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How Tippi Toes Dance Evolved From a College Side Hustle To a Thriving Franchise Brand

After a two-decade journey, including a successful appearance on — and then collapsed deal from — “Shark Tank,” the children’s dance concept is preparing to cross the milestone 50-unit mark.

By Ben Warren1851 Franchise Managing Editor
SPONSOREDUpdated 9:09AM 04/22/22

In 1999, college student Sarah Nuse needed a way to make car payments after she was fired from her restaurant job. Heeding the advice of her dance-instructor mother, Nuse decided to teach dance classes to young children at a local daycare. More than two decades later, that college side hustle has become one of the most sought-after franchise opportunities in its segment, with more than 30 units currently in operation and on track to cross the milestone 50-unit mark by 2023.

In the years in between, Nuse’s dance program, now called Tippi Toes, became a family business, expanded into multiple states across the U.S., successfully negotiated a deal with Mark Cuban on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” survived the subsequent collapse of that deal, and became one of the most popular names in children’s enrichment programming.

But according to Nuse, she didn’t even realize she was operating a business for the first four years of Tippi Toes’ journey.

“The thought of owning a business had never been on my mind,” she said. “I didn’t even really consider it a real job at first. I loved teaching kids, and I was making good money, but it took me a long time to realize the true value of what I had created.”

Creating an Accidental Hit Business

Nuse started her first classes at the beginning of her sophomore year in college. By the end of the year, more than 100 students had signed up for her classes, and she was making thousands of dollars a month — far outpacing what she needed to keep up with her car payments. 

Nuse continued teaching classes throughout college, but when she graduated in 2001, she felt obligated to find what she thought of as a real job. Nuse took an internship at an advertising firm, a job that quickly proved tedious and unfulfilling. So, once again, Nuse started teaching dance classes as a side job at local daycares. 

“I was having so much fun, and more and more kids kept signing up for the classes,” Nuse said. “At that point, I realized I could make a living doing this and be much happier than I was in my 9-to-5 job.”

As demand for Nuse’s classes grew, she started to realize she had a real business on her hands, and a real business has employees. So Nuse started hiring dance instructors to offer more classes.

One of those instructors was Nuse’s younger sister, Megan Reilly, who at the time was in school with plans of becoming a registered dietician. As the company grew, so did Reilly’s role within it, taking on more operational and administrative duties in addition to teaching.

“We realized that to continue growing, we had to proactively sell our classes, and that came naturally to me,” Reilly said. “I started making flyers and getting our name out there.”

Proprietary Music and Characters Gives Tippi Toes a Critical Edge

In 2005, Nuse and her husband Adam wrote a children’s book called “Pink Ballet Shoes,” which sought to teach children the importance of proper nutrition. Originally intended as a side project, “Pink Ballet Shoes” would soon play an important role in differentiating Tippi Toes from its competition.

Two years after the publication of “Pink Ballet Shoes,” the book had proven successful enough to carry a spin-off album of music, with songs featuring characters from the book singing about nutrition. That album proved just as successful as the book and inspired six more albums, with another on the way this year.

By successfully creating a library of popular children’s music, Nuse had unwittingly provided Tippi Toes a critical edge: her dance classes could now feature proprietary music, characters and dances that kids loved and no other company could use. 

It was around that time that Nuse and Reilly began to consider franchising.

Tippi Toes Becomes a Top Franchise Opportunity In Its Segment

“We had this incredible class that people loved, and now, with the music, we had something that we could easily export to classes across the country and maintain our unique style, so long as we had a great, enthusiastic teacher,” Nuse said.

The only problem? Nuse and Reilly didn’t know the first thing about franchising. So they started with the basics.

“I ordered a franchising-for-dummies book, and I had to look up every other word,” Reilly said. “But as I started to make sense of it, I thought, ‘Oh, we could totally do this. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we can do it.’”

So, they started putting in the work, and by 2008, Nuse and Reilly had prepared their documentation and legally registered as a franchise. A year later, they sold their first franchise location in Cincinnati. 

For the next two years, Tippi Toes continued to sell franchises, establishing seven franchisee-owned locations and five corporate locations by 2010, when the brand had garnered enough buzz to land a spot on the second season of “Shark Tank.”

A Deal With Mark Cuban Makes Tippi Toes a Household Name

“We loved ‘Shark Tank,’” Reilly said. “We had watched the first season, and with all the small business owners featured, we thought, ‘these are our people.’ Sarah’s husband submitted us without our knowing, and when we got the call, we thought we had to make it happen”

Nuse says the appearance on “Shark Tank” was more about publicity than actually landing a deal. “We weren’t in it for the money — we wanted visibility,” she said. 

Still, the opportunity came with risks beyond not landing a deal. “They could tear apart the business and make us look like fools,” Nuse said.

But that’s not what happened. In fact, not only did the sharks give Tippi Toes the positive brand awareness Nuse and Reilly were looking for, Mark Cuban offered the pair a deal, which they accepted.

Ultimately, the deal proved to be closer to an acquisition than a partnership, and Nuse and Reilly decided not to go through with an agreement.

“We learned quickly that they weren’t interested in a partnership,” Nuse said. “They were telling us exactly what to do and taking 30% for it. It was like we were paying to have a boss. We’d found enough success on our own, and we wanted to continue growing our own way, so we wrote Mark a heartfelt letter and moved on.”

Still, Tippi Toes’ experience with “Shark Tank” was anything but a failure. Before the brand’s appearance on the show, Tippi Toes had sold seven franchise agreements. Soon after the episode aired, Nuse and Reilly were fielding hundreds of requests from prospective franchisees.

But Nuse and Reilly proceeded cautiously, determined to learn from their experience on “Shark Tank” and only enter into partnerships with people who truly aligned with their goals, values and vision for Tippi Toes.

“We made the conscious decision to grow slowly and methodically,” Nuse said. “We want to work closely with each franchisee to make sure they have everything they need. Many of our owners own multiple locations, which is a result of us focusing our efforts on strengthening our franchisees rather than signing agreement after agreement and letting each franchisee sink or swim.”

A Low-Cost and Flexible Operational Model Boosts Tippi Toes’ Growth Prospects

Today, Tippi Toes has 25 franchisees operating 32 locations. And more than a decade out from its appearance on “Shark Tank,” the franchise continues to field inquiries from eager candidates across the country, thanks largely to a low-cost operational model and flexible work-life balance.

At $52,100–$69,100, Tippi Toes boasts one of the lowest startup costs in its segment, and because classes are taught at pre-schools and other third-party locations, franchise owners don’t have to pay for or maintain brick-and-mortar facilities.

“There is very little overhead, which is a huge benefit in this industry,” Reilly said. “Most of our competitors are operating full-service facilities, and as a result, their startup costs are high, their overhead is high, and it takes far longer for a franchise owner to recoup their investment.”

Equally as attractive to the types of franchisee candidates Nuse says her brand is looking for, Tippi Toes offers owners increased lifestyle flexibility compared to other brands in its category.

“This is an opportunity that allows you to have a life beyond your job,” Nuse said. “We have become extremely popular with moms, for example, because the hours are flexible and they have the support they need to successfully grow the business without dedicating seven days a week to it.”

Now, Tippi Toes is preparing to accelerate its franchise development plans, with a goal of crossing the 50-unit mark by 2023. But Nuse says the brand isn’t being any less deliberate as it seeks new franchise owners to partner with.

“We have a fantastic brand awareness and valuable whitespace all across the country, so we are in a uniquely strong position to ramp up our growth this year,” Nuse said. “But we never want to grow for growth’s sake alone. We are looking to make a genuine impact in our communities, and so we’re partnering only with franchisees who share that commitment. We’ve built an incredible community of franchise owners who share best practices and support and uplift each other, and we’re excited to grow that community with like-minded, talented and passionate entrepreneurs.”

The startup costs to open a Tippi Toes Dance Company franchise range from $52,100 to $69,100, including a $35,000 franchise fee. For more information, visit