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Wild Birds Unlimited Franchisees Mike and Leslie Larson Are Creating a Nest for Birders and Nature-Lovers in Gainesville, Virginia

The nature-loving couple recognized a need in their local Gainesville community for the premier birding products and unparalleled environmental education that Wild Birds Unlimited offers.

When the right opportunity shows up, you have to jump on it. For Mike and Leslie Larson, that opportunity came in the form of premier backyard and birding nature retail franchise, Wild Birds Unlimited.

“My background is in the U.S. Air Force but my true passion has always been nature photography,” said Mike Larson. “Both Leslie and I have always loved the outdoors and hiking, although we tend to have different definitions of what ‘hiking’ entails—I like to take my time while Leslie likes to get in a workout.”

“In other words,” Leslie responded. “He hikes too slow.”

Before deciding to go into franchising early last year, Mike spent many years as an IT software tester, first in the Air Force and then as a government contractor. Leslie started her career in marketing before moving into IT project management. When the time came for a change, Mike came upon a franchising opportunity with Wild Birds Unlimited online and before he knew it, he was on the phone with Chief Development Officer, Paul Pickett.

“I found the opportunity in June of 2018 and by September of that year I was retired from my old job,” said Mike. “Wild Birds Unlimited offered an amazing concept, tremendous business model and community-driven approach. We were ready to start a new life and we couldn’t believe that an offer as great as Wild Birds Unlimited existed.”

From the very beginning, Wild Birds Unlimited partnered the duo with an incredible coach who has provided weekly guidance with everything from business development to digital advertising. “The Wild Birds Unlimited team truly supports the franchise owners from the very first day,” said Leslie. “Whether that be through the discovery day process or ongoing coaching, the support team has propelled us to success every step of the way.”

Before Mike and Leslie signed on, the team suggested the couple call and speak to a number of Wild Birds Unlimited franchisees in the surrounding area. “Wild Birds Unlimited is not just a business, it is a family,” said Mike. “We visited five store locations, including Winchester and Arlington, and we even drove two and a half hours to Maryland to see a franchisee—we instantly felt a kinship with each person we met and could sense Wild Birds Unlimited’s business family.

The Gainesville, Virginia area has proven to be the perfect location for the Larsons to grow their Wild Birds Unlimited footprint. In addition to a successful grand opening event, their store has cultivated a much-needed hub of nature and bird lovers within the Gainesville community. “Every day, customers are commenting on our Facebook page or coming into the store, saying how grateful they are that we’ve opened this location,” said Mike. “Besides asking about how to deal with squirrels, ‘thank you’ is the number one thing we hear from customers.”

“The Gainesville demographic features the right age group and high household income, but most importantly, there is a huge emphasis on nature conservation,” said Leslie. “There is a large push to preserve and reclaim natural habitats for wildlife in Virginia. During our grand opening weekend, we had a number of speakers, including the president of the Virginia Native Plant Society and Local Chapter, as well as the owner of a Gainesville native plant nursery. Our goal is to educate the community to create a healthier ecosystem.”

Beyond the demand for bird feeding products and nature education, the Larsons recognized another market that could be capitalized on in the Gainesville area—online sales. As IT-industry veterans, both Mike and Leslie knew to jump at the chance to adopt the brand’s online and mobile ordering platform, MyWBUStore.

“We’ve lived in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area for a long time and we recognize that folks have a tendency to shop online,” said Leslie. “The area is known for having some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, and commuting is an extremely time-consuming activity. MyWBUStore allows us to bring another level of convenience and service to the customer.”

Each franchise location has its own online platform and controls which products from a list of approved inventory they put up for purchase on the online store. The online store is linked to each brick-and-mortar location’s POS system so that pricing is locally determined. The Larsons’ Gainesville operation was the first brick-and-mortar location to participate in the online ordering platform from its first day of operation.

Now, the Larsons are eager to continue to grow with the brand, with the aim of opening as many as two or three locations in the next five years. This past June, Mike and Leslie attended Wild Birds Unlimited’s annual Enterprise Leadership Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan to connect with franchisees, stakeholders and the leadership team. “It was truly like a family reunion where we were all just happy to be there,” said Mike.

“At the end of the day, we are most thrilled about being able to provide customers with a happy and positive environment,” said Leslie. “Wild Birds Unlimited creates a safe space in which customers are eager to share their stories and discuss their passions, which is a rare experience as a franchise operator.”

As they look to the future, the Larsons hope to continue to partner with non-profit organizations like the Virginia Native Plant Society as a way to educate the Gainesville community as well as create a haven—or nest—for birders and nature-lovers.

“A few weeks ago, a mom came into our store with her two young daughters and we spent some time working on puzzles and other fun activities,” said Mike. “Before they walked out the door, one of the girls turned around, ran to the counter, and gave me a big hug. That is why we do this.”

Wild Birds Unlimited is the original and largest franchise system of backyard bird feeding and nature specialty stores with more than 340 locations throughout the United States and Canada. The investment level to open a Wild Birds Unlimited location is $150,837 to $260,991. To learn about franchising opportunities with Wild Birds Unlimited, please visit www.wbufranchise.com.

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

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