flexibility has not only allowed us to find success internationally, it has allowed us to address the individual needs of every student we work with, both abroad and in the U.S.”